Donald Trump’s legal limbo appeared to get more precarious on Wednesday.
The country gets closer every day to a political and judicial precipice that could see a former president indicted for the first time ever. The ex-commander in chief’s 2024 White House bid would make this historic twist even more inflammatory and amount to his greatest stress test yet of America’s legal and governing institutions and its brittle unity.
And Trump is not just confronting a single case of potentially criminal vulnerability. New developments on multiple fronts suggest it’s possible he could be indicted in several separate investigations that are all apparently moving forward in a long-delayed crescendo of possible accountability.
A fateful national moment is brewing amid Trump’s wild rhetoric and predictions of his own arrest, a political storm whipped up by his allies, and anticipation among those who have long chafed at his flair for impunity.
An increasingly circus-like atmosphere in Washington, New York and Florida, where Trump now lives, is making the drama around the various cases even more tense and confusing – and, to some extent, taking the focus away from what may be a moment of dubious history. And a mounting partisan uproar led by House Republicans, meanwhile, appears designed to blur the facts, distract from the evidence and fuel Trump’s claim he’s the victim of an endless political vendetta.
Trump’s multiple avenues of legal peril
Trump, who denies any wrongdoing, is yet to be charged in any of the cases and there’s no certainty he will be. But the pattern of recent days appears to show the legal clouds around him darkening.
— On Wednesday, his problems deepened when an appeals court ruled that Trump’s defense attorney, Evan Corcoran, must testify before a grand jury in the case surrounding classified documents that Trump ferreted away at his resort at Mar-a-Lago. The ruling, which came with surprising speed and thwarted Trump’s typical monthslong delaying tactics, was so significant because the Justice Department had to convince the court there was sufficient evidence to show Trump committed a crime in order to puncture the convention of attorney-client privilege.
Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and CNN legal analyst, said the piercing of this bedrock legal protection was highly unusual and an ill omen for Trump, since Corcoran’s testimony could be used to suggest he committed a crime. This could involve not just the mishandling of classified documents but also possible obstruction of justice. “It considerably worsens what was probably Trump’s most federal legal peril,” Eisen told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” on Wednesday.
— This development came with all eyes on New York after expectations soared this week that Trump could soon face indictment in a distinct case arising from an alleged scheme to pay hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. Intrigue spiked after the grand jury in the matter did not meet on Wednesday. But it will sit on Thursday, a source familiar with the investigation told CNN’s John Miller.
There are signs that one witness could be asked to reappear. And sources told CNN that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has been under fierce attack from Trump’s GOP allies, was also taking a moment to regroup amid the furor. Miller reported that Bragg’s team is working out whether to call back a pivotal witness – Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen – to refute testimony this week by Robert Costello, an attorney who previously represented several Trump allies and appeared before the grand jury at the request of Trump’s legal team.
Cohen, who made the payment to Daniels, is seen by some analysts as a weak link in any trial since his credibility could be undermined by his own conviction for lying to Congress. CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams explained that Bragg would have to test the question of Cohen’s trustworthiness now before a grand jury or at trial. “It’s very much in their interests, to take a beat, step back and decide,” he said. “This kind of thing happens all the time, as prosecutors decide whether and how to bring cases.”
There have been increasing indications an indictment could be near, especially since Trump predicted over the weekend, inaccurately, that he would be arrested this past Tuesday. But the possible charges in this yearslong and somewhat obscure case could center on business violations or infringements of campaign finance law. All of which raises the question of whether it’s truly in the national interest to cross the Rubicon of charging a former president in a case that may be hard to explain to the public, lacks profound constitutional implications and may not be a slam dunk at trial.
— In a third Trump legal entanglement, Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, said in January that charging decisions were imminent in an investigation into the ex-president’s attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the critical swing state. Willis’ office, which is considering bringing racketeering and conspiracy charges, could make decisions this spring, CNN reported on Monday. In a Hail Mary move, Trump’s lawyers have tried to get a court to throw out the special grand jury’s final report.
— And on yet another separate legal front, the ex-president and his lieutenants are being investigated by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith over his attempts to steal the 2020 election and over the US Capitol insurrection. In another sign of the seriousness of the probe, Smith has subpoenaed former Vice President Mike Pence, who helped save US democracy on January 6, 2021, to testify. (Smith is also investigating Trump’s handling of classified documents.)
Trump careens between opposite emotions over possible indictment
Amid the turmoil, the ex-president – between angry hits on his social media network Truth Social – is playing a waiting game with advisers, who are preparing for several different scenarios involving a possible indictment in New York, CNN’s Kristen Holmes reported. At times, Trump has celebrated because he thinks an indictment could supercharge his campaign but has also complained it would be “unfair.” Characteristically, the former reality show star and New York tabloid fixture has toyed with the idea of creating a media spectacle if he is charged, Holmes reported.
Underscoring one thread of the political drama that could ensue, Trump’s potential biggest rival in the 2024 Republican primary chose this week to twist the knife while other potential GOP White House contenders were rushing to Trump’s defense in the hush money case. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a crowd on Monday that he doesn’t “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star” and later implied in an interview that if he won the Oval Office, he would be far more disciplined than Trump was in his riotous four years as president. “No daily drama, focus on the big picture, and put points on the board,” DeSantis told Piers Morgan on TalkTV, just as news of Trump’s legal woes was reminding Americans of the daily drama he served up for four years.
“The governor can’t afford to be marginalized from the get go,” one DeSantis adviser told CNN’s Steve Contorno amid Trump’s attacks on the governor. “He clearly made the calculus it was time to push back.”
Trump lashing out at DeSantis, who has yet to declare a campaign, is cranking up the GOP presidential race to its most intense level yet just as the former president’s legal problems also seem to be exploding. “The fact is, Ron is an average Governor, but the best by far in the Country in one category, Public Relations, where he easily ranks Number One,” Trump said in a Wednesday statement savaging the record of the man he once considered a protégé. “But it is all a Mirage, just look at the facts and figures, they don’t lie—And we don’t want Ron as our President!”
The former president’s fury presented DeSantis, who won a double-digit reelection victory in Florida last fall, with the diciest moment yet in his pseudo campaign and could test Trump’s still enormous hold over the “Make America Great Again” movement. But Trump’s legal mire also may remind voters who rejected him in 2020 and some of his favored candidates in last year’s midterms why they were alienated by his chaotic leadership.
DeSantis is not the only Republican seeking a political opening. Trump’s Republican allies in the House have been demonstrating his enduring strength with the grassroots voters who sent them to Washington by unleashing an extraordinary assault on the Manhattan DA. As Trump once did, they are using the power of government to try to prevent him from being held to account and to defuse his legal threats. GOP House committee chairs have, for instance, demanded Bragg’s testimony and have pledged to find out whether his probe used any federal funds.
All of this underscores the fact that more than two years after Trump left office, the nation is nowhere near working through the enormous political and legal trauma of his term. And if the events of recent days are any indication, Americans may be in for another round of turmoil.