In my sophomore year of high school, I went down to the Los Angeles Superior Court to observe court proceedings in preparation for an upcoming mock trial competition. I sat in a distant corner of the windowless courtroom and handwrote notes on each attorney’s arguments. Usually, with only half a dozen people in the room, the cases were boring and the charges were typically misdemeanors like shoplifting or vandalism.
However, one case particularly caught my attention. The defendant was charged with arson because he allegedly set fire to a beloved Mexican restaurant while intoxicated. That day, the courtroom was unusually jam-packed with distressed customers and ignited family members.
They all clamored and berated the defendant every time they spoke, prompting the judge to bang his gavel repeatedly. After the third time he had to settle the room down, I distinctly remembered him saying, “I know this case is very emotional for this community, but I want to make clear that no matter how loud you shout, the facts of this case remain the same.”
Now, with the first U.S. president indicted for criminal charges, those words still ring true.
Last week, a grand jury in Manhattan voted to indict Donald Trump on 34 criminal charges for his role in events in which his former attorney, Micheal Cohen, reportedly paid hush money to an adult film star named Stormy Daniels during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The Trump Organization then classified reimbursement rates for Cohen as “legal expenses,” which may violate the New York state law against misclassification of business expenses.
With the indictment now released, Trump was charged with felony filing of false business expenses in the first degree. Some legal experts are speculating that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg may elevate this charge to a felony campaign finance violation if the district attorney can prove that the misdemeanor was done in furtherance of an additional crime.
Due to the unprecedented nature of all this, these are novel legal theories.
In terms of how this affects the 2024 election, this indictment may both aid or damage Trump’s electoral chances. A recent poll conducted after news of Trump’s indictment showed him surpassing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by a whopping 26 percentage points in a one-to-one contest.
Granted, news of the indictment is still fresh and the Republican presidential primaries do not begin until February 2024. However, if Trump continues to repeat his brand of “they are coming after me because I stand in the way for you,” then I believe he takes the Republican nomination even if DeSantis launches a campaign.
Yet, in a general election, I am more skeptical of Trump’s chances with Independent voters in vital swing states. Another poll from Quinnipiac University found that 55% of independent voters believe criminal charges should disqualify Trump from even running for office.
Counterintuitively, that same poll found 62% of Americans and 70% of independent voters believe this prosecution is motivated by politics. If his team successfully portrays the numerous criminal investigations against him as a witch hunt orchestrated by a political establishment vehemently opposed to him, then he may have a solid chance in the general election against whichever Democratic nominee steps up to the plate.
The problem with this case is that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York repeatedly declined to charge Trump in connection with the hush money payment. At the time, those prosecutors were following the Department of Justice mandate that bars a sitting president from an indictment.
However, this does not explain why federal prosecutors did not pursue charges following Trump’s leave from the White House. While the federal prosecutors never officially explained why they declined to press charges, the likely explanation was that they had serious reservations about Michael Cohen as a credible witness and their ability to establish intent with a defendant like Trump.
This legal history makes me question this case’s strength and may give the average American voter legitimate pause in how they view the New York district attorney’s intentions.
Outside the realm of presidential politics, criminal law must remain a universal and neutral mechanism of accountability. A guilty verdict is not a product of public opinion but of jury deliberation and the careful examination of evidence. No matter how loud Trump supporters or opponents may shout, they have no say against the scales of justice.
That onus of respect for the rule of law especially falls on Republican politicians. If a guilty verdict does arise from the facts of this case, then Republicans must not wield an undesired verdict as a basis for circumventing any court’s legitimacy.
In an age where political partisanship has crept into the halls of power on almost every level, the one place it must remain separated is in the legal system. There must be a solidified wall between the rancor partisan wars of legislation in Congress and the ideal impartiality of the final adjudication.
If public opinion sways against the New York district attorney’s intentions, then the judicial system may succumb to partisan weaponization from both sides and its integrity may very well be tarnished through electoral backlash soon to come in 2024.
This legal predicament is unprecedented, and how everyone proceeds in the coming months of this case may be a testament to our democracy’s vitality.