Donald Trump’s already daunting legal predicament gets grimmer by the day as new details emerge of the depths to which he was prepared to stoop to reverse his defeat in the 2020 election.
It’s rare for any criminal defendant to face the kind of ever-widening stack of indictments, potential trials and investigations that Trump is confronting. It’s unprecedented for a former president and front-running presidential primary candidate to be stuck in such a vise.
And as the former president’s legal team juggles court dates in different cities this week, their task in defending Trump is getting ever more complex.
Trump’s next possible indictment could be looming in Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is now expected to seek more than a dozen indictments next week in what could be the broadest sweep against Trump and his associates yet. The former president believes he will be among those charged, sources told CNN.
Heightened security and expectations around the Atlanta-area prosecutor are competing for attention with special counsel Jack Smith’s moves in Washington. The special counsel has already indicted Trump twice – over the mishandling of classified documents and, separately, over efforts to subvert the 2020 election. But the intrigue around that second case thickened Wednesday with the revelation, from a newly unsealed court filing, that prosecutors secured a search warrant of the former president’s Twitter account during a secret court battle that underscored just how much of Smith’s investigation remains under wraps.
Adding to the daily drumbeat of disclosures about Trump’s legal cases, The New York Times reported the contents of a memo that revealed new details about how the Trump campaign initiated its plan to subvert the Electoral College process and install fake GOP electors in multiple states. The report underscores the stunning, anti-democratic audacity in Trump’s camp – even after his multiple challenges to the fairness of the 2020 election were rejected in many courts.
In the other of Smith’s cases against Trump, related to the documents he hoarded at Mar-a-Lago, two of the former president’s co-defendants are set to be arraigned on Thursday in Florida. Carlos De Oliveira, a manager at Trump’s resort, and the former president’s personal aide Walt Nauta have been charged with multiple offenses related to Trump’s allegedly unlawful retention of documents after leaving office. Trump, who pleaded not guilty in the case, is not due to attend.
Every new development in these cases and each frenzied social media post or outburst by Trump further ratchets up a fraught political atmosphere that is carving ever-deeper national divides and is likely to be multiplied many times by the extraordinary prospect of Trump standing trial, one or more times, in election year.
The risks of inflammatory political rhetoric were underscored again on Wednesday after FBI agents shot dead a man they were trying to arrest in Utah for allegedly making threats against Biden ahead of his visit to the Beehive state. The man, Craig Robertson, had also posted online threats against other Democratic politicians and prosecutors, including Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is due to put Trump on trial in March in a business fraud case arising from a hush money payment in 2016 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump misleadingly claimed after he was indicted in the case that Bragg was “hand-picked and funded” by liberal billionaire George Soros.
In a felony complaint filed in district court in Utah, prosecutors highlighted a social media post purportedly made by Robertson in which he called Bragg a “two-but political hach (sic).” In March, when he was under surveillance by the FBI, agents reported he was wearing a hat bearing the word “Trump.” The complaint also includes chilling descriptions of how Robertson allegedly wanted to kill other prominent political leaders, including Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Meanwhile in Georgia, Willis – who was not mentioned in the complaint – has had her security increased, according to a source with direct knowledge of Atlanta law enforcement movements. Trump on the campaign trail on Tuesday branded Willis, who is Black and a Democrat, as “racist” – further targeting a district attorney who has already received threats.
Georgia’s former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who has been subpoenaed to testify before the Fulton County grand jury, bemoaned the need for extra security for public officials who are lambasted by Trump.
“It’s pathetic, to think we have to have additional security because of a made-up fake narrative around an election,” Duncan told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
The stampede of developments around Trump’s cases is providing only a hint of the political and legal collision that is likely to unfold next year. But it is questionable whether his plight will measurably change perceptions of the ex-president, who has been alienating and inspiring polarized Americans since the launch of his first presidential campaign eight years ago. Trump’s critics are likely to respond to the latest developments with more horror over his apparent willingness to splinter the Constitution to stay in power. His supporters, many of whom are convinced of his claims that he is the victim of serial political persecutions, will probably see another pile on.
Yet the crush of approaching trials and the political recriminations that will accompany them are sure to raise questions about just how much one man’s political career – and the country – can bear in what will be one of the most jarring election years ever.
Biden won the 2020 election in Georgia by less than 12,000 votes, and Trump famously asked Brad Raffensperger, the key swing state’s Republican secretary of state, to “find” sufficient ballots to help him overturn his deficit, according to an audio recording of a phone call.
More than two years later, Willis is expected to seek more than a dozen indictments from a grand jury next week, after eyeing conspiracy and racketing charges. The breadth of her probe is only now becoming clear. CNN’s Sara Murray reported that it focuses on efforts to pressure election officials, the plot to put forward fake electors and a voting systems breach in Coffee County, Georgia.
CNN legal analyst Elie Honig noted the extent of the ambition of the Willis investigation, which conducted multiple interviews before a special grand jury, calling it a “very broad, very aggressive sweep.”
A potential criminal indictment of Trump in Georgia, which would be his fourth in a matter of months, would open up a challenging new front in his legal fight. There are many signs that part of Trump’s motivation in running for president again is to fund his defense with various campaign fundraising committees and to reacquire the executive powers that might enable him to freeze or end federal probes like those being pursued by Smith.
The size of the potential pool of defendants in Georgia, however, raises the question of how long it might take Willis to bring them to trial. This is especially relevant if Trump is charged since he’ll be campaigning for the Republican nomination and possibly a general election clash with Biden.
“I am sure there is indictment fatigue in the Trump defense team at this point,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said on CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper Wednesday.
Twitter was the megaphone that @realDonaldTrump used to win the presidency, to consolidate his power, to browbeat his Republican critics and to amplify his demagoguery and false claims of election fraud in 2020. Now it looks like it could become a courtroom liability.
Court filings came to light on Wednesday that showed that Smith secured a search warrant for the ex-president’s Twitter account. The social network, now known as “X,” was fined $350,000 because it delayed producing the records. During a court battle that unfolded out of public view for several months, the district court “found that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that disclosing the warrant to former President Trump ‘would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation’ by giving him ‘an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior, [or] notify confederates.’”
Trump did later learn of the search warrant.
Given that his torrent of tweets as president was public, it was not immediately clear why the special counsel wanted access to his account. And the court papers related to the matter were heavily redacted. But data from Trump’s account could potentially provide information about which phone – and potentially person – posted tweets to the account. Twitter data might also show any direct messages sent to or from Trump’s account.
Trump quickly seized on the revelations to highlight one of his apparent potential defenses in the case – that Smith is infringing his First Amendment rights to free expression and attempting to muzzle him to prevent him reclaiming the White House.
“Just found out that Crooked Joe Biden’s DOJ secretly attacked my Twitter account, making it a point not to let me know about this major ‘hit’ on my civil rights,” Trump wrote on his own social network Truth Social, which he set up after being banned by Twitter’s previous ownership.
Trump’s claims about his civil rights being infringed do not hold much water since the search warrant would have to have been obtained from a judge on the grounds that there was probable cause that the account had been used to commit a crime.
In another credulity stretching moment on Wednesday, Trump proposed that he should not be required to go to a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) to discuss classified evidence in the documents case with his lawyers. Instead, he proposed he be allowed to do so at a facility “at or near his residence” that was used for discussing sensitive material when he was president.
Had Trump been more careful about classified documents in his residence when he left the White House – and not stored national security material insecurely, including in bathrooms, as Smith alleges – he may have avoided one of his most threatening legal imbroglios.