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Not What an Innocent Person Does
As Trump testifies today in his New York civil fraud trial, he reminds us that an innocent defendant acts differently than a corrupt and arrogant man who believes the law does not apply to him
Amid the ongoing flood of legal activity involving the criminal and civil defendant Donald J. Trump, you’ve probably forgotten this gem of a moment. The day after he was charged with 13 felony counts in Georgia, he put out a grand announcement of his intention to prove his innocence.
On Monday, August 14, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indicted Trump and 18 co-defendants for “a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in the favor of Trump.”
The next day, Trump blasted out this on his Truth Social platform: “A Large, Complex, Detailed but Irrefutable REPORT on the Presidential Election Fraud which took place in Georgia is almost complete & will be presented by me at a major News Conference at 11:00 A.M. on Monday of next week in Bedminster, New Jersey.” He added, “Based on the results of this CONCLUSIVE Report, all charges should be dropped against me & others - There will be a complete EXONERATION! They never went after those that Rigged the Election. They only went after those that fought to find the RIGGERS!"
Typical, nonsensical bombast, ramped up to be heard in every corner of Crazytown, with the promise of a media spectacle the following week. Except that “major News Conference” never happened.
Two days later, Trump canceled the release of the report that would provide “Irrefutable & Overwhelming evidence” of election fraud and irregularities and, therefore, prove his innocence. He had ostensibly followed his lawyers’ advice and decided to hold his blockbuster information for legal filings. As former prosecutor and legal analyst Andrew Weissmann wryly put it, the canceled presser was no “shocker.” Rather, “The only shock is he listened to his lawyers this time.”
Every defendant in America deserves the presumption of innocence in a court of law until proven guilty. That includes Trump. But it’s also logical to assume that any defendant who is innocent would make a real effort to prove his or her innocence and take the chance to do so when necessary. Not Trump.
It’s always someone else’s fault with him. The system is rigged, he’s facing political persecution, crooked Joe Biden is attempting to quash the leading GOP nominee, it’s a hoax, it’s a witch hunt, the charges are fake, the judges and prosecutors are Trump haters and deranged thugs. Never is a real case made. Never does he come forward with actual facts.
Today in New York, Trump will testify in his New York civil fraud trial for significantly over-inflating the value of his and his company’s assets. His two sons, Don. Jr. and Eric, already did last week. Ivanka takes the stand on Wednesday.
It will be interesting to see if this civil proceeding is another opportunity for the self-defined “successful businessman” to plead the fifth over 440 times when questioned about his financial practices, just as he did when deposed last year by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.
During that deposition, Trump said—as per advice of counsel—he “respectfully decline[d] to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States constitution.” In a prepared statement, he also said, like a broken record playing yet again, “This whole thing is unfair” and “the greatest witch-hunt in the history of our country.” He also called James “a renegade and out of control prosecutor.”
And why did he take the fifth over and over ad nauseam? “I have absolutely no choice because the current administration and many prosecutors in this country have lost all moral and ethical bounds of decency,” he said.
In November, several months after the deposition, Trump filed suit against James because of what he said is a “relentless, pernicious, public, and unapologetic crusade” against him. He dropped that suit several months later, a day after he was fined nearly $1 million for a frivolous lawsuit against Hillary Clinton (in which he, ironically, sued her for allegedly conspiring to “weave a false narrative” during the 2016 election that Trump and his campaign were colluding with Russia).
According to the Associated Press, Trump has testified in court at least eight times since 1986 as “a football owner, casino builder and airline buyer” and as a condo seller. In that last case, in 2013, he was sued by Jacqueline Goldberg, an 87-year-old Chicago widow who felt cheated by the terms of her condo purchase at Trump’s Hotel and Condominium Tower in Chicago.
Here’s how Goldberg’s lawyer, Shelly Kulwin, recalled the defendant’s testimony. “His demeanor was calm at first, and then argumentative, defensive, off-topic, speechmaking. Exactly what he does today.” Kulwin’s advice to Judge Engoron: Trump should be admonished before he testifies that “this is not a political campaign…This is a judicial proceeding.”
(For the record, Goldberg failed to win damages. “If I didn’t win anything else,” she told The Daily Northwestern student newspaper in 2013, “at least I exposed him—his character—so that nobody else will be caught the way I was.” Alas: If only this were true.)
I wish today’s testimony were televised so the whole country could see how the man who held the highest office in our land defends himself while abusing our system of justice. But we can also assume that, if Trump knew his answers would be broadcast live, he would hype his answers and more virulently play to the court of public opinion. That would be another effort to incite his cult, making us all, once again, poorer in the process. (We can expect more of that outside the courtroom during the breaks when the cameras are rolling.)
Such legal proceedings should be an opportunity to inform and educate, to expand knowledge and serve the public’s interest—not give the criminal defendant another platform to incite violence or inflict further damage. There are multiple criminal proceedings to the months ahead, including the Georgia trial scheduled for March that will have cameras in the courtroom.
Maybe those coming attractions will be a moment for collective understanding. And if not—OK, probably not—at least the truth has a real chance of emerging. The presumption of innocence may morph into a clear finding of guilt. I’ll take that, even if the repair of damages inflicted on our justice and democratic systems still require decades of work.
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