He might say he’s the master of the art of the deal. But Donald Trump’s real superpower is his talent for wriggling out of accountability after sailing close to the law and normal rules of politics, business and life in a way that would have destroyed most public figures long ago.
However, after he bounced back following a lifetime of business bankruptcies, scandals and impeachments, it might soon be time to consider whether the ex-President’s flair for impunity is starting to fail him after a string of legal defeats tightened a net of scrutiny around him.
In the latest blow on Thursday, a judge in New York ruled that Trump and his eldest two children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, must sit for depositions in the New York attorney general’s civil probe into their business practices. It was far from Trump’s only recent rough day in court.
While he appears to be slipping deeper into a legal swamp, some obvious caveats are in order. Pretty much everyone who has bet that Trump’s run-ins with the law, truth and reality would doom his career have been proved wrong ever since his riotous entry into the 2016 presidential campaign. And his refusal to live by the rules that govern everyone else is, in fact, a key ingredient of his political appeal for millions of voters.
Such followers see their own disdain for elites and authority reflected in his travails and crusades. Trump remains the dominant force in the Republican Party, even out of office. And, in all of the latest legal threats currently facing him, the former President is yet to be proved guilty.
If his tough run of luck carries on, the legal protections offered by the presidency might convince Trump even more of the merits of another campaign as he sizes up 2024. But even his fortune might run out at some point, and he may find it harder to avoid the consequences of his political transgressions and alleged infringements of the law.
Behind the scenes in Republican politics, the rising tides of scandal could crest into conversations about whether Trump is the ideal standard-bearer for the party going forward – at least when it comes to a critical general election audience in the vote-rich moderate suburbs. Already, some Republicans fear that Trump’s obsession with his false claims that he was voted out of power illegally will overshadow a GOP midterm election campaign focusing on high inflation and gas prices, anger at school lockdowns and immigration.
A recent CNN poll backed up the idea that Trump’s appeal may not be as rock solid as it once was. Some 50% of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents to the survey conducted by SSRS said they wanted the GOP to nominate him again, while 49% wanted someone else. The more the ex-President gets dinged up, the more some of these voters might be open to a candidate who promises Trumpism without Trump.
Former Trump White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin suggested Thursday on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that if the ex-President’s legal woes deepen, they will not go unnoticed among potential 2024 candidates.
“Not only is the retired former President watching this from Florida, but I would also note that potential 2024 Republican candidates, I believe, are paying very close attention to this,” Farah Griffin said.
“There are many people, gearing up – considering – to run. And they are looking for that lane of an opening where Trump is weakened. … If you are a Mike Pompeo or a Mike Pence, this opens a window to you if it goes further,” she added.
Still, there is a lot that can be fixed by the $122 million political war chest the former President has already amassed. And Trump would have to be grievously wounded politically and legally for a major Republican rising star to openly take him on in the 2024 primary. The ex-President will also profit from the conservative media’s power to shape the perceptions of GOP base voters and to spread misinformation about the legal cases pending against him.
The right-wing machine’s zeal for Trump was underscored again this week by its willingness to hype his claims that Hillary Clinton’s campaign spied on his White House and the Trump Organization. The allegations were the product of distortions of a cryptic legal filing by special counsel John Durham, who is investigating the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe.
A rough patch in court
Thursday’s ruling, related to a civil investigation into the Trump Organization’s finances by New York Attorney General Letitia James, crowns yet another rough patch for the ex-President. In a related development earlier in the week, his longtime accountants, Mazars, disowned a decade of financial documents they had prepared for him. Given that he is being investigated over claims he inflated his assets to get loans and underestimated their value for tax purposes, this looks like a very grave development for the former President.
And he keeps having bad days in court. Thursday’s ruling followed soon after the Supreme Court dashed Trump’s bid to keep White House documents secret from the House investigation into the January 6 insurrection. His defeat raised the likelihood that the committee will be able to piece together a broad reconstruction of the Trump team’s attempt to steal the election and prevent Joe Biden’s inauguration and the extent of its role in planning or inciting the insurrection.
Yet again however, political dynamics in a deeply divided nation may end up shielding Trump from the worst damage from a damning final report by the committee.
But his problems don’t end in Washington. A judge in Georgia last month granted a district attorney’s request for a special grand jury to investigate his pressure on local officials to overturn his 2020 election loss.
And there are multiple other probes and legal investigations facing Trump. The Justice Department, for instance, is investigating a scheme to seat fake electors who backed him and his lies about voter fraud. He’s also the target of several personal lawsuits, including by his niece Mary Trump over her inheritance and by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen.
For any normal person, one encounter with the law is cause for extreme stress and financial anxiety. Few people have ever faced the onslaught of accountability that Trump must now stare down.
Yet the ex-President has lived his entire life in a vortex of scandal, controversy, legal mazes, risks of financial ruin and quarrels he has picked or from which he will never back down. Far from being beaten down by being pursued by legal and political scrutiny, Trump appears to gain strength from it, flipping attacks to create a cult of victimization around himself with which his voters identify.
For example, when Mazars walked out on him, Trump issued a furious counterattack, making an unsubstantiated claim about his wealth – apparently around $6 billion – and portraying himself as the victim of a massive plot. He claimed Mazars walked because of the “vicious intimidation” attacks against him by New York legal authorities.
“This crime against me is a continuation of a Witch Hunt the likes of which has never been seen in this Country before,” wrote Trump, who has demagogued his legal troubles for political gain by suggesting that Black prosecutors pursuing him are racially motivated.
Trump rolls out a familiar legal playbook
The Trump playbook is playing out already after his latest setbacks.
First, the ex-President’s lawyers announced an immediate appeal. This is his right. But it is also consistent with his previous legal strategy of seeking to tie up the system in endless litigation to stave off the moment of truth.
Trump, for example, went all the way to the Supreme Court in his failed quest to keep White House call logs, records and other documents from the January 6 committee. He has invoked what many experts view as outrageous claims of executive privilege to try to prevent the committee from talking to key witnesses.
In 2020, Trump and his allies mounted scores of cases alleging electoral fraud – even though many were laughed out of court by judges. Ticking off another Trump tactic, those moves were rooted in his belief that any judgement against him is not based on law but on bias against him.
And, in another tried-and-true tactic, Trump’s team attacked the judge after Thursday’s ruling.
“I am not surprised,” Trump’s attorney, Ronald Fischetti, said. “I had no belief at all that we would win before this judge.”
“We lost before we argued,” he added. “I told my client that, so I had no hope whatsoever that this judge would give us the relief that we wanted.”
The former President’s team argues that Trump is the innocent victim of a political vendetta led by Democrats like James, who are afraid of that he will reclaim the White House in the next presidential election. And his team warns that the effort to force his deposition during the civil lawsuit is a ploy to draw him into jeopardy in a separate criminal investigation being mounted by the Manhattan district attorney.
But as part of her investigation, James has alleged numerous “misleading statements and omissions” in tax submissions and financial statements used to obtain loans. A deposition by Trump would not only threaten to go deep inside the opaque world of the family business, it would also be a potentially legally hazardous exercise for a client with a reputation for exaggeration and an often-distant relationship with the truth.
Trump and his children would have the option of pleading their Fifth Amendment rights to protect themselves against self-incrimination. But the encounter might provide some nervous moments for the lawyers charged with keeping him out of trouble.
And more broadly, there is also the chance that a cascade of troublesome legal woes could soon begin to raise questions about his famed political impunity.