Donald Trump’s early announcement of his third run for the White House will not shield the former president from the criminal investigations he already faces as an ordinary citizen, leaving him legally and politically exposed as he tries to win the Republican nomination for the election. of 2024.
The Department of Justice is continuing with its investigations. And with the results of the midterm elections now largely complete and the 2024 presidential campaign months away from kicking off in earnest, federal prosecutors have plenty of time to continue their work even as Trump begins to promote himself to voters.
“I don’t think the department is going to falter as a result of Trump nominating himself and anointing himself the frontrunner for the 2024 election,” said Michael Weinstein, a former Justice Department prosecutor. “I just think they will see that he is trying to cheat the system as he has done with great success in the courts,” and are prepared for his “backlash.”
Trump enters the race facing federal investigations related to his attempts to overturn the 2022 election results and the storage of top-secret government documents at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida, plus a separate statewide probe in Georgia. The investigation into the residence has moved especially quickly, and prosecutors earlier this month granted a close Trump ally immunity to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Justice Department lawyers in that probe say they have collected evidence of possible crimes involving not only obstruction of justice, but also the willful withholding of national defense information.
It remains unclear if anyone will face charges, and it is also not known if there is a specific date for a decision to be made. But former officials say the best way to ensure the outcome is judged above reproach is to conduct a by-the-book investigation that does not show any special favoritism or derogatory treatment influenced by the fact that Trump was president of the United States.
“The public will have the greatest faith in what you are doing, and you will get the best results, if you treat Donald Trump like any other American,” said Matthew Miller, who was a Justice Department spokesman when Eric Holder was attorney general.
Current Attorney General Merrick Garland has hinted as much: In response to questions about Trump and the investigation into the January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol, he said last summer that “no person is above the law.” . Asked in a television interview in July how a possible Trump candidacy might affect the department, Garland responded: “We will hold to account anyone who is criminally responsible for trying to interfere with the transfer — the legitimate, valid transfer — of power to one administration to the next.
Investigating any elected official, or candidate for office, is almost always an invitation to political speculation. Justice Department protocol warns prosecutors not to take overt action in the run-up to an election, but that’s more standard convention than set in stone. And the race for the presidency in 2024 is two years away.
In any case, it is not easy to investigate a former president or a candidate in the campaign. That’s especially true of Trump, who spent his presidency attacking his own Justice Department and harassing attorneys general he had appointed. He has already criticized the FBI for raiding Mar-a-Lago in August, using the episode to raise funds from his supporters.
Now that his candidacy is official, he and his supporters will try to reframe the narrative of the investigation as political persecution by a Democratic government that fears him by 2024.
In fact, one risk for Democrats is that Trump — who declared himself “a victim” during his announcement on Tuesday — could once again galvanize his supporters with that argument. On the other hand, the results of last week’s midterm elections suggest that he could be more politically vulnerable than many thought, including in his Republican Party.
And what about past investigations into a presidential candidate? There is a recent precedent, albeit under different circumstances.
In 2016, the Justice Department of President Barack Obama’s administration investigated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. Despite attempts by law enforcement officials working on the investigation to stay above the fray, the investigation repeatedly became embroiled in presidential politics, in ways that might not have been contemplated when it began.
Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch expressed regret over a chance encounter she had with former President Bill Clinton in the final days of the inquiry. Former FBI Director James Comey was blamed for undermining Hillary Clinton’s candidacy by giving a detailed public explanation of why the police institution was not recommending charges, and then for reopening the investigation 11 days before the election.
David Laufman, who oversaw that investigation for the Justice Department in his role as head of the same branch that is now conducting the Mar-a-Lago investigation, said there is a “surreal decoupling” between the political turmoil that accompanies the politically charged investigations and the focused mindset of a prosecutor determined to just get the job done.
“Here we were, conducting a criminal investigation with national security overtones in a way that practically made the front page of every newspaper” every day, Laufman declared. “And all we could do was keep doing what we knew had to be done.” to be done: obtain all the relevant facts necessary to make judgments about the appropriateness of recommending criminal charges.”
He said he believed investigators working at Mar-a-Lago have behaved in the same way, praising their professionalism amid public pressure and even concerns about his personal safety.
In the Clinton case, Comey has said that he considered recommending a special prosecutor to lead the investigation, though he ultimately did not. The option of a specially appointed prosecutor reporting to Garland also exists here, in the same way that the Trump administration’s Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the investigation into possible coordination of Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia.
It’s unclear how seriously Garland would take that. A department spokesman declined to comment.
Politics aside, in the long run much will depend on the strength of the Justice Department’s arguments when it comes to deciding whether or not to file an indictment.
“If the government’s arguments are exceptionally strong, I think the rule of law will carry a predominant weight in the attorney general’s analysis,” Laufman said.
Eric Tucker is on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP
This story was originally published on November 21, 2022 6:35 p.m.
Source: El Nuevo Herald