West News Wire: The former president of the United States said “not guilty,” which is legally significant, after being charged with 34 felonies by the Manhattan District Attorney last week. But “election interference” might be the most significant from a political standpoint.
Trump’s repeated use of such phrases, which other prominent Republicans have adopted, demonstrates how he is attempting to take advantage of his historic status as the first former president to be accused of crimes. It’s another instance of what has become a recurring theme throughout his political career: asserting without providing any supporting data that an election is being rigged against him.
After his initial court appearance in the New York case, the first of several in which he is in legal jeopardy, Trump ticked through the varied investigations he was facing and branded them as “massive” attempts to interfere with the 2024 election.
“Our justice system has become lawless,” Trump said as he appeared before supporters at his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago. “They’re using it now, in addition to everything else, to win elections.”
Trump has made some version of those claims in at least 20 social media posts since March 3, the bulk of which occurred in the last two weeks, accelerating when a Manhattan grand jury appeared to be wrapping up its work and preparing to indict the former president. Trump declared his latest bid for the White House shortly after the November midterms, in what some in his orbit saw as an effort to head off the various probes swirling around him.
Alleging an election is being stolen from him is a routine Trump tactic, despite no evidence to back up his assertions. When competing for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, Trump claimed his loss in the Iowa caucuses was due to fraud. When he won the White House that November but lost the popular vote, Trump claimed the only reason for falling short in the latter category was because undocumented immigrants voted. A task force he formed to find voter fraud disbanded without finding any evidence to back up his claim.
In 2020, Trump began arguing the election would be fraudulent months before voting started. He attacked efforts to loosen restrictions on mail voting during the coronavirus pandemic, and expanded those allegations after losing the election to claim he’d actually won it. Those lies led to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the 2020 election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
Trump is behaving like a politician in the legal crosshairs, said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist.
“He’s certainly not the first politician to be prosecuted sometimes fairly, sometimes not to play the political victim card,” Levitsky said.
Levitsky, who cowrote the book “How Democracies Die,” said that several former presidents of other countries, when prosecuted, have claimed it was a plot to foil their future elections. Most recently, that was the complaint of Brazil’s former president Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva after he was jailed before the 2018 election. Silva was freed by his country’s supreme court and won back the presidency in October.
What’s notable in Trump’s case, however, is that his own party is echoing the stolen election claims ahead of the next campaign. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last month said he was directing his party’s committee chairs to “investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.”
“That a whole party is carrying this line is somewhat unusual,” Levitsky said.
Last week’s charges in New York court stemmed from Trump’s reimbursements to his lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, of hush money paid in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election to porn actress Stormy Daniels, who alleged they had an affair. Even some critics of Trump have seen the charges as a stretch of New York laws.
The heart of the Manhattan case is prosecutors’ claim that Trump falsified business records at his company to make the payoff in order to keep a potentially damaging story quiet while he was campaigning — an illegal attempt by Trump, they argued, to try to influence the election.
The former president also faces legal jeopardy from other investigations, two of which are related to his attempts to try to interfere with the 2020 election.
Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, are probing Trump’s January 2021 call to the state’s top elections officer asking him to “find” enough votes to declare Trump the winner there. The U.S. Justice Department also has launched a federal special counsel probe into Trump’s attempts to try to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election.
Trump is also enmeshed in a federal special counsel investigation of his handling of classified documents found at his Florida estate.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, when asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether the timing of the case was political, responded by saying: “I bring cases when they’re ready.”
Bragg’s office declined to comment on Trump’s statements about “election interference,” as did the Department of Justice.
Critics warn that Trump is, once again, sowing suspicions of fraud that could damage democracy. “We’ve seen this film before,” Joanna Lydgate, chief executive officer of States United Action, which tracks politicians who embrace Trump’s election lies, said in a statement. “We know this is dangerous because we all saw what happened on January 6th.”
Trump has routinely waved off such warnings, and has seamlessly integrated his current legal jeopardy into the false allegations he’s made for three years about Democratic Party wrongdoing leading to his ouster.
In his first campaign rally, in Waco, Texas, days before the Manhattan indictment, Trump railed against all the investigations and said that his opponents were using the probes “because it’s harder for them to stuff the ballot boxes, of which they stuffed plenty.”
“The new weapon being used by out-of-control unhinged Democrats to cheat on election is criminally investigating a candidate,” he said.
Trump and other Republicans have occasionally gone against their own positions, denouncing the probes as an effort to damage Trump while simultaneously predicting they will support his presidential campaign.
One of the president’s loudest supporters in the House, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., predicted at a GOP conference last month that “I think you’ll see his poll numbers go up.” Never before has he been in a better position. Last Monday, she referred to the accusations as “unprecedented election interference.”
Common Cause, which has consistently criticized Trump’s claims of election fraud, has a senior director of legislative affairs named Aaron Scherb. He pointed out that all the investigations into the previous president begun long before he decided to run for office again.
“Nobody is above the law, including former presidents, and running for president cannot and must not serve as a shield for wrongful conduct,” Scherb said.