Despite the nakedly disingenuous “witch hunt” posturing from Republicans, honest observers can agree on one thing: The Department of Justice has been ridiculously lenient towards Donald Trump in the stolen classified documents case.
As Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, noted in a recent statement, the Justice Department granted “Mr. Trump the time and opportunity to avoid charges that would not generally have been afforded to others.”
“To the extent that political considerations influenced the DOJ’s handling of the case,” Eric Levitz of New York wrote earlier this week, “they led the department to extend Trump extraordinary opportunities to extricate himself from legal peril so as to avoid the politically inflammatory spectacle of his prosecution.” Levitz contrasts Trump’s situation with the recent case of Defense Department researcher Asia Janay Lavarello, who plead guilty and got three months for taking documents home for work, even though, unlike Trump, she didn’t show them to anyone and returned them promptly.
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It’s hard to imagine anyone less deserving of special consideration than Trump, a man who literally tried to overthrow the U.S. government. And yet, he refuses to be grateful for the unearned mercy he enjoys. Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise, “wanted to quietly approach Justice to see if he could negotiate a settlement that would preclude charges” by agreeing to give the documents back. Kise saw that the Justice Department was bending over backward to give Trump an out and wanted to take it. Trump, however, “was not interested after listening to other lawyers who urged a more pugilistic approach.”
Trump’s quality measure of legal advice still seems to be “does this flatter my ego?” and not “is this person speaking with my best interest at heart?”
Trump had paid Kise $3 million up front to be his lawyer, but instead preferred the advice of Tom Fitton, a conspiracy theorist and right-wing activist who runs a group called Judicial Watch. Fitton is, and this cannot be underscored enough, a joke. His organization spent Barack Obama’s presidency filing lawsuits accusing Obama of faking his birth certificate. Under Fitton, Judicial Watch has been obsessively anti-science, filing nuisance lawsuits claiming climate change is a hoax and backing anti-vaccine disinformation.
Fitton’s “advice” deserves scare quotes, as Fitton is not actually Trump’s attorney. Fitton’s priorities are raising money and stoking conspiracy theories, not protecting Trump. So of course he wants Trump to get belligerent with federal authorities. The more legal risks Trump takes, the more fodder for Fitton’s propaganda-and-fundraising apparatus. If Trump goes to jail, it’s even better for Fitton, who will use Trump as a martyr in fundraising emails for Judicial Watch. Unsurprisingly, Fitton is still goading Trump into more legal trouble, by giving interviews unsubtly encouraging Trump to defy the judge’s orders not to talk about the case with witnesses. Judicial Watch probably already has a draft email ready to ask for money if Trump gets cited for contempt of court.
To be clear, it doesn’t take any special talent to manipulate Trump in this way. Trump is a sociopathic narcissist, so all it really takes is flattering him with a tale about how he’s special and the rules that govern everyone else don’t apply to him. Certainly, the House Select Committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection was able to demonstrate that, during his two-month effort to steal the 2020 election, Trump was waist-deep in a river of imbecilic legal advice provided by people whose main interest was to engage in a fascist coup.
Trump’s ego has grown past his capacity for self-preservation. If justice finally comes for him, we all have his “yes men” to thank for it.
The car full of clown lawyers Trump relied on during that time have since become nationally famous. You have Rudy Giuliani, who was once known as the former mayor of New York City but is now mostly known for his hair dye-streaked vodka sweats during one of his innumerable press conferences of 2020. Or Sidney Powell, the wild-eyed attorney whose on-airs lies about voting machines led to Fox News paying Dominion Voting Systems over $787 million in a defamation settlement. Or John Eastman, whose famous broad-brimmed hat is almost as stupid as his asinine legal theory that state election results are more suggestions than commands.
As the January 6 committee also demonstrated, Trump did get good legal advice throughout his attempted coup, like from lawyer Pat Cipollone, who discouraged Trump’s belief that he could simply throw out existing electoral college voters and replace them with fake electors. But Trump liked the clown car of lawyers better. As was laid out in one memorable House hearing, Trump spent much of the night of December 8, 2020, pitting people like Powell, Giuliani and Eastman against actual White House counsel. Trump kept hyping his “yes men” to his real lawyers, who had the unenviable task of telling him that, no, you can’t just steal an election. The “yes men” (and woman) convinced Trump that they just needed to stop the electoral count certification in order to make the scheme work, which is why he incited the riot of January 6.
It’s worth noting that all three of these nose-honking lawyers have faced serious professional consequences for their role in the plot. All three are facing challenges to their continued right to practice law, and things aren’t looking great for Giuliani or Eastman on that front. Giuliani and Powell are facing a barrage of defamation lawsuits, which they seem much likelier to lose after the Fox News settlement. And Trump isn’t out of the woods, either. Special prosecutor Jack Smith’s grand jury investigation into the attempted coup is ongoing, and experts increasingly believe it’s just a matter of time before indictments for that crime come down on Trump, and possibly his co-conspirators.
Trump, however, has learned nothing. His quality measure of legal advice still seems to be “does this flatter my ego?” and not “is this person speaking with my best interest at heart?” Trump has been out all week rejecting the legal advice offered by his actual attorneys, and instead insisting that Fitton’s false assurances and non-advice are “the law.” He even is perpetuating conspiracy theories about the Clintons he clearly picked up from Fitton, even though they are utterly irrelevant and will do him no good in court.
As many have been pointing out, often with no small amount of frustration, Trump has skated by on his power and privilege in ways that frankly make a mockery out of the judicial system. If anyone else had committed even a fraction of the crimes he has, they’d be in prison already. That a federal indictment came down is, frankly, a minor miracle. But, as Romney said, “Mr. Trump brought these charges upon himself.” All he needed to do was to wean himself off his addiction to “yes men” long enough to listen to a real lawyer giving good counsel. But Trump’s ego has grown past his capacity for self-preservation. If justice finally comes for him, we all have his “yes men” to thank for it.
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