If and when Donald Trump faces criminal charges, it will thrust the country into a new type of political war over an unprecedented situation, and Republicans are already rising to the occasion. They’re signaling a willingness to deploy the full levers of their power in sordid but novel ways, to paint any prosecution as the stuff of banana republics.
Democrats will have to marshal some serious creativity in response. The extraordinary move by House Republicans to insert themselves into Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation of Trump provides Democrats with an opening to do just that.
This week, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other top Republicans sent a letter to Bragg demanding documents and testimony related to expectations that Bragg might charge Trump over a hush-money payment to a porn actress in 2016. The letter declared this an “unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority,” even though no charges have been filed.
But it’s not clear that Jordan, the Judiciary Committee chair, has thought this through. The course of action signaled by the letter — also signed by Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) — could go sideways for Republicans in unforeseen ways.
Democrats are examining whether a protracted struggle over the GOP demands of Bragg could allow them to shed light on the highly irregular nature of this GOP interference.
“This is an extreme move to use the resources of Congress to interfere with a criminal investigation at the state and local level and block an indictment,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, told me. He likened the aggressive GOP enforcement of absolute “impunity” for Trump to “the kind of political culture you find in authoritarian dictatorships.”
Republicans treat it as a given that whatever charges are filed will be illegitimate. True, some legal experts see serious complications in the case. But as New York University law professors Ryan Goodman and Andrew Weissmann detail in the New York Times, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has regularly indicted people for falsifying business records, the charges likely to be levied against Trump over reimbursements covering the hush-money payment. Not charging Trump might constitute special treatment.
And if Republicans hold hearings on any such prosecution, Raskin said, this could also allow Democrats to illuminate the charges in a high-profile venue.
“If and when there is an indictment, we will be able to reconstruct all the facts of this case in a way that makes sense to the American public,” Raskin said. The aim, he noted, would be to “show the justice process is working, and there is no call for extraordinary intervention by the U.S. Congress.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that last month, one of Trump’s lawyers personally prodded Jordan to investigate any coming prosecution. Though that doesn’t prove collaboration, congressional aides tell me Democrats will seize on any hearings to publicly grill Republicans on whether they have been communicating with Trump’s legal team and if so, how.
We’ve seen this before. During a viral moment at a recent hearing, Rep. Daniel S. Goldman (D-N.Y.) pressed Jordan directly about meetings Republican committee members held in secret, apparently revealing that Republicans had exaggerated supposedly damning info they claimed to have obtained from whistleblowers.
Hearings on charges could produce similarly charged moments. As Goldman told me, they could dramatize how Republicans are “using the official power of Congress to effectively coordinate with a criminal defendant” — Trump — to “obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation.”
Finally, what’s the long-term GOP game plan here? It’s likely Bragg will deny the GOP’s demand for documents and testimony. Republicans will then have to decide whether to issue subpoenas, which Bragg would likely resist, after which they would have to entertain holding a House vote on whether to refer that to the Justice Department.
But do vulnerable House Republicans really want to vote on a criminal referral for law enforcement, all to defend Trump from sleazy hush-money charges? It’s doubtful. Doing so could yoke the House GOP ever more tightly to Trump.
Yet as Democratic aides note, Republicans won’t have the option of standing down against Bragg. Trump allies are already beating up on Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) for offering merely qualified defenses of Trump. Republicans will face heavy pressure to maximally wield committee power to shield him, which will intensify as Trump’s legal travails deepen. Republicans have no good endgames here, provided Democrats cleverly exploit the situation.
A Trump indictment will unleash months of information warfare around a numbingly complex matter never before litigated in the public arena. Democrats sometimes undervalue the importance of sheer creativity in politics, and as ugly as the GOP response has been, Republicans are responding to unprecedented circumstances with new innovations. Democrats must meet them on that battlefield.