How To Convict Trump
It has been expected for months, but the reality of it is no less staggering: The special counsel Jack Smith has brought seven federal charges against Donald Trump. It is the first time in our nation’s history that a former president has been indicted on federal charges, and among Mr. Trump’s many legal problems, it has the greatest likelihood of a pre-election conviction.
The prosecution follows a long investigation into Mr. Trump’s possession of hundreds of classified documents and other presidential records at his private club in Florida and elsewhere after he left office. It poses unique challenges, and not only because the defendant is a former president who is running for re-election in an already tense political environment.
Prosecutors will have to reckon with the challenge of publicly trying a case that involves some of our nation’s most highly classified secrets.
Furthermore, this case will inevitably have to be coordinated for scheduling purposes with the case against Mr. Trump by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, as well as potential future charges in Fulton County, Ga., and perhaps by Mr. Smith related to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Still, from what we know of the charges and publicly available evidence, Mr. Smith appears to have the upper hand with a compelling case. But the potential for conviction and actually winning a jury verdict are two very different things — particularly against the notoriously combative and slippery former president. To secure a conviction, Mr. Smith will have to overcome four significant hurdles.
Keep things simple
Over two years (and counting), the case unfolded in twists and turns that have dipped into and out of a dizzying whirl of topics: the administration of presidential documents, delicate aspects of national security, classification and declassification of documents, special counsel regulations, the spectacle of a search warrant being executed by F.B.I. agents on the luxury resort of a former president and the legally dubious appointment of a special master by a rogue Florida district court judge.
But for all that chaos and confusion, Mr. Smith’s job is straightforward. He must cut through it all and make clear to the jury that this case is about two simple things: First, a former president took documents containing some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, which he was no more entitled to remove than the portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin hanging on the walls of the Oval Office. Second, when he was caught, he persistently made up excuses, lied and tried to cover up his behavior, which he continues to do.
Mr. Trump took about 13,000 government documents, among them over 300 documents with classified markings, with some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, reportedly containing secrets about Iran’s missile program, foreign nuclear issues, China and the leadership of France.
By doing so, Mr. Trump put our national security at risk. When we consider these documents, we see not only paper but also the U.S. and allied human assets who gather our secrets and do so to keep America and the world safe. By putting this sensitive information in highly insecure circumstances, Mr. Trump put our nation, our allies and all of us as individuals in jeopardy.
The indictment reportedly includes seven charges, related to willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The evidence a jury hears at trial must be organized around a simple theory of the case and streamlined into the form of readily understandable and convincing proof. Fortunately for Mr. Smith, everything we know about the case provides ample support for an easily digestible one-two narrative punch of Mr. Trump taking documents that didn’t belong to him and then lying about it to cover up his misdeeds.
The Trump defense
One usual challenge that may not be much of a hurdle is Mr. Trump’s defenses. His claim that he can declassify documents “even by thinking about it” is inimical to applicable law. And his claim that the Presidential Records Act gives him a right to attempt to keep these documents flies in the face of the statute.
The justifications Mr. Trump has so far advanced are so thin and so inconsistent that we expect Mr. Smith will get an order from the judge that they are frivolous and may not be argued to the jury unless Mr. Trump introduces competent evidence to support them. (He most likely can’t.)
These cases are so hard to defend that the usual approach is to plead guilty. That’s what other prominent defendants, such as the former Central Intelligence Agency directors John Deutch and David Petraeus, agreed to when caught with mishandling classified documents. (Mr. Deutch was pardoned before the charges were filed.) But Mr. Trump’s case is unique because of his characteristic refusal to ever admit wrongdoing. It’s nearly impossible to imagine him standing up in a courtroom in a plea deal and saying that he is guilty.
By charging the case in the Southern District of Florida, the special counsel has wisely pre-empted one other potential defense: improper venue. The rule is that a case must be brought where the “essential conduct” took place, and here there was an argument for Washington, D.C., as an alternative, one with possibly friendlier juries for Mr. Smith. But there is potentially much at stake on the proper selection of venue: This term, the Supreme Court is deciding a case that looks at whether the price of selecting the wrong venue could be dismissal of the charges and prevention of prosecuting the offense again.
The clock is ticking
Mr. Smith’s third hurdle is time. He will have to battle the clock. On the one hand, he has to ensure that Mr. Trump, like any defendant, has sufficient time to file motions challenging the charges and evidence and time to prepare for trial. The robust materials the government is required to provide to a defendant in discovery must be turned over promptly so the government does not extend the clock.
Special attention is required by Mr. Smith here because the case involves classified evidence. That means the court will probably have to deal with motions under the Classified Information Procedures Act. These rules create avenues for the government to prosecute the case and protect classified information without having a defendant graymail the government with the risk of public disclosure.
But because this case is in Florida, where the act is rarely used, rather than in the District of Columbia, where it is invoked more commonly, prosecutors will have to contend with a judge who may not have experience with these intricate issues. There is also the strong likelihood the government will be forced to seek other protective orders as well, as we saw New York Supreme Court Justice Juan M. Merchan impose in the Manhattan case, to prevent Mr. Trump from using material obtained in discovery to intimidate or retaliate against witnesses or otherwise misuse discovery materials.
American voters are entitled to a determination of Mr. Trump’s guilt at a trial. Ideally, that will happen before the presidential nominating process, but at a minimum, it must take place before the general election. That can be done while ensuring that the defendant has his day in court, with full due process rights to seek to be cleared of charges against him — or not, given the strength of the evidence against him.
Persuade the American public
Mr. Smith can educate the public in court filings that the charges are merited. He should follow the lead of the special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who held a news conference to explain his case directly to the American public during Watergate. In October 1973, as tensions were coming to a boil, with Mr. Cox having issued a grand jury subpoena for the incriminating Oval Office tapes of President Richard Nixon, the special prosecutor rejected a compromise offer from the White House to have a senator listen to the tapes and verify White House-drafted summaries. Mr. Cox chose to make a detailed presentation to the press and explain to the American people why he was seeking a ruling from the Supreme Court that he was entitled to the White House tapes and would not settle for a cherry-picked summary.
Mr. Smith can make a public statement explaining, without straying from the four corners of the indictment, why the charges against Mr. Trump are consistent with — indeed, required by — previous Justice Department cases in which many defendants were charged in similar or even less egregious factual scenarios.
It is impossible to overstate how essential it will be for Mr. Smith to overcome these hurdles and persuade the trial jury and the American people that whether they like the former president or not, whether they voted for him in the past or intend to vote for him again, he committed serious criminal acts. The consequence of doing that would be nothing short of affirmation of the rule of law in this country. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.
Norman Eisen was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the first impeachment and trial of Donald Trump and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Andrew Weissmann, a senior prosecutor in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, is a professor at N.Y.U. School of Law. Joyce Vance, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and the author of the newsletter Civil Discourse, was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 2009 to 2017.
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