Last week, Donald Trump’s legal team managed to get through to him. Just a day after a Georgia grand jury indicted him for allegedly attempting to overturn the 2020 election results, the former president declared that he would hold a press conference the following week to counter the charges. However, this plan was short-lived as it was soon abandoned by Thursday. In a message on Truth Social, Trump stated, “My lawyers would prefer putting this, I believe, irrefutable and overwhelming evidence of election fraud and irregularities in formal legal filings as we fight to dismiss this disgraceful indictment.”
In essence, Trump’s lawyers seemingly persuaded him to acknowledge a fundamental right afforded to criminal defendants: the right to remain silent, even for a former president.
Despite the temporary relief his legal team might have provided, the underlying problem persists. Trump is renowned for his impulsive and provocative statements, whether delivered through rambling speeches or his social media outbursts. Throughout an extended and challenging legal journey, he will likely find numerous opportunities to share his thoughts on the multiple legal proceedings against him. This suggests that his lawyers might struggle to shield him from his own tendencies. Whit Ayres, a seasoned GOP strategist, aptly sums it up, stating, “No one has been able to manage Donald Trump, including Donald Trump. The effort to do so is virtually hopeless. I can’t imagine being his defense attorney in one of these trials. You’d have to drink a case of Maalox every morning just to get through the day.”
Nonetheless, Trump has proven skillful at transforming scandal into political advantage. His adeptness at navigating challenges and his knack for showmanship could aid him in securing the Republican nomination. With each indictment, his popularity in the polls has risen. However, this strategy carries inherent risks, as Trump’s statements could potentially be turned against him in court.
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Norm Eisen, who served as counsel for House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment, emphasizes the potentially damaging impact of Trump’s remarks. These statements could exacerbate existing charges, lead to new charges, and even be used as evidence of admissions during trial. They also pose the risk of witness intimidation or harassment, violating release terms in federal and state law.
The attorneys for Special Counsel Jack Smith have already alerted the overseeing judge in the federal election subversion case about a Truth Social post by Trump that appeared to threaten potential witnesses. While Trump’s campaign asserted that the post was a warning to his political adversaries, its wording left room for interpretation. Such language could also create complications in Georgia, where a $200,000 bond agreement stipulates that Trump refrain from intimidating witnesses or co-defendants, including on social media.
This dilemma underscores the dual nature of Trump’s attempt to align his political and legal strategies. Temidayo Aganga-Williams, a former federal prosecutor, highlights the power of using a defendant’s own statements in court, suggesting that jurors would be advised to treat Trump like any other individual.
Trump has portrayed the four separate indictments against him as politically motivated, aimed at impeding his potential return to the White House. His legal team argues that his actions, including spreading election fraud allegations, are protected by the First Amendment. They contend that he genuinely believed in his claims, implying an absence of criminal intent.
While Trump’s attorneys work to absolve him in court, his campaign has capitalized on his legal predicament on the campaign trail. Each arraignment has been followed by fundraising appeals and merchandise featuring fake Trump mug shots. This approach has been effective, with Trump leading the GOP field in most surveys by a significant margin.
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The Republican base’s strong support for Trump explains why many opponents have refrained from attacking him over his legal troubles. Instead, they appear to believe that the numerous ongoing criminal cases pose the greatest threat to his presidential aspirations. A looming question is whether any of these cases will be resolved before voters cast their ballots in the next year.
Special Counsel Jack Smith has requested a January trial date for the election case, while the federal judge overseeing the Mar-a-Lago documents case has set a trial date for May 2024. Some former prosecutors speculate that Smith aims to expedite these cases to prevent Trump from potentially ending them if he were to win the election. The Justice Department’s policy against interfering in elections adds urgency to concluding these cases.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has more leeway, operating independently of the federal government. This enables her to continue prosecuting Trump even if he holds the presidency. This may explain why she has pursued an intricate case, bringing racketeering charges against Trump and 18 associates for alleged conspiracy to invalidate Joe Biden’s election victory. It might also be a reason Trump’s lawyers intervened to halt his planned press conference, which was expected to promote discredited election fraud claims central to the Georgia indictment.
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“In my more than three decades as a criminal defense lawyer,” says Eisen, “the first instruction I gave my client at the very first meeting was: Shut up about this case. Do not talk to anyone. You do not know how that is going to come back to harm you.”