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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump’s anticlimactic arraignment

By Michelle Goldberg

I missed George Santos at the protest outside the courthouse where Donald Trump was later arraigned on Tuesday, and I couldn’t hear a thing Marjorie Taylor Greene said over the screams of counter-demonstrators and the incessant blowing of whistles. They were the two biggest names who turned out to show their support for Trump on a day that felt at once historic and very small.

The police put up metal barriers dividing a block-sized park near the courthouse in two, with dozens of Trump opponents on one side, dozens of Trump acolytes on the other, and cops everywhere. Altogether, there were hundreds of people, often screaming at one another across the divide, chants of “USA” competing with chants of “Lock Him Up!” Some characters were familiar from the Trump campaign roadshow, including Dion Cini, a peddler of Trump merchandise who flew a giant “Trump or Death” flag, and Maurice Symonette, founder of the groupuscule Blacks for Trump and onetime member of a violent Black supremacist cult. “He had sex with a prostitute,” Symonette said of Trump, apparently referring to adult film star Stormy Daniels. “How is that against the law? Who hasn’t done that?”

Of course, Trump wasn’t indicted for his affairs, but for the steps he allegedly took to cover them up. Before the indictment was unsealed, rumors flew across Twitter that it included a conspiracy count, but in the end, all 34 counts were for falsifying business records in connection with the payoff to silence Daniels, which Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg argued was connected to a broader scheme to squelch negative stories about Trump.

According to the indictment, the business record falsifications were done “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof.” Although no other crime is charged, the statement of facts accompanying the indictment accuses Trump of violating election laws. It’s the connection to another crime that turns falsifying business records from a misdemeanor into a felony.

Observers from across the political spectrum have been skeptical of the legal theory that underlies Bragg’s case. As The New York Times reported in March, “Combining the criminal charge with a violation of state election law would be a novel legal theory for any criminal case, let alone one against the former president, raising the possibility that a judge or appellate court could throw it out or reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor.” Trump, in other words, may still wriggle out of this predicament.

As I’ve argued before, if Trump’s role in the hush money payments broke the law, it’s a serious matter, because those payments helped him get elected, and the plot to cover them up sent his former lawyer to prison. Trump, the statement of facts says, “orchestrated a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit the defendant’s electoral prospects.” If this is true, it’s perverse to suggest that Trump’s success in this scheme — represented by him winning the presidency — is a reason not to prosecute him.

Nevertheless, for all the hype going into Tuesday, the indictment feels anticlimactic. “True and accurate business records are important everywhere, to be sure,” said Bragg in his news conference after the arraignment. “They are all the more important in Manhattan, the financial center of the world.” Trump, like everyone else, should be held accountable if he failed to keep such records. We’re not owed an indictment commensurate with his depravity. Still, these are hard charges to get excited about.

Indeed, what’s struck me over the last two days in New York is a distinct lack of excitement. Many who detest Trump, I suspect, have lost faith in the ability of the legal system to hold him to account. And while his supporters may threaten civil war, not many of them seem willing to brave Manhattan, which they’ve been told is a crime-ridden hellhole.

Earlier this week, Roger Stone, the political dirty trickster and longtime Trump ally, promoted a Monday rally outside Trump Tower. When I went there, only a handful of people had shown up. Tuesday’s turnout was larger, but still felt more desultory than menacing, despite some threatening rhetoric. (One man carried a sign with a noose affixed to it, signifying his hopes for members of the “Liberal Biased News Media.”) You could walk a block away and be unaware that anything was happening.

Maybe this is to be expected: Many of the people who might have led mob violence have been either indicted or convicted for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. And certainly, there remains an acute danger from Trump fanatics acting alone. The way the Trump camp has targeted the daughter of the judge overseeing the Trump case has been particularly unconscionable. Arguing that the daughter’s political work constituted a conflict for her father, people including Greene, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump shared a story featuring her photograph on social media, and Trump went after her in his post-arraignment speech, likely putting her safety at risk.

But while Trump still has an obsessive following, he can no longer command the country’s stunned attention, even by getting arrested. Maybe that’s the consolation of an arraignment that doesn’t feel at all momentous.

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