Donald Trump in 1985 and his property empire dreams

Attacks at every level

Trump faces legal battles in local, state and federal courts. But Democratic attempts to derail his presidential bid may well backfire, reckons Daniel Lazare

The Democratic judicial assault on Donald Trump reached a new pitch of intensity with last week’s $355 million judgment for business fraud.

The decision is bizarre, bonkers, over the top - and therefore in keeping with the chaotic nature of the anti-Trump offensive. If the United States were a conventional centralised state, the ruling party might have opted for a neat and simple legal strategy aimed at cutting off an opponent at the knees. But, since it is a sprawling federation with one foot in the 18th century and another in the 21st, they have opted for something more complex - a swarm attack on multiple local, state and federal levels.

The results are mixed. Last month’s order requiring Trump to pay advice columnist E Jean Carroll $83.3 million for defamation was a win. But what should have been a strong case based on Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 vote in Georgia is now faltering, because an elected local prosecutor has been caught funnelling official business to a boyfriend, who then treated her to lavish vacations in the Caribbean and California wine country. Atlanta prosecutor Fan Willis, a Democrat, tried to brazen it out at a televised hearing last week. “You think I’m on trial,” she said. But then, pointing at the defence attorneys, she added: “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020.”

It did not work, since the arrangement was obviously a kickback. The upshot is that the election-interference case will almost certainly be delayed until after the coming presidential election, at which point it will no longer matter, since Trump, if elected, will have multiple means of stopping it in its tracks.

In New York, another Democrat is planning to go to trial next month with a case based on $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 election. But, while certainly embarrassing from Trump’s point of view, the prosecution is a long shot, since Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg - a Democrat who ran for office on a ‘Get Trump’ platform - is seeking to prove that the payoff violated federal election laws, because it amounted to a surreptitious campaign expenditure that Trump failed to acknowledge. This is a stretch, and the fact that federal prosecutors passed on the same case in 2019, even though it was in their bailiwick, makes it even more dubious.

Then there is the January 6 case that a federal prosecutor named Jack Smith is pursuing. While the case seems strong, it is in trouble too. One reason is ‘double jeopardy’. Since the US Senate acquitted Trump in his January 2021 impeachment trial of “high crimes and misdemeanours” related to the Capitol Hill insurrection, how can federal authorities prosecute him again for essentially the same offence?

The other reason the January 6 case is encountering turbulence is presidential immunity - the question of whether Trump can be held criminally liable for acts committed in office. Liberals cheered when a federal appeals court struck down Trump’s immunity claim two weeks ago in Washington. But there is a problem: if Trump is liable, then other presidents - some beloved of liberals - will be liable too.

One is Barack Obama, who ordered a drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an al Qa’eda leader who was also a US citizen, in 2011. Two weeks later, Obama ordered a second strike that killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son.

Considering that there was no US judicial determination that either al-Awlaki was guilty of a crime, should Obama stand trial for what was little more than an official assassination? The same goes for George W Bush, who sent thousands of US citizens to invade Iraq on phony pretences in 2003. Since some were killed or injured, should he stand trial? How about Bill Clinton? He bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998 for reasons that Washington subsequently admitted were false. Since the operation killed one person and wounded 11, is he liable as well?

Socialists will answer yes, absolutely - let’s hold them all to account. But the US Supreme Court is not a socialist body, alas, but a thoroughly bourgeois panel concerned with the smooth operation of the presidency as delineated in article II of the US constitution, drafted in 1787. If it takes a kinder view of Trump’s immunity claim as a consequence, Smith’s January 6 case may bite the dust.

Civil fraud?

So Dems are advancing on one front, stalled on another and falling back on a third. (If this sounds a bit like Ukraine, it is not surprising, since, legal or military, both wars flow out of the same neocon impulse.) Still, nothing compares to the sheer silliness that has unfolded in a Lower Manhattan courtroom since October.

The case concerns whether Trump committed civil fraud by exaggerating the value of his real-estate holdings. At the helm has been Arthur Engoron, an ex-cabbie turned law-school grad, rock-n-roll drummer, and then state judge. Although relaxed and jocular, the 74-year-old Engoron is no patsy. When Trump attacked his law clerk on the internet, he imposed a gag order and fined him $10,000. When Trump failed to remove one of the offending posts, he fined him $5,000 more. But, since the order did not cover Engoron himself, he was unperturbed when Trump blasted him on his Truth Social website as a “radical left judge who should not be handling the fake and fully discredited case”. He took no action when Trump slammed the entire effort as “a rigged and unfair trial - no jury, no victims”.1

Is Engoron’s $355 million judgment therefore proof that not even a loudmouth billionaire can bully the people’s court into submission? Not quite. The reason: Trump has a point. The trial really has been rigged and unfair. Evidence of political bias abounds, while the case as a whole defies common sense.

The New York state attorney general who filed the charges, for example, is a supremely ambitious Democrat named Letitia James. James now insists that politics were the last thing on her mind when she decided to pursue the case: “The president of the United States has complained that I’m engaging in some sort of political witch-hunt, that I have some sort of personal vendetta against him, that I campaigned against him. This is not true.” But the story was very different in 2018, when she was running for election. On that occasion, she led chants of “Lock him up”, denounced him as “an illegitimate president” and told supporters, “We’ve got to get ready to agitate and irritate until victory is won and, more importantly, until Trump is defeated.”

“We will all rise up and resist this man,” added the woman who is now shocked - shocked! - that anyone dares question her neutrality.2

Then there is the case itself. Amazingly, James has charged Trump with fraud, while conceding at the same time that no-one was defrauded. Indeed, the trial featured testimony by Deutsche Bank that the organisation was happy to do business with Trump, because the money it lent him generated returns that grew from $13,000 to $6 million in just two years.

“We are whale hunting,” a Deutsche Bank official named Rosemary Vrablic told colleagues in November 2011. In financial speak, that means that Trump was a big-money client, whom the bank would be happy to land. Anshu Jain, Deutsche Bank’s co-chairman, suggested “key asks” to be put to Trump. “Obtain more deposits and investment management assets” was one. Another was: “Strategically discuss leveraging Mr Trump’s personal and professional network within the real estate industry in NY.” A year later, a bank official took Trump to lunch to thank him for his business and to “ask whether we can work on other opportunities”, according to an internal document entered as evidence.3

To be sure, Trump is a showman who routinely puffs up the value of his properties. In 2006, he testified in an earlier case that his net worth fluctuates “with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings”. If he is happy, then he is rich; if he is depressed, then he is a little less so. But, given corporate stocks that may be 100% overvalued based on traditional price-earnings ratios, Trump is hardly the only capitalist prone to exaggeration.4 So what are the courts going to do - confiscate the entire New York Stock Exchange?

Besides, Deutsche Bank officials testified that they were careful to verify Trump’s claims rather than take him at his word. They were satisfied as a result, Trump was satisfied, and everyone else involved was satisfied too. The law that James based her case on is generally used to protect consumers, investors and small businesses from scams, price-gouging and other predatory practices. It is designed to help “people who can’t protect themselves”, Syracuse University law professor Gregory Germain told Reuters. “Here we’re dealing with very sophisticated lenders who are fully capable of protecting themselves and haven’t asked the attorney general for help.”5

Yet James is giving it regardless. Like prostitution or drugs, the result is a victimless crime, in which the various participants are content, even if legal authorities are not. Trump has an estimated $600 million in cash assets and a total net worth between $2.6 and $3.1 billion, so there is no danger of him going under.6 If he appeals, however, the judgment could cause problems for his organisation, since he will likely have to obtain a bond guaranteeing payment at some future date. This could ensnare him in further litigation, as bonding companies scrutinise his credit history and James uses the process to harass him at every turn.

But even if the Democrats cannot knock Trump out, their goal is to tie him down Gulliver-style so he cannot compete in November. But it is unlikely to go so smoothly. The day after last week’s verdict, Trump was in tip-top form at an indoor campaign rally in Waterford, Michigan, where thousands lined up for hours in the bitter cold to hear him speak.

Meat and potatoes

He began by denouncing “the weaponisation of this horrible legal system that has developed around us”. He went on: “The decision yesterday in New York ... was a lawless and unconstitutional atrocity that sets fire to our laws like no-one has ever seen in this country before. That happens in banana republics. It doesn’t happen in this country.”

But then it was on to other topics - unfair competition from Mexico, environmentalism, and electric vehicles that only go 93 miles before needing to be recharged, according to Trump, but which the Biden administration is pushing regardless. Then came the real meat and potatoes in the form of an issue animating the ultra-right across the globe: immigration.

Illegal immigrants “are going to work for one-third the price”, Trump told an audience packed with auto workers and others in the manufacturing sector. Making a play for traditional Democratic constituencies, he warned that black and Hispanic union members “will be losing their jobs by the millions [because] these people are going to work for nothing, they’re going to work for very small amounts of money. You’re going to lose your jobs - it’s so sad.” Next up was migrant crime - a surge that has so far failed to show up in any of the usual crime statistics:

Your local sheriff has recently stated that organised squads of illegal alien gang members are hiding in the trees and breaking into rural and suburban Michigan, into your homes after dark, plundering them for jewellery, purses, electronics, cash, watches, and anything else they can get their hands on.7

The bottom line is that Democrats are harassing the people; they are taking away their jobs and income; they are bringing dangerous aliens into their midst; and they are misusing the courts in order to bring down the people’s defender - Trump. It is a powerful message that may well mean victory in November.

Unfortunately, political prosecutions like last week’s $355 million judgment in New York transparently render all this more persuasive, rather than less.

  1. truthsocial.com/@realDonaldTrump/posts/111733975716840979.↩︎

  2. twitter.com/TheCCShowcast/status/1758630827968057694.↩︎

  3. www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/deutsche-bank-was-keen-to-land-a-whale-of-a-client-in-trump-documents-at-civil-fraud-trial-show.↩︎

  4. www.investingdaily.com/117499/cape-fear-the-shiller-p-e-warns-that-stocks-are-overvalued.↩︎

  5. www.reuters.com/legal/trumps-civil-fraud-verdict-appeal-may-hinge-no-victims-defense-2024-02-16.↩︎

  6. www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2024/02/16/trump-verdict-civil-fraud-trial-2.↩︎

  7. www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkC6_o-J4Vk.↩︎