Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Things to look out for in former President Trump’s New York trial

The District Attorney’s strategy isn’t as clear cut as it may seem
Courtesy of IMDb.

Former President Donald J. Trump pleaded not guilty at the Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday, April 4, to 34 charges of falsifying business records levied by Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg.

A case concerning someone as politically controversial as Trump means that there are many things to watch out for as the case unfolds. The legal implications and political ramifications sit front and center.

From the legal perspective, the indictment’s contents indicate how the DA may attempt to win the case and possibly add new charges. Politically, Trump’s status may create issues for administering a fair trial, and Trump’s actions in this trial may influence the looming presidential election.

In conversation with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, University of Massachusetts professors provided valuable expertise and explained why these points warrant consideration.

A case that stretches back seven years and thousands of dollars

The indictment outlines the 34 instances alleging Trump falsified business records concerning reimbursements paid to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a hush-money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

The DA’s office elected to include a “statement of fact” in the latter half of the indictment containing a broader narration of the context surrounding Trump’s actions.

Bragg posits, alongside the standing charges, that the case connects to a larger scheme of Trump’s advisors repeatedly suppressing media reports that could be harmful to Trump’s campaign.

Concerns of a fair trial

A sitting president, or in Trump’s case, former president and presidential candidate has never faced felony charges in U.S. history. Given the lack of standard operating procedures, his status necessitates questions regarding the process and outcome of the trial.

Political science professor Paul Musgrave raised concerns regarding the DA’s ability to administer a fair trial, comparing it to the infamous Watergate trial.

“This came up a lot with Nixon famously,” Musgrave said. “There was a sufficient basis for moving forward with a potential indictment.” The prosecution decided against an indictment because they questioned how to attain an unbiased jury for a U.S. president.

A crucial function of the U.S. justice system outlined in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment is its ability to provide those accused with a fair trial. Courts explicitly select jurors on the basis that they are without bias or prejudice.

Musgrave said that questions such as, “Can you set aside your biases?” and “Do you have any knowledge of the defendant?” are asked to potential jurors in the selection process. “Imagine going through jury selection for any president, especially someone like Trump,” Musgrave said.

Trump’s capacity to spin for political gain

Concerns regarding a fair trial are only one of the many things to watch as the story develops.

The 2024 presidential election draws ever closer. According to polling data, Trump remains the GOP’s most popular candidate, raising the question of how Trump and his team will behave concerning the case.

Weeks before the indictment, Trump sent a message to his supporters via Truth Social warning that his arrest was imminent and part of a radical left conspiracy. Discrediting, attacking opponents and riling up his constituencies have been consistent themes throughout Trump’s political career, and this instance seems to have set the trend for his overall strategy.

Just before his arraignment on April 4, Trump posted to Truth Social, attacking the credibility and impartiality of the judge, Justice Juan M. Merchan. “The Judge ‘assigned’ to my Witch Hunt Case, a ‘Case’ that has NEVER BEEN CHARGED BEFORE, HATES ME,” he wrote in the post.

Trump’s lawyers seem to be moving in stride by attempting to discredit Michael Cohen, who is assumed to be the prosecution’s primary witness. Joe Tacopina, one of Trump’s lawyers, called Cohen a “pathological liar” during a live NEWSMAX interview in late March.

Trump’s slew of attacks seems to be goal-oriented, Musgrave said. “He wants to make this as political as possible so that no matter what, he comes out of this a winner,” he said. The goal is to discredit the primary actors of this trial — Bragg and Cohen.

The DA strategy

The DA strategy is also crucial to understanding where this case will likely end up. The key tell lies in the indictment’s “Statement of Facts” section, particularly the passage labeled “The Catch and Kill Scheme.” It explains several instances in which Trump solicited the support of the National Enquirer and its parent company, American Media Inc. (AMI), to find and prevent stories that could damage his candidacy via discrete payments to the raconteur.

While this is not a crime in and of itself, the catch-and-kill narrative may allude to the DA’s overall goal, the strength of the case and where the primary points of contention lie.

Lawyer and legal studies professor Jamie Rowen explained that each of the 34 charges is a misdemeanor. The significance lies in “if [the crime] were in pursuit of another crime, it would become a felony,” Rowen said.

Trump’s attorneys argue that he paid off Stormy Daniels to protect his marriage, but if the prosecution can prove that it was actually for a campaign-related issue, they can amend the indictment to include charges concerning campaign finance fraud.

The DA chooses this narrative to possibly raise the charges, Rowen said. The prosecution must demonstrate that the crime in question was related to his campaign and will attempt to do so by incorporating evidence from the other catch-and-kill instances outlined in the indictment.

Rowen said that this is where the prosecution has drawn the battlegrounds for this case. “The defense will argue that the evidence is more prejudicial than probative,” she said. In other words, the defense will argue that the evidence does not relate to the crime in question and may confuse or mislead the jury.

The type of the charges, misdemeanor or felony, and the overall strength of the case hinges on the DA’s ability to demonstrate to the judge that Trump’s relationship with AMI and the catch-and-kill stories are directly related to the crime.

Looking toward the future

There is a long wait for anything new and significant to happen regarding this case, as Trump isn’t scheduled to appear in court until Dec. 4. Prosecutors have said they would like the trial to begin in the early months of 2024, a timeline that overlaps with a presidential primary in full swing.

“We love to teach young people on … patriotic occasions that America is a country where no person is above the law,” Musgrave said. “[This] actually doesn’t seem to be true. It’s mostly a fable. Institutions seem very resistant to holding presidents accountable for violations of the law.”

Eric Landers can be reached at [email protected].

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