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Using a 'Sham Case' to Undermine Democracy

Michael Barone on

"A sham case, and everyone knows it." So writes the iconoclastic Matt Taibbi, once counted as a left-wing writer, and he's not the only one from outside MAGA precincts who has been appalled by the Manhattan district attorney's case that produced a guilty verdict against former President Donald Trump.

"Bragg should have settled the case against Trump, as would have been normal procedure. But he made a political decision," Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told The Atlantic's McKay Coppins. Romney, the target of repeated Trump insults and one of seven Republican senators who voted for his impeachment and removal, concluded, "Democrats think they can put out the Trump fire with oxygen. It's political malpractice."

A longer and more detailed condemnation of the prosecution comes astonishingly from CNN contributor and former Alvin Bragg colleague Elie Honig: "The jury did its job, and this case was an ill-conceived, unjustified mess."

"Trump cannot be permitted to engage in wanton lawbreaking, but neither can he be subjected to prosecution that risks even the appearance of retaliation," New York magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote. He argues persuasively that liberals who decried former President Bill Clinton's impeachment for lying under oath about personal conduct are inconsistent in defending the Trump prosecution and verdict.

Those seeking definitive explanations of the flaws of the prosecution's case can consult the works of National Review's Andrew McCarthy and Dan McLaughlin. For a briefer version, consult The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, who "found the guilty verdicts bracing" but admitted "the case was a stretch."

Will the label "convicted felon" damage Trump or, as some Democrats surely hope, destroy his chances of winning a second term as president? Earlier polling, asking respondents whether a conviction or a jail sentence would cause Trump voters to change their minds, suggested perhaps a 10th of his voters would.

That would make what has been a close race, with Trump barely leading in national surveys and by wider margins in several target states, into a victory for President Joe Biden. But voters are poor predictors of what they would do in hypothetical scenarios. The few polls conducted since the verdict was announced suggest many fewer voters are changing their votes.

An optimistic Biden supporter can find evidence there has been a 1% or 2% shift in his direction. Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from the Republican polling firm Echelon Insights, which reinterviewed respondents who had been equally divided, 47% to 47%, and found they favored Biden by a 49% to 47% margin.

But that's within the statistical margin of error. Perhaps, as my Washington Examiner colleague Byron York wrote, "We'll know more in a few weeks."

 

Such historical precedent as there is suggests most voters, like most politicians and pundits, will split along partisan lines. That's what happened in the 1998-99 Clinton impeachment case, in which there was no doubt Clinton committed perjury by lying under oath in a federal court proceeding, but in which almost all Democrats argued the subject of a lie was a personal matter unrelated to his conduct as president.

Clinton's lies did actually have policy consequences -- by ending his negotiations with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich over entitlement reform. But party lines mostly prevailed; only five House Democrats voted for impeachment, and no Senate Democrat voted for removal.

In contrast, in the Feb. 2021 Senate vote on whether to remove Trump for his conduct on Jan. 6, a matter clearly related to conduct, seven Republican senators voted for removal. The Bragg case obviously has its roots in personal conduct, as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of those seven, recognized. Bragg, she said, "brought these charges precisely because of who the defendant was rather than because of any specified criminal conduct."

Have any active Republicans joined the large majority of Democrats hailing the verdict? The closest I've seen is former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is running for the Senate in heavily Democratic (65% to 32% Biden in 2020) Maryland. "Regardless of the result," he tweeted, "I urge all Americans to respect the verdict and the legal process."

Hogan's brief comment gave no reason for respecting this particular legal process. Nor did he touch on the anomaly that the Democrats, who claim Trump would undermine the democratic process, are arguably undermining democracy themselves by using a sham case to disqualify the other party's democratically chosen nominee. Who's undermining democracy now?

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Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, "Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders," is now available.


Copyright 2024 U.S. News and World Report. Distibuted by Creators Syndicate Inc.


 

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