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Trump's outlandish defense: He is still president
It's ludicrous, but his Fox interview showed how he will try to use the Big Lie to sway public opinion--and at least one Florida juror--to prove he's innocent.
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Donald Trump gave an interview to Brett Baier on Fox News that was, according to Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, "incoherent, incriminating, and stupid," as well as "idiotic." Many other commentators expressed that they can’t quite believe that Trump is giving interviews at all and, like Scarborough, stated that his own words will be used against him. Some legal experts called it a "colossal blunder" and "preposterous."
This was based on Trump actually publicly admitting to Baier that he did indeed take classified documents to Mar-a-Lago, refused to return them, and obstructed the FBI’s investigation, including by having aides move the boxes around to hide them.
But while the commentators’ statements may be true if applied to just about every other criminal defendant, I believe they’re overlooking the unique facts of this particular defendant: He’s a former president with a big cult following—and certainly is a well-known public figure who is known to every potential juror—who’s convinced the majority of Republicans that he won the 2020 election.
He also has few choices because of the very powerful case the government has made against him, which, in the case of other defendants charged with similar crimes, has led to considerable prison time.
So his defense, using the Big Lie, is that he is still president, since, in his warped narrative, he never lost the election, and that the boxes of files are his and that he has every right to have them—or at least he is attempting to convince people that he truly believes that. As Luke Zaleski, Legal Affairs Editor at Condé Nast, observed, “There’s no more probable explanation” for Trump’s refusal to return the documents than that he “wants to conflate himself with the office of the presidency to such a degree in public as to essentially drive his supporters to insist he’s president for life and the law doesn’t apply to him.”
That would clearly apply to his defense as well. Thus, what seems like an "admission" or "incriminating" is, to him, a strategy (even if it’s risky) that he believes will get him out of this.
Trump has in fact referred to the boxes of documents over and over as "my boxes,” which he simply moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago. He told Baier, "The only way NARA [the National Archives and Records Administration] could ever get this stuff back would be, Please, please, please, could we get them back?" This is meant to imply that the documents were his to take and that NARA needed to request them—politely—and that it was his decision to send them back or not. That is, of course, completely false because the documents are the government’s, not his. And NARA did ask for them back, as Baier pointed out.
And when Baier asked on Fox why Trump didn’t "hand them over" when NARA demanded them back, including after getting a subpoena, Trump responded (bold added for emphasis):
Because I had uh boxes. I wanted to go through the boxes and get all my personal things out. I don't want to hand that over to NARA yet.
And I was very busy, as you've sort of seen. I've been very, very busy.
Busy doing what? Fighting to prove he actually won the 2020 election, asserting himself as the president-in-exile, and working to be re-elected president in 2024 (or rather, returned to power in the White House).
When asked why, according to the indictment, he had aides move the boxes, hiding them from his own lawyers and the FBI, Trump responded:
Before I send boxes, I have to send all of my things over. These boxes were interspersed with all sorts of things. Golf shirts. Clothing. Pants. Shoes. There were many things.
Again, completely ludicrous, as the boxes were demanded back in early 2021 and Trump was still hiding them in mid-2022, claiming he was still going through them.
But the point he’s really trying to make to his base is: I don’t need to follow what NARA or anyone else says—or be on their timetable—as these are my boxes and I’m still the president. "I have every right to have those boxes," he said to Baier, and later in the interview he again pushed the Big Lie:
First of all, I won in 2020 by a lot.
They were counting ballots, not the authenticity of the ballot. The ballots were fake ballots.
The ballots were fake ballots.
Trump did admit at one point, "I wasn’t president," when Baier asked him about the recording to which the indictment refers, in which Trump said, "I could have declassified it [when I was president]" regarding a document he’d allegedly held up to a group at Bedminster to whom he wanted to show the document. (He claimed to Baier that it wasn’t actually a classified document but rather a bunch of news clippings, which makes no sense, as it wouldn’t be classified.)
This was also seen by pundits and commentators as a moment in which Trump incriminated himself. And clearly, he notes that he "wasn’t president."
But to the MAGA base, that is just semantic, and Trump always telegraphs that to them. He "wasn’t president" according to the Deep State, the Elites, the Crooked Democratic Establishment, the Corrupt Judges, the Dishonest Media, etc. But to them and to him, he was and is president—and he had every right to have those documents and return them at his own will—and thus couldn’t be irresponsible with the documents, even if they were in a bathroom or a ballroom, because he’s the president.
Will this work for Trump? It already has with the GOP base, as polls show a majority believe the indictment is corrupt. He’s not seen any loss in his continued surge in the GOP nominating contest. So in terms of his base, using the Big Lie is definitely the best defense Trump has. It’s unlikely to carry him in a general election, but he’s relying on the GOP doing its best to suppress Democratic votes while ramping up the MAGA base to turn out.
Regarding the criminal trial, however, it’s not a defense by any stretch and would backfire big time if there is truly an impartial jury.
But an impartial jury is easier said than done. All there has to be is one person in the Trump cult on that jury for Trump to get off on these charges. He’s a defendant everyone knows and has opinions about. That’s why Special Counsel Jack Smith and the Justice Department, also contending with Judge Aileen Cannon, who has been biased toward Trump, have got to make sure the jury isn’t tainted in a trial that Cannon has now scheduled to begin in August.
No one should think it’s a slam dunk, particularly after Trump speaks and seems to incriminate himself. That’s just Trump using a major media platform, doing his best to lock in a narrative for voters and for potential jurors.
It’s too easy—and feels too good—to listen to pundits say Trump just destroyed himself. And how many times have we heard that? None of us should let our guard down to the dangers and deception of Trump and the MAGA cult.