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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump, without the presidency’s protections, struggles for a strategy

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather near his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla., Aug. 9, 2022. The documents investigation represents the greatest legal threat Trump has faced in years, and he is going into the battle shorn of the protective infrastructure and constitutional armor of the presidency.

By Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush and Alan Feuer

On Tuesday, a Florida judge informed two lawyers representing former President Donald Trump, neither of them licensed in the state, that they had bungled routine paperwork to take part in a suit filed after the FBI’s search this month of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and private club.

“A sample motion can be found on the Court’s website,” the judge instructed them in her order.

Trump has projected his usual bravado, and raised millions of dollars online from outraged supporters, since federal agents descended on the property more than two weeks ago and carted off box loads of material including highly classified documents. But something is different this time — and the errant court filing offered a glimpse into the confusion and uncertainty the investigation has exposed inside Trump’s camp.

The documents investigation represents the greatest legal threat Trump has faced in years, and he is going into the battle shorn of the protective infrastructure and constitutional armor of the presidency. After years of burning through lawyers, he has struggled to hire new ones, and has a small group of lawyers of varying experience.

He is facing a Justice Department he no longer controls, run by a by-the-book attorney general, Merrick Garland, who has pursued various investigations into Trump methodically and quietly.

Trump is serving as his own communications director and strategic adviser, seeking tactical political and in-the-moment public relations victories, sometimes at the risk of stumbling into substantive legal missteps.

One example came late Monday, when a conservative writer allied with Trump made public a letter that the National Archives had sent to Trump’s legal team in May. Spun by Trump and his allies as evidence that President Joe Biden had played a role in the case after saying he was not involved, the letter confirmed information damaging to the former president’s case, including that Trump had retained more than 700 pages of documents with classification markings, including some at the most restricted level.

On Tuesday, the judge handling the Trump legal team’s request for the appointment of a special master to review the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago came back with some pointed questions. Judge Aileen M. Cannon, who was appointed by Trump, asked the lawyers to respond by Friday about whether she even had jurisdiction to hear Trump’s request, and what precisely his motion was asking her to do. This came hours after Cannon informed the lawyers about their basic paperwork mistake. A Trump spokesperson later showed stamped filings showing their paperwork had been accepted.

But as has become standard operating practice in Trump’s world, the primary focus there is not about legal claims, or even political ones, but the state of mind of the man at the center of the crisis. He feels other people’s actions toward him haven’t gotten enough attention, some of his advisers say privately, regardless of whether the facts actually bear out his grievances.

“The Democrats have spent seven years fabricating hoaxes and witch hunts against President Trump, and the recent unprecedented and unnecessary raid is just another example of exactly that,” said Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for Trump.

For years, Trump operated from a playbook taught to him in the 1970s by Roy Cohn, the ruthless former federal prosecutor and aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who represented Trump early in Trump’s career.

That approach — demonize investigators, intimidate allies to keep them from straying, paint himself as persecuted and depict every criticism as a political witch hunt — was Trump’s go-to strategy to discredit the investigation into his 2016 campaign’s possible ties to Russia, and in his first impeachment trial.

Yet at the time, he had the lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office helping to guide him, and a team of experienced legal hands familiar with Washington.

Now, as in the days after he lost the 2020 election, Trump is relying on an ad hoc team of advisers with varying levels of experience and judgment, and trying to use his political support as both a shield and a weapon to be aimed at the people investigating him.

But even as he fuels outrage in sympathetic media outlets and tries to turn attention to Biden and the so-called deep state, Trump is to some extent walking on the phantom limbs of his expired presidency, claiming executive privilege still applies to him even though he is out of office and maintaining he had a sweeping, standing order to declassify some documents, which his aides have declined to produce.

If the investigation into Trump’s possible connection with Russia was convoluted or hard for Americans to grasp, this one is not. The documents inquiry is about boxes of papers, storerooms, souvenirs and “top secret” stamps — the kind of identifiable items that Trump has weaponized to bludgeon opponents, akin to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email server or Hunter Biden’s laptop.

The documents investigation is also about whether Trump or his associates may have obstructed the inquiry, according to court papers filed with the search warrant. And despite the bravura, Trump has betrayed anxiety in private conversations about where this is all leading, people who have spoken to him say.

“He was never subjected to an investigation of this heft and potency prior to his presidency,” said Tim O’Brien, a biographer of Trump and the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.

O’Brien noted that when Trump was president he learned how to use his powers to protect himself. “Right now he is in the most vulnerable position he has been in, in his life, legally.”

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