"Evidence of prejudice": Experts break down the case against Donald Trump

"The Manhattan case brought by Alvin Bragg is sound," says former federal prosecutor Shan Wu

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 10, 2023 7:09AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he lands at Quad City International Airport in route to Iowa on Monday, March 13, 2023, in Moline, IL. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he lands at Quad City International Airport in route to Iowa on Monday, March 13, 2023, in Moline, IL. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Tuesday and in the days since, the American news media responded to the spectacle of Donald Trump's indictment and arraignment with a maelstrom, a breathless narrative that kept repeating how this was "history is in the making" and these are "uncharted waters." 

However, part of this narrative was also that somehow Trump's arrest and arraignment still did not live up to box office expectations for the symbiote that is the Donald Trump mainstream news media "if it bleeds it leads" entertainment machine. On his Apple TV+ show, comedian Jon Stewart described this perfectly as an "epic f**king media fail" where, "Only our media, those cloistered, short attention span, own-ass-spelunking defenders of democracy, find a president paying hush money to a Playboy model and an adult film star, and then cooking the books to help himself win an election, underwhelming and boring."

What America desperately needs now is to gain some much needed critical perspective by taking a deep collective breath and then locating these last few tumultuous weeks in a much larger context. In an effort to better understand this unsettled time with Trump's first arrest and arraignment, questions of "justice", what this all means for democracy, and how the likelihood that he will still be the Republican Party's 2024 presidential candidate, I asked a range of experts for their insights and interventions.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Steven Beschloss is a journalist and author of several books, including "The Gunman and His Mother." 

Some pundits insist Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's 34 felony charges are "flimsy," which makes little sense to me given that the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has successfully prosecuted other white-collar cases like this involving fraudulent business records intended to cover up underlying crimes. But I also think this misses the deeper point—that if you believe the law should apply equally no matter how much money or power the defendant has, then the case must be brought. Personally, I care less whether this indictment leads to conviction than the fact that Donald Trump is finally being held to account.

"Only by finally holding Trump accountable for his criminality will we ever be able to reassert the rule of law."

I am also hopeful that Bragg's indictment will cause other prosecutors to find their courage in the other pending cases. Only by finally holding Trump accountable for his criminality will we ever be able to reassert the rule of law, discourage anti-democratic authoritarians bent on grabbing power by any means, and repair our democracy.

As encouraged as I am that the slow-grinding wheels of justice are finally in motion, it remains a painful fact that tens of millions of Americans were—and apparently still are—willing to ignore his criminality and let him gain control of the levers of power. We need to better understand and fix this continuing danger to the body politic.

Cheri Jacobus is a former media spokesperson at the Republican National Committee and founder and president of the political consulting and PR firm Capitol Strategies PR. 

Trump's somber and even slightly fearful demeanor as he was arrested, fingerprinted and arraigned, belies the bluster and bravado to which we are accustomed and on which a ratings-greedy media have become, sadly, dependent. He thought he'd escaped justice once again, as evidenced by his Truth Social post just days earlier, where he praised the grand jury. Trump's ashen, drawn face at arraignment told the story.

The Manhattan DA's grand jury indictment of Donald Trump on 34 felony counts is erroneously viewed as the first domino on what many hope is a slew of indictments in Fulton County, Georgia by Fani Willis and Special Counsel Jack Smith and the Department of Justice for the January 6 insurrection and the stolen classified documents case. Hopium is addictive, and I share that hope. However, there is no basis to assume the Manhattan DA's indictment of Trump has any impact whatsoever on what AG Merrick Garland may or may not eventually do, or what happens in Georgia.

Garland appears to act only when forced, such as when the January 6 Committee findings (which he should have had on his own) light a fire under him or other law enforcement pushed him to sign off on an FBI "raid" of Mar-a-lago to retrieve stolen top secret and classified documents from Donald Trump.

Trump supporters also need to be reminded that neither Democrats nor the media indicted Trump. Nor did a judge. Trump was indicted by a grand jury of his peers.

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University, co-founder and North American editor of the Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime, and author of "Criminology on Trump."

I was pleased to see Trump criminally indicted for "anything" for the first time especially since he has been a habitual offender for 50 years violating all types of business, consumer, and tax-related laws not to mention his organizational and intergenerational rackets established by his father Fred Sr. and enjoyed disproportionately by Donald and his siblings to lesser degrees. In turn, like his dad before him, "Teflon Don" reproduced these business scams or rackets and expanded them. Presently, the illicit proceeds from the Trump criminal enterprise are enjoyed mostly by Boss Trump and his adult children Don Jr, Eric, and Ivanka. Call these garden varieties, or bread and butter, white collar crimes as Alvin Bragg referred to them. Whatever you call them, the indictments brought by the People of New York against Donald Trump were quite appropriate regardless of whatever weaknesses may lie in successfully navigating a prosecution between the jurisdictional fields of federal and state laws.

That stated, I am much more interested in the forthcoming criminal indictments from Fulton County and from the DOJ as the prosecutions of these political crimes by the former president and his cronies against the citizens of the U.S. are integral to the very survival of U.S. democracy as we have known it — for better and worse — since post-Reconstruction.

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There is a slew of misreads or errors that concern me by the public, news media, and others.

In socially-mediated and post-truth America where the lines between fiction and reality have been blurred on television, in American politics, and in our everyday lives, what probably concerns me most is the magnification of all of this by the mass media's captivity to its own centrist ideology of journalistic balance and neutrality that plays into and reproduces the political status quo, contributing further to the many problems of representative democracy, public policy, and the rule of law. As I elaborate on in my book, "Criminalizing a Former President: The Case of Donald Trump and the Missing Struggle for a New Democracy," people are either struggling to obliterate (on the "right") or to save (on the "left") our old form of democracy. In comparison, not enough people are pursuing to change or transform our representative-democratic system of minority rule into a new representative-democratic system of majority rule. This entails both an extensive discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of our present constitutional arrangements, and then, an amending and reconstituting of the U.S. Constitution grounded in a new and expanded Bill of Rights dependent first and foremost upon the guarantee of economic rights for all Americans.

Lawrence Rosenthal is Chair and Lead Researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, which he founded in 2009. He is the author of "Empire of Resentment: Populism's Toxic Embrace of Nationalism."

It became a cliché during the 2016 presidential campaign that media coverage of Donald Trump—inspired by his utter disregard for the conventions and norms of electoral politics — was worth about 2 billion dollars, if he, like other candidates, were obliged to purchase TV advertising to the same end.

Here we go again.

Complete with the relentless analogy to TV's OJ/Bronco addiction—hours of roadway and jabber with an ounce of action—Tuesday's coverage of Donald Trump's arraignment was a media hog's dream.

From the start, there has been a widespread misunderstanding of Trump and his transgressions. The ready-to-hand, and mistaken, analogy was to Ronald Reagan: Trump was already "Teflon Don" by the summer of 2015. But in reality, outrage to liberal America did not slide off Trump. Rather, they clung to him and —incomprehensibly to Blue America — made him stronger. 

Does this change now that Trump's transgressions have become matters of criminal prosecution? So far, the odds don't look good. The Republican Party shows no signs of pushback to Trump's "it's just political persecution" mantra—nor to any of his attacks on the officers of the court involved (and their families!), nor to his January 6-like encouragement of his base to militant action. Beyond the MAGA true believers in Congress and state legislatures, the reason for the party's silence is simple, if profoundly cynical: No one wants to be the next Liz Cheney.

At the level of the Republican base, passions and rhetoric are, as ever, escalating, though the resolve to action may be tempered. Trump's political calculations are all about defending his MAGA 30% of the party as the cornerstone of a strategy to win the party's presidential nomination. Unlike his rival Ron DeSantis, who talks about nothing but his "woke" fixations, Trump's campaign, even before his indictment, has been all about his legal "persecution" and defense of the January 6 rioters. Nothing stood out as remarkably during January 6 at the Capitol as much as the rioters' extraordinary, posing-for-the-camera, sense of impunity. That's gone. The likelihood of a coordinated action at that level is slim. Lone-wolf events, however, are another matter.

Shan Wu is a former federal prosecutor who served as counsel to Attorney General Reno. Shan is a frequent contributor the Daily Beast and appears regularly as a legal analyst in the media. 

It was more profound than I expected to see him in a criminal courtroom as a defendant. It was like a reality check as to how disrupted our previous norms have become. The years of frustrated efforts to seek accountability for Trump, his allies, and the Republican Party's growing extremism created a universe in which accountability only existed as something permanently just out of reach. While being charged in a criminal case is not the same as being convicted it is unquestionably a real step in being held accountable and one that felt far more consequential to me as a former prosecutor than the two impeachments. 

But even that reaction on my part shows how the universe of what we expect has changed – impeachment even during the Clinton presidency still loomed as a nuclear type of option one whose deterrent power was so great that even as tenacious a politician as Richard Nixon resigned rather than face it. But no longer. Impeachment now just feels like one more partisan fight. Maybe that's all it ever was and all it ever should have been thought about as. 

There is an unconscious baked-in favoritism given to the rich and powerful – particularly rich and powerful white males – that many in media and even in the public don't realize impacts them. Weighing the relative importance of the multiple potential criminal cases – Georgia Fulton County, the Mar-a-Lago documents, Jan 6 insurrection, and New York Manhattan hush-money case – reflects this kind of unconscious bias. Sure some of it comes from Republican spin pundits but so much of it comes from media and general public that are not trying to actively spin. 

Characterizations of the Manhattan case as an accounting error case or case that is not strong enough to bring against a former President is evidence of prejudice that prosecutors should only bring exceptionally strong cases against exceptionally powerful people. That is wrong, obviously. Cases should be brought based on the evidence in the case, not based on who is the potential defendant. As a former prosecutor, I've seen that kind of attitude - which really arises from being afraid to lose a high-profile case or fear of being embarrassed by high-powered well-funded defense counsel – create the dual standard everyone pays lip service to being against but don't realize when we are perpetuating it ourselves.

There is also a lot of misogyny lurking within the constant reference to salacious details and references to Stormy Daniels as a "porn actress" as though that somehow diminishes the criminality of the case. It doesn't.

The Manhattan case brought by Bragg is sound. It will certainly be subject to aggressive legal attacks by Trump's team both pre-trial and during trial, but for Trump's team once they get to a jury the case will be a hard one to win. It's factually simple and Trump will make a very unpopular defendant in Manhattan. The constant knee-jerk remarks that the prosecution theory is a "novel" one – most of the people saying that don't really understand the legal underpinnings of this very common charge in New York state. The assertion that it is "novel" is in many ways a function of how this is all so unprecedented.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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