Editorial: The first Trump case may be the weakest, but it is nonetheless justice in action

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Political News

So it begins. The first of Donald Trump’s four pending criminal trials — and the first criminal trial of any former U.S. president, ever — was gaveled in by a New York judge Monday. The first monumental task of selecting 12 jurors and six alternates who can render a clear-eyed judgment of the most divisive figure in American politics today is expected to take a week.

The charges, stemming from hush money paid by Trump and his allies to an adult film star and a Playboy model with whom he’d allegedly had extramarital trysts, are arguably the least serious (if most salacious) of the many allegations against him in state and federal courts.

This page has noted before that the charges in the current trial have a disturbing feel of prosecutorial overreach, even to many who recognize Trump’s all-too-apparent criminality. We continue to worry that this wobbly case will muddle public opinion regarding the more solid and more serious election-interference charges awaiting Trump in other legal venues.

All of that said, there is, or should be, some element of national pride in this unprecedented confirmation of the long-held American principle that no one — not even an ex-president — is above the law. Trump supporters and critics alike should respect the process and the jury’s eventual verdict, whatever it might be.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump used intermediaries to buy the silence of the two women with whom he had allegedly had affairs a decade earlier. Though Trump has denied the affairs with Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stephanie Clifford (stage name Stormy Daniels), he has acknowledged the payoffs.

McDougal was paid $150,000 for the rights to her story by American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer and a Trump ally. The media company later admitted in a legal settlement that it bought those rights in order to suppress the story so it wouldn’t come out during the campaign and hurt Trump’s electoral prospects.

Separately, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has admitted paying $130,000 to Clifford for her silence — money that was later reimbursed to him by Trump.

Trump is charged with falsification of business records in connection with the hush money. The admission from his former allies that it was all about preventing the voters from learning about Trump’s alleged affairs could bring election law into the case as well.

In terms of alleged crimes, these aren’t nothing. But getting to the relatively minor felony with which Trump is charged has required what even some Trump critics argue is a legal reach. It’s fair to ask, as some of Trump’s defenders have, whether New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, would have mobilized the resources of his office for a case like this against anyone not named Donald Trump.


Unfortunately, that shadow makes it easier for Trump’s enablers in Congress and elsewhere to paint the other cases against him with the same broad brush, presenting them all as being part of a campaign of politically motivated prosecution. That’s not the reality at all.

Trump is accused in Georgia of directly and illegally pressuring state election officials to alter the 2020 electoral outcome in his favor.

The two federal cases against him allege, respectively, that he improperly took, purposefully hid and otherwise mishandled classified documents at the end of his presidency; and that he interfered with the peaceful transfer of power before and during the Jan. 6, 2021, mob attack on the Capitol.

Contrary to attempts by some to draw correlations with President Joe Biden’s admitted mishandling of classified documents, what Trump allegedly did wasn’t about carelessness but deliberate attempts to take and keep federal materials that weren’t his. That is serious, particularly for an ex-president who has displayed such chilling affinity for Vladimir Putin and other enemies of America.

And the two election-related cases are the most serious of all. Trump’s betrayal of America’s electoral tradition and his own constitutional oath should have spurred his removal from office immediately after Jan. 6. When then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell derailed that effort, his explanation was that the criminal court system could deal with Trump after he left office. And it should.

Whether all or any of those other trials will begin before the November election is uncertain; Trump’s lawyers (and at least one sympathetic judge ) have diligently carried out Trump’s clear strategy of stalling in hopes of getting back into the White House and ending his legal threats, potentially by pardoning himself. No one who has watched this ethical sinkhole of a man can doubt he would take that deeply corrupt option in a second.

In the meantime, as problematic as the current case against Trump might be, the spectacle of it should at least remind Americans of the depths of that corruption. Already, Trump has prompted a gag order for publicly attacking the judge’s daughter for her political activism. Trump’s guilt or innocence will be for the jury to decide, but Trump himself will undoubtedly provide fresh evidence of his own unpresidential temperament.

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