As Trump’s NYC trial begins, Supreme Court justices' warnings about political lawfare echo

President Trump sees the cases against him as a continuation of efforts by Democrats to discredit his 2016 election victory and hamper his presidency. In other words: political prosecutions.

Published: April 22, 2024 11:08pm

Former President Donald Trump’s Manhattan trial began opening arguments and saw testimony from the prosecution’s first witness on Monday one week after several U.S. Supreme Court Justices appeared to raise concerns about the increasing prevalence of political prosecutions in the United States.

Specifically, two justices highlighted the apparent contradictions in the Biden administration’s selective enforcement of certain provisions against January 6 protestors. The high court’s ruling in this case may have implications for Trump too. He is charged with the same crime, obstructing an official proceeding in one of his federal cases.

The Justices’ concerns mirror President Trump’s own contentions that he is a victim of political persecution at the hands of his chief political rival, incumbent President Joe Biden, as well as the Manhattan District Attorney and New York Attorney General Letitia James, both Democrats.

The prosecution’s opening statement in the Manhattan trial Monday did little to assuage those concerns. Lead prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued the case was much more than Trump’s alleged payments for a series of non-disclosure agreements, but a “conspiracy… to influence the [2016] presidential election.”

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Colangelo reportedly told the jury, seeking to paint Trump’s alleged efforts to conceal damaging election information as an improper effort to influence the election outcome.

Trump views the cases arrayed against him, both state and federal, as a continuation of Democratic efforts to delegitimize his 2016 election, and subsequent presidential term.

“They had the Mueller hoax, the Mueller report, and that came out, no collusion after two and a half years…that was set up by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats,” Trump said after charges in his federal classified documents case were filed last summer.

“But this is what they do. This is what they do so well, if they would devote their energies to honestly and integrity, to be a lot better for our country, they could do a lot better,” he added.

Celebrity lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz  said Monday he sees “partisan purposes” in the prosecution in the face of evidence the actually case against the former president is weak.

“I just don't understand what the crime is. And I've been doing this for 60 years, I have more experience than all the prosecutors combined, in this case, in terms of teaching, writing, and litigating criminal cases. And if I can't even find the crime, you know, what they say the crime is, it's a misdemeanor, that was expired under the statute of limitations a long time ago. And they turned it into a state felony by saying that the purpose of the misdemeanor was to violate a federal felony, which the federal government didn't go after,” Dershowitz told Just the News, No Noise television show Monday night.

“[If] the defendant's name weren't Donald Trump, and he weren't running for president, no sane prosecutor in a million years would ever bring this case, and none has in the nearly, you know, 200 whatever years of American history, this is a first and it's a terrible mark on the American justice system,” he added.

“And that's why I don't want to be on television, because every American ought to see how their system of justice is being distorted for partisan purposes,” he concluded.

On Monday, prosecutors laid out the theory of their case, that former President Trump paid to conceal unsavory stories from Stormy Daniels and incorrectly classified the payment as attorney’s fees to his lawyer, Michael Cohen. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Trump with falsifying business records because of this alleged misclassification.

The central payment is a $130,000 payment from Trump to Cohen, who allegedly paid the adult film actress from his own funds. The prosecutors say this payment was part of a conspiracy to influence the 2016 election by which then-candidate Trump sought to hide potentially damaging information.

Trump and his associates "formed a conspiracy at [a] meeting to influence the presidential election by concealing negative information about Mr. Trump in order to help him get elected," the prosecutor said, according to CNN

President Trump's attorney, Todd Blanche, insisted on Trump’s innocence and indicated the jury will find plenty of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s narrative.

"President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes,” Blanche said at the beginning of his opening statements.

Despite the "clean, nice story" the prosecutors presented in their opening, Blanche says "it is not simple, as the people just described.”

The defense lawyers argued entering into an NDA—a non-disclosure agreement—is “perfectly legal” and argued it would be difficult to say the payment to Cohen was a reimbursement for the hush money, considering he was paid more than the money he provided to Daniels.

Trump has criticized the case brought by Bragg in the same way he has criticized the other cases against him: as political prosecutions directed or supported by his political rival, Joe Biden.

On Monday, the former president called the case a “Biden” trial and said it was “for the purposes of of hurting the opponent of the worst president in the history of our country.”

“I just want to say before we begin – these are all Biden trials," Trump said shortly before opening statements. "This is done as election interference. Everybody knows it." 

These remarks mirrored those Trump delivered after he was indicted on 37 federal charges in the Florida classified documents case last summer. At the time, he called the charges a “political prosecution” motivated by the upcoming election.

“It’s called election interference. They’re trying to destroy your reputation so they can win an election,” Trump said last year when he was charged in the federal case.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court probed the Biden Administration over apparent selective prosecution regarding the Ranuary 6 riots, probing what appeared to be a two-standard justice system employed by the Biden Administration.

The Justices were considering whether federal prosecutors overstepped when charging hundreds of January 6 participants with obstruction charges. The ruling in this case could have an effect on at least one of Trump’s federal cases, where he is charged with the same offense for his alleged role in disrupting the electoral college count on January 6.

In the case, Fischer v. United States, a former police officer from Pennsylvania, Joseph Fischer, is challenging the District of Columbia Circuit Court’s interpretation of the statute governing the obstruction of an official proceeding charge after he was charged under that provision for his participation in the January 6 protest.

Three of the conservative justices on the high court probed the government’s reasoning and suggested that the administration may have selectively enforced the provision, possibly for political reasons.

“Would a sit-in that disrupts a trial or access to a federal courthouse qualify [as illegal obstruction]?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Elizabeth Prelogar, Biden’s solicitor general.

“Would a heckler at today’s audience qualify or a heckler at the State of the Union address? Would pulling a fire alarm before a vote qualify for 20 years in federal prison?” he added, referencing Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s puzzling decision to pull the fire alarm at the Capitol Building shortly before an important government spending vote last fall.

After Prelogar struggled to explain the distinction, Gorsuch asked more pointedly, why “a mostly peaceful protest… that actually obstructs and impedes an official proceeding for an indefinite period would not be covered,” a clear reference to the widespread BLM riots that plagued several U.S. cities in the summer of 2020.

Justice Clarence Thomas picked up on this line of reasoning as well, questioning why the statute was not wielded against other violent protests.

“There have been many violent protests that have interfered with proceedings,” Thomas said.

Alito joined the others, suggesting the government’s interpretation of the law may be far too broad. The liberal justices appeared to be in favor of the government’s interpretation.

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