Thursday, August 10, 2023

Something to Know - 10 August

Most of us non-lawyers view what Trump has done is wrong in so many ways, that his guilt and prosecution and subsequent punishment is a no-brainer.   However, in the world of lawyer talk, it amazes me that interpretation of laws, and arguments can be made that he may not be guilty of anything.   How is it that something so obvious can be turned upside down?   In this mock conversation between prosecution and defense, follow along with the positions of both sides:


Let's Have a Face-Off on Trump's Indictment

Aug. 10, 2023

Opinion Columnist

The latest Trump indictment is much more complicated than the first two Trump indictments and probably any indictment that would come out of Fulton County, Ga. It attacks a scheme that played out across several weeks, in several states, involving dozens of others, including Trump-allied activists, those cited as co-conspirators and G.O.P. hacks who tried to overturn the 2020 election in state after state.
I thought the best way to understand the challenges the prosecution and the defense would face before jurors and appellate judges would be to let both sides have their say — through me. Each side's factual and legal arguments will play out in hundreds of pages of briefs and countless hours of trial testimony and oral advocacy. Let me cut to the chase, arguing the primary issues without, I hope, losing too much of the complexity of the case.
Imagine two lawyers arguing their cases for you, a nonlawyer:

Prosecution: Look, I know the indictment is long — and the trial may well last for weeks — but the elevator pitch is simple. Donald Trump conspired with a number of other individuals to overturn an election that he knew he lost. That scheme included a number of elements, from deliberately lying to state legislators to defraud them into altering the results to orchestrating a fake elector scheme that cast sham Electoral College votes to threatening a state official to help Trump "find" the votes necessary to change the outcome in Georgia.

Defense: Sure, that all sounds compelling, but on closer examination, the case collapses. Let's just start with the word "knew." You're going to present evidence that a number of administration officials and others rendered an opinion that the election was fair and that Joe Biden won. We're going to present evidence that Trump received an avalanche of legal counsel to the contrary. He heard from lawyer after lawyer who told him that there may well have been decisive amounts of fraud in key swing states. Trump heard from two sets of lawyers who disagreed with each other, and he decided to follow the advice of one team of attorneys over the other. Following bad legal advice shouldn't land anyone in jail.

And you well know that each and every statute in your indictment requires a showing of criminal intent. For example, your most attention-grabbing count — 18 U.S.C. Section 241 — which protects the right to vote from criminal conspiracies, requires proving my client possessed "the intent to have false votes cast." He intended for electors to cast true votes, in his favor.

You also know that the viability of two other counts — obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding — "hangs on by a thread," in the words of Lawfare's Saraphin Dhanani. The statute itself is poorly written and may not even apply to Trump's conduct, and the intent requirement may be more strenuous than you believe. After all, in an appeals court ruling upholding a verdict against a Jan. 6 defendant, Judge Justin Walker wrote in his concurrence that to prove corrupt intent, you don't just have to prove a defendant knew he was obtaining an unlawful benefit but also that obtaining that unlawful benefit was his "objective" or "purpose."
Good luck making that case. Trump's objective was to expose fraud.

Prosecution: The people you call Trump's lawyers, we call his co-conspirators. A number of the people that you say Trump relied on weren't providing legal counsel in good faith; they were scheming right along with him to commit crimes. And you don't have to trust my word on that. Look at court cases and bar actions. Several of Trump's co-conspirators have been fined by courts and now face the potential loss of their law licenses because of the advice they gave.
In fact, "advice" is the wrong word. Lawyers aren't fined and disbarred for giving good-faith legal advice. But co-conspirators are punished for breaking the law.

Moreover, you might fool Trump supporters, but you won't fool the jury. Proving intent is not nearly as difficult as you're telling the public. Defendants lie about their intentions all the time, and juries are fully capable of seeing through those lies. We're going to show the jury that every credible official gave Trump the same advice, and we're going to show that Trump thought at least some of his allies' advice was "crazy" and that he thought Mike Pence was "too honest." Cassidy Hutchinson told the House Jan. 6 committee that Trump told his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, something like, "I don't want people to know we lost, Mark. This is embarrassing. Figure it out. We need to figure it out. I don't want people to know that we lost."
The man wasn't trying to expose fraud. He was committing fraud.

Defense: You believe that Trump told Pence he was too honest? Or that he said Sidney Powell's case was crazy? Your witnesses are lying. He never said Pence was too honest.

Prosecution: So you're telling me that Trump is going to take the stand and deny those statements to the jury? And then I get to cross-examine him?
Defense: I'll get back to you on that.

Prosecution: And don't get me started on that First Amendment defense I've watched you make on Fox News. First-year law students learn, as a former federal prosecutor told The Times, "there is no First Amendment privilege to commit crimes just because you did it by speaking." Look at the indictment again. We acknowledge that Trump had the right to challenge the election and to file all those absurd lawsuits. We're not indicting him for any of that. We're not even indicting him simply for lying. We know that politicians have lied about elections practically since the founding of this country. We're indicting him for entering into conspiracies, and we both know there is no First Amendment privilege to conspire to cast false electoral votes. Courts have heard cases involving fraud and conspiracies against rights — including voting rights — for decades, and the First Amendment doesn't shield proven conspirators from criminal liability.
Defense: So we're talking about court precedents now, are we? The key precedents you cite are old. The most important Supreme Court precedent involving conspiracies against rights was written by Thurgood Marshall. Let's just say that his jurisprudence is out of fashion with the court's conservative majority.

In reality, the Supreme Court has been busy narrowing the reach of federal fraud statutes. If you haven't read National Review's editorial about the case, I'd urge you to read it now. Fraud statutes are designed to prevent citizens from swindling the government out of money or tangible property. The obstruction statute is designed to stop witness tampering or destruction of evidence, not to stop litigants from making bad legal arguments about election fraud. And the conspiracy-against-rights count applies a Reconstruction-era statute that was designed to, as National Review argues, "punish violent intimidation and forcible attacks" against Black Americans who tried to vote.
In other words, even if you prove the facts of your case, the statutes just don't apply.

Prosecution: Yes, I've read the National Review editorial, but might I direct you to the former prosecutor Ken White's comprehensive response? The bottom line is that you're describing what you want the law to be, not what the law is. For example, your arguments about the fraud count don't apply to the actual fraud statute we charged. Moreover, National Review's interpretation of the law conflicts with court precedent that's more than a century old.
In 1910 the court wrote that the definition of a conspiracy to defraud the United States "is broad enough in its terms to include any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government."
I know you don't think that Section 1512, the obstruction statute, applies to this case, but the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld our broader interpretation just this April — in a case you already cited, by the way. You're banking on the Supreme Court disagreeing with a decision rendered by a circuit court majority that included a judge who once clerked for Brett Kavanaugh.
As for Section 241, which prohibits a "conspiracy against rights," once again our interpretation of the statute is supported by generations of precedent. A review of relevant case law takes us from a series of critical cases in the 1930s to the 1974 Supreme Court opinion I talked about earlier and to a conviction this year of a man named Douglass Mackey. He engineered a scheme to deceive Hillary Clinton voters into "voting" by text message rather than casting an actual, legal ballot. His scheme wasn't violent or forcible, but it was certainly illegal.

Look, lawyers make good-faith arguments to reverse or revise precedent all the time. Sometimes those arguments succeed. But you need to tell your client that the existing case law is on my side, not yours, and if he is resting his defense on the Supreme Court coming to his aid, you might want to remind him that even the justices he appointed rejected or refused to hear his legal arguments many times before.

: There's a Supreme Court case you failed to mention, McDonnell v. United States. I know it doesn't involve the statutes at issue here, but the case shows the Roberts court's desire to narrow broad criminal statutes. A unanimous Supreme Court threw out the conviction of the former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell on the grounds that the lower courts had construed the term "official act" too broadly in a bribery case. This is a clear indication that the Supreme Court is looking to limit, not expand, the interpretation of federal criminal statutes.
Also, remember the rule of lenity? When a law is unclear or ambiguous, the benefit of the doubt goes to the defendant, not the government. And again, this is a principle embraced by justices across the ideological spectrum. This term, the court used the rule of lenity to rule in favor of a defendant in a Bank Secrecy Act case, and Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Neil Gorsuch were in lock step agreement. I can read the judicial signs, and the signs point toward narrowing the law.

Prosecution: We're not applying new or novel interpretations to criminal law. Every single count is supported not just by the text but also by a vast amount of precedent. You say the age of our precedent is a problem. I say it's an advantage. The law has already been interpreted. It is already clear. There is no legal ambiguity in casting fake electoral votes or in utilizing clear threats of criminal prosecution to try to coerce state officials to change the outcome of an election.
Your best legal argument rests on what the law might be. Our legal argument rests on what the law actually is. You need to disrupt American law to prevail. We simply need to persuade a conservative court to remain conservative, to follow its instincts to resist radical change.

Defense: We've not yet begun to fight. I've barely scratched the surface of your proof problems. Your indictment might fool Democrats and those Never Trump traitors, but it doesn't fool me. For example, in Paragraph 66 of the indictment, you say that "fraudulent electors convened sham proceedings" to cast "fraudulent electoral ballots" at the "direction" of Trump.
But that's a conclusory statement. Where is the actual evidence that he was in command of that process and not one of his lawyers and allies? You're making a big, bold claim, and that's going to require big, bold evidence. And that indictment just doesn't deliver the goods.

Prosecution: The indictment describes in detail Trump's intimate cooperation with his co-conspirators. Are you arguing they were acting on their own? That Trump was just a bystander to the fraudulent efforts on his behalf? Trump was so involved in the effort to overturn the election that he made calls. He said Georgia's secretary of state and legal counsel faced a "big risk" of criminal prosecution if they (as we said in our indictment) "failed to find election fraud as he demanded." He called the Republican National Committee chairwoman to put the fake electors plan in motion. Yes, Trump had free-agent allies who tried to help him steal the election, but none of the co-conspirators were free agents. They were all his partners in crime. Besides, as you well know, this indictment is the summary of our evidence, not the sum total of our evidence. Not only do we possess the evidence sufficient to make that claim; the grand jury is still at work.

I think this exercise spotlights the most important issues, for now. Both sides have barely begun to fight, and the public has barely begun to consider the full range of evidence and arguments in the case.

Moreover, this piece doesn't deal at all with the effect of the prosecution on the body politic. On Tuesday, The Times published a compelling piece by a Harvard Law School professor, Jack Goldsmith, warning of the consequences of prosecuting a former president during an election campaign.
My view is that the American government faces greater risks if prosecutors don't try to punish Trump for his coup attempt. As I wrote on the day of the indictment, it's necessary to prosecute Trump on these facts — not because a conviction is inevitable but because our nation cannot set a precedent that presidents enjoy a zone of impunity for their misconduct that no other citizen enjoys.
I wouldn't just be comfortable bringing this case to a jury; I'd be eager to make my argument. But I'd also know that Trump's legal team has its own defenses, and it's far from certain that a judge or a jury will agree with the prosecution's case. But democracies aren't sustained without risk, and prosecuting Trump is a risk our nation needs to take.


Q. What is the difference between a law-abiding gun owner and a criminal?

A.  The .2 of a second that it takes to pull a trigger.

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