This content comes from the latest installment of our weekly Breaking the Vote newsletter out of VICE News’ D.C. bureau, tracking the ongoing efforts to undermine the democratic process in America. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.
Did you think the Manhattan grand jury was going on hiatus? Surprise! No quiet quitting for these civic servants who sit in secret. Former President Donald Trump has been criminally indicted, apparently for actions surrounding the hush-money payments made to Stormy Daniels just before the 2016 election.
Here we go. For the first time, Trump’s claims, assertions—and yes, his lies—will have to stand up under oath, in a criminal court. His supporters on Fox and around right-wing media continue to tease violence.
I called up NYU law professor and Just Security co-editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman on Thursday to talk Manhattan DA stuff. Then news broke, so I called him back. Our chat has been edited for length.
We just talked this afternoon. Now it’s Thursday night, and I guess we’d better talk again. What do you think?
It’s momentous. Never before in American history has anything like this happened. And based on what we know of the case, I think that it was predictable that there would be this indictment.
There’s been some reporting of 34 counts, all stemming from falsified business records. If that’s the case, what would you make of it?
It suggests that they’ve probably charged these as felony counts. Felony falsifying business records just requires that the individual committed the acts with the intent to commit or conceal another crime. You don’t have to charge the second crime. And you certainly don’t have to charge it if the person didn’t follow through with it and only had the intent. So it sounds as though that’s the structure of the indictment. Thirty-four is a much bigger number than many of us anticipated.
Where would 34 charges come from?
For all we know, it’s 34 instances that come out of 11 checks, which we know were signed to Michael Cohen for reimbursements, as falsified income of legal services. And potentially each of those comes with then entering it into the Trump entity books falsely as legal services that that’s how one might get 34. Maybe it’s three times 11 checks and then the 34th one would be a conspiracy charge.
Does that tell you anything about the strength or the weakness of the case?
I think it might mean that the case is more insulated from some kinds of legal challenges (like whether a state crime can arise from federal election law), but it does suggest that there might be weaknesses in the ability to actually bring a charge for other kinds of crimes. It may be the prosecutors just being conservative, bringing what they know that they can get. And they do not need the jury to agree that these other crimes were committed. Just that there was an intent to commit them.
Some reporting says Trump will turn himself in next week. But what do you think about Ron DeSantis tweeting that he won’t participate in an arrest warrant or helping to extradite Trump, the Constitution notwithstanding?
I think it’s a terrible statement concerning the rule of law. I can’t think of another precedent, certainly in modern history in which a governor said that they would not honor an extradition from another state. If that started to happen in our country, the system would break. But it seems like the statement is made for political purposes. I think he’s just trying to signal, but the signal he’s sending is terrible.
David Pecker, the former president of American Media, Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, came in to testify in front of the grand jury. Why is David Pecker so important to this case?
Two reasons. One is in setting up the scheme to suppress stories from the women. He does potentially have the same information as Michael Cohen and he can corroborate Michael Cohen.
He needs corroboration!
Yeah. You can’t walk into court with just Michael Cohen. Then the second is there appear to be direct conversations and communications between David Pecker and Donald Trump. So that would also be potentially very powerful evidence and it’s strong rebuttal evidence. We know from the federal court records that David Pecker and his company agreed and then signed a written statement to acknowledge that it was David Pecker’s idea to create the hush money scheme, in August of 2015, right after Trump announced his run for president.
So he’s already made statements in record filings with the federal government that describe the entire scheme and the very motive directed towards the 2016 election, which is a key piece of evidence for the prosecution to have to prove.
I feel like all of this is going to be completely forgotten in a little while if obstruction charges come out of a federal grand jury investigating Mar-a-Lago, you know?
I think that’s such a good point. Six months from now we might look back and this is a footnote that pales in comparison to potential Justice Department indictments. I think it’s very likely that there’ll be a Mar-a-Lago indictment. And more likely than not something surrounding Jan. 6 as well, plus the effort to overturn the vote in Georgia. And just to add one more to the equation: There’s still a potential ongoing Manhattan DA criminal investigation into Trump’s alleged false statements to banks. That’s a much bigger financial investigation that Alvin Bragg inherited. He promised the public that he would reveal when he decided to either indict or drop the investigations. One has to presume that’s ongoing and that also might make all this pale in comparison.
It’s officially indictment season. Sign your friends up for Breaking the Vote!
Bringing the mob
Trump’s indictment is going to obscure a lot of everything else in politics for a while. It’s critical that it doesn’t obscure the incitement right-wing actors pursued after the horrific massacre at a Christian elementary school in Nashville. Rushing to fill an information vacuum, Trumpist bomb-throwers like Marjorie Taylor Greene rushed to frame the murders as “trans terrorism.” With no evidence, Tucker Carlson hammered home the idea that an entire trans movement victimized Christian innocents.
Repeated messages of grievance, victimization, and loss of identity are proven to work. They brought a violent mob on Jan. 6. We don’t yet know all the details or the shooter’s motives for the Nashville attack. Meanwhile, a trans rights protest planned for Saturday in Washington, D.C. was canceled due to what the organizers said was a credible threat of violence.
It was fascinating how, as soon as Mike Pence got summoned by federal prosecutors, Donald Trump switched gears from inciting a mob against his former veep to showering praise on him. Trump must’ve known This Week in Subpoenas could come.
- Pence’ll talky
Pence was hoping to have it both ways two weeks ago when he criticized Trump in front of the political press while simultaneously trying to avoid testifying under oath about his coup attempt. That didn’t pan out for him.
This week a federal judge ordered Pence to testify in the Special Counsel probe investigating Jan. 6 and the coup attempt, busting through both his and Trump’s attempts to claim privilege. Pence says he’s mulling whether to appeal the ruling. Still, he did win a partial victory: The judge ruled that he doesn’t have to answer questions about his actions on Jan. 6, partially supporting Pence’s claim that as president of the Senate, he was protected from being questioned under the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause.
But Pence will have to answer questions about any potentially illegal acts he witnessed before and on Jan. 6. And the executive privilege Trump was relying on to keep Pence from raising his right hand doesn’t look like it’ll apply. Here’s a pretty good thread on some of what went down as Trump and lieutenants like Rudy Giuliani tried to get at Pence and convince him to help steal the election. Meanwhile…
- Orange has appeal
Trump is appealing the ruling that blasted executive privilege and ordered former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and a bunch of other aides to testify in the grand jury investigating the coup plot. Trump filed in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit this week, trying to keep Meadows, Stephen Miller, Dan Scavino, former National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, and a bunch of others from testifying.
- Anchor, what?
Pre-trial negotiations are underway for the Dominion Voting Systems v Fox News defamation case. The $1.6 billion banger is set to start April 17 in Delaware. This week Dominion told the judge it wants to put a whole roster of Fox hosts and executives on the stand, including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Maria Bartiromo, as well as executives including Fox News chief exec Suzanne Scott and president Jay Wallace.
Dominion has previously moved to put Rupert Murdoch on the stand too, but all these asks are up for negotiation and TBD. It makes sense from Dominion’s point of view, considering all the texts and emails showing Fox hosts expressing contempt for stolen election conspiracies before promoting them on air, while executives fret that the truth is bad for Fox’s business.
Fox told me in a statement the list of potential witnesses is “needlessly expansive” and designed to “generate headlines.”
Shasta piece theater
It’s one thing for Dominion to argue that all the voting machine conspiracies hurt its business. But VICE News Tonight went to one California county where the lies have broken the locals’ brains. Welcome to Trump-voting Shasta County, where Liz Landers and producer Shrai Popat found officials bent on getting Dominion—and any voting machines, really—out of their elections, even if it costs them millions of dollars to do it.
The issue, they say, is that people don’t think the machines can be trusted. Where could they have gotten that idea?
Lest Wi. be judged
Get ready for the most important non-election-year election in America. Tuesday’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election really is such a big deal that it could decide who wins the presidency in 2024.
The race is for a new justice on the state’s 5-4 conservative majority court. Whoever’s elected is almost guaranteed to face a slew of 2024 election lawsuits in one of the nation’s closest swing states. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court is also set to decide major redistricting and abortion cases, while the state government remains split between a Dem governor and a GOP legislature protected by severe gerrymandering. So you can see urgency.
More like splurge-ency! Interest groups, campaigns, and PACs have spent more than $300 million in TV advertising alone.
“This has to stop now… This is bad business… the audience is furious.” - Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott, in a Dec. 2020 email, revealed by Dominion, complaining about a Fox reporter who’d fact-checked Trump on the air.
That’s a shaman — One of the most famous defendants of the Jan. 6 insurrection out of prison. Jacob Chansley, known as the horn-hatted QAnon Shaman, got an early release from federal prison and was transferred to a halfway house in Phoenix. Chansley pleaded guilty in Sept. 2021 to obstructing an official proceeding and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. His cartoon-character image inspired copycats across the US and around the world. Recall he was also the subject of Tucker Carlson’s first salvo of disinformation, capitalizing on Kevin McCarthy’s supply of 41,000 of security footage from Jan. 6.
Weaponization, you say? — Check out Stanford Constitutional law professor Matthew Seligman, who testified about government censorship of social media companies this week in front of the House GOP’s government weaponization committee. You can pick it up at 43:15, where Seligman gets quite on the nose about misinformation and which lawmakers have been claiming injury from it.
Constricting pupils — GOP-controlled state legislatures are happy to have out-of-state college students come and spend their money on tuition and rent. But they’ve increasingly been trying to pass laws to keep those kids from voting. The problem: College kids lean left, and they’ve been registering in droves, driven largely by climate concerns, abortion access, and Trump. One way to discourage the kids is to make sure they can no longer use student IDs to register. And while a few states have done it, efforts to block college students from the polls are hitting more and more hurdles.
American exemptionalism — All the drama around the Manhattan grand jury got House Republicans so committed to keeping Trump above the law that they say they’re now considering legislation to protect current and former presidents from prosecution. It won’t pass, but it is… revealing.