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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump’s indictment is about the crimes that helped elect him

A sticker given to an early voter is displayed for a photograph in Madison, Wis., on March 22, 2023.

By Michelle Goldberg

Even some people eager to see Donald Trump held accountable for his depthless corruption have been uneasy about his indictment in New York. “A charge like this — a porn star payoff seven years ago, somehow tied to the election, but not really — it doesn’t seem like the right way to go,” Van Jones, a former Obama official, said last week on CNN. Of the long list of Trump’s alleged violations, The Washington Post editorial board wrote, “the likely charges on which a grand jury in New York state voted to indict him are perhaps the least compelling.”

As I write this, we don’t know exactly what those charges are or the degree to which, as many have speculated, they rely on an untested legal theory. But it is a mistake to treat this indictment — which, according to The New York Times, includes more than two dozen counts — as tangential to Trump’s other misdeeds. Contrary to what Jones said, the conduct at issue in this case is directly tied to the 2016 election and the question of whether Trump cheated to win it.

Most of the legal trouble that Trump has faced since entering politics has stemmed from his willingness to skirt the law and, at times, betray the country in his drive to get and keep power. Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation didn’t prove that he engaged in a criminal conspiracy, but it did show that his campaign both “welcomed” and received Russian help in his first bid for president. Trump’s first impeachment, in 2019, was about his attempt to extort President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine into manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden, the rival he most feared.

Trump is under criminal investigation in Georgia and Washington, D.C., for his attempts to subvert the outcome in the 2020 race. Each time he failed to face consequences for breaching rules meant to safeguard America’s electoral system, he escalated his behavior, to the point of attempting a coup. Escaping conviction in his second impeachment, for trying to overthrow the democratic system he was sworn to protect, he now treats Jan. 6 as something heroic, honoring rioters at his most recent campaign rally.

Compared with these offenses, the hush money payments to Trump’s paramours might seem like a minor issue, but it’s part of a pattern of anti-democratic behavior. As The Wall Street Journal reported, in addition to hearing about the payoff to the porn film star Stormy Daniels, the grand jury in New York heard extensive questioning about the payoff to a Playboy model, Karen McDougal. Both women were going to tell their stories before the 2016 election. Unlawful means were used to silence them, which is why Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, went to prison.

As Cohen told a judge while pleading guilty to campaign finance crimes, tax evasion and bank fraud in 2018, his payments to Daniels and McDougal were made “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media, onetime parent company of the National Enquirer, said in a non-prosecution agreement with the Southern District of New York that he’d paid $150,000 to McDougal to “suppress the model’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”

It’s impossible to know what impact these stories would have had if the electorate had been allowed to hear them. Certainly, the “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump boasted of sexual assault, demonstrated that plenty of conservative voters were willing to look past his licentiousness. I’d guess that a vast majority of Trump voters would have been similarly unmoved by news of his affairs. But given the freakishly thin margins that gave Trump his victory — about 80,000 votes in three states — the stories wouldn’t have had to change that many minds to alter the outcome.

After the anticlimactic end of the Mueller investigation, a taboo developed against questioning the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. After all, the reasoning went, even if he lost the popular vote, he’d won fair and square under the rules of our system, and there was nothing provably criminal in the way he and his campaign solicited Russian help. Besides, Republicans are masters of projection, and even as they’ve rejected the validity of Biden’s election, they’ve relished hurling charges of election denialism at Democrats. At this point, there’s little political upside for Democrats in re-litigating the nightmarish 2016 contest. Nevertheless, it should matter whether Trump broke the law in the service of securing his minority victory. Especially given all the evidence that he continued to defy the law in order to hold on to it.

I devoutly hope that Trump will face consequences for trying to steal the 2020 election in Georgia and summoning a mob to stop his vice president from certifying his defeat. But in a way, it’s fitting that this indictment is first. Certainly, it would be a mistake for Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg to proceed if his case isn’t solid. But there’s some justice in the fact that before Trump can be tried for crimes committed to remain in the presidency, he’s set to be tried for crimes committed to put him there.

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