WASHINGTON (AP) — An indictment against former President Donald Trump involving a secret cash payment from 2016 is raising concerns that it could undermine public confidence in what democracy experts say are far more important investigations.
Trump is facing multiple investigations into his refusal to accept a loss to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. These include whether he pressured election officials to overturn the results, encouraged fraudulent voters from battleground states and his role in the events leading up to the attack. at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Jeffrey Engel, founder of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, called this week’s New York grand jury indictment “an appetizer for their main course yet to come.”
“That main course, literally, is about democracy and who we are as a nation,” he said.
The investigation in New York that led to Thursday’s indictment involved payments to porn star Stormy Daniels at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign to hush up allegations of extramarital sex. But some worry that the charges — which remain sealed — could distract public attention from other cases, which are more focused on attacks on the country’s democratic institutions and traditions.
Larry Diamond, a democracy expert and senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said he was nervous that the New York charges would “trigger all the charges of politicization against him and abuse of justice.” It’s a theme Trump emphasized on social media and during a recent campaign rally in Texas.
“I certainly wouldn’t choose this weakest case first,” Diamond said.
The indictment has already rallied Trump’s supporters, both at the grassroots level and in government offices. The reaction to Thursday’s indictment laid bare the deep political divisions that have increasingly polarized the country since Trump’s rise within the Republican Party.
Kathy Clark, a retired police officer from suburban Palm Beach County, stood on the side of the road outside Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida after news of the indictment broke, holding a “Trump Wins” banner. Clark, dressed in a red, white and blue cowboy hat and vest, said the New York indictment would be the opposite.
“People who were on the fence will see how the government has politicized the justice system,” she said.
Trump has promoted the idea that the investigations are partisan and aimed at undermining his campaign as he embarks on his third bid for the White House. On his social media page, the former president labeled the prosecutors involved in the investigations as those who threaten democracy.
Other supporters quickly lined up behind him, including West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morisey, a Republican, who called the indictment “a political witch hunt and a political prosecution. And the only reason they do it is because they’re scared. They know they can’t beat him at the ballot box. That’s why they resort to this terrible tactic.”
Polls have shown that a majority of Republicans still support Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, suggesting they already believe he was wronged by the system even as Biden’s victory was upheld in multiple polls, recounts and audits in key presidential battleground states.
Trump’s efforts to overturn those results amid false claims of widespread fraud are at the center of two other ongoing investigations, including his role in trying to stop the certification of election results ahead of a violent attack on the Capitol. The special counsel is also looking into Trump’s retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate, an investigation that could pose the former president’s biggest legal threat.
A separate investigation in Fulton County, Georgia, which includes Atlanta, is looking into pressure Trump and others put on state officials to overturn the results of the presidential election there. The investigation began after a phone call in which Trump urged the Georgia secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory.
The payment Trump lawyer Michael Cohen made in 2016 to cover up an alleged sexual encounter with Daniels is the least involving an attack on Democratic norms. But it’s the detail that fits most easily with Trump’s claim that he was attacked for partisan reasons.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, recently told CNN that the question is what happens after the indictment. If prosecutors don’t win a conviction, “I think historians will look back and say this was the act that got Donald Trump re-elected president.”
Diamond, the Stanford expert, said that despite his nervousness about the New York case moving forward, it won’t stop others.
“The other things are not going to just go away, and I think for the purpose of defending our constitutional system and defending the rule of law … those are the ones that I think should carry the most weight in the public’s mind,” he said.
Roscoe Howard, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said prosecutors in New York are aware of who they are dealing with and the turmoil that will follow. But he said prosecutors are not focused on public opinion or the political ramifications of the case.
Their concern is not about other investigations, but whether their case is ready to go to court, Howard said.
“There is no prosecutor in this country who will take a case to trial that they think they will lose,” he said. “They just don’t do it.”
Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Palm Beach, Florida contributed to this report.