‘You can see the terror’: Trump’s tough guy posture over indictment isn’t fooling these insiders
Ever since Donald Trump predicted he’d be placed under arrest last week, America has been on tenterhooks.
Every single New York City police officer was ordered to report to work in full uniform to deal with possible civil disturbances from Mr Trump’s fans in the event his prediction were to come true. And some, but not many, of the twice-impeached ex-president’s supporters showed up to protest outside the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the man who has now become be the first prosecutor to ever obtain an indictment against a former president for his investigation into a 2016 hush money scheme to keep adult film actress Stormy Daniels from spilling the beans about a decade-old liaison before voters went to the polls.
A Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Mr Trump on Thursday 30 March.
Recent reporting in The New York Times and other outlets noted that the former president has said he relishes the idea of being arrested and paraded before the press in a “perp walk” spectacle because he believes it will juice his support in the Republican presidential primary and solidify his chances of returning to the White House after next year’s general election.
But multiple people who have been close to Mr Trump in the past and understand his way of thinking say the confidence he projects in interviews and in public appearances belies a complete inability to grasp what it means for him to become a defendant in a criminal case.
These former Trumpworld insiders told The Independent the ex-president’s decades of evading responsibility for his actions and his past ability to neutralise legal jeopardy with a combination of bluster and litigation tactics has left him incredibly ill-equipped for what lies ahead of him now that the Mahattan grand jury has votes for an indictment.
One such ex-insider is Mary Trump, the bestselling author and trained clinical psychologist who happens to be Mr Trump’s niece.
Dr Trump, who in her 2020 tell-all Too Much and Never Enough said her uncle’s “pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for,” told The Independent in a phone interview that the bravado he might be presenting to receptive journalists will vanish once he is actually charged with a crime. Dr Trump spoke to The Independent ahead of the charges against the former president.
“I think a large part of what he does is that he preamps and he deflects … his ego is very, very fragile, and much of what he does is in service to protecting it, and one of the greatest dangers for him is to be humiliated,” she said.
She also called reports that her uncle relishes the idea of a perpwalk “absurd”.
“I don't care who you are, that's an incredibly vulnerable place to be. And it's not like they walk you through it, and then you can decide [you] don't want to do this. There's no agency there, it will be the most vulnerable and powerless … he's probably ever been in his life,” she said. “And last, I checked, being fingerprinted, and having your mugshot taken is not a sign of strength”.
Given Mr Trump’s status as an ex-president and his full-time Secret Service protective detail, the experience of being charged with a crime won’t be the same as your average criminal defendant. While he’ll still be fingerprinted and photographed, it’s unlikely that he’ll be placed in handcuffs, and his attorneys have already indicated that he’ll voluntarily present himself to New York authorities after charges rather than force an extradition fight in Florida courts.
Still, Dr Trump said her uncle’s psychological disposition makes it impossible for him to understand that the charges against him are real, rather than just something political that can be willed away with sheer bluster.
“Part of the problem for him right now, is that there's this extent to which this is all incomprehensible,” she said.
She noted that for many of his foes, it has always appeared as if the “walls are closing in” on him and accountability is just around the corner, only to see him slip away from being called to account for his behaviour. She added that his ability to evade consequences has left him ill-prepared for what is to come.
“He has to prepare for something he’s never experienced before. It’s alien to him, and it also embodies the one thing that is the most terrifying to him — being humiliated. But on the other hand, he can’t possibly process that it’s going to happen because it’s never happened. So he’s at a real deficit right now,” she said.
That Mr Trump has spent decades avoiding becoming embroiled in criminal prosecutions is beyond dispute. That ability to evade the law’s reach was supercharged during his presidency by a longstanding Department of Justice policy forbidding federal indictments of sitting presidents, which is why the special counsel who investigated his campaign’s contacts with the Russian government, ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller, twisted himself in knots in his written report and congressional testimony on the matter of whether the then-president obstructed justice by trying to thwart the investigation in multiple ways.
But Mr Trump is no longer president, and despite suggestions by Republicans in the House of Representatives that it’s somehow improper to charge a former president or presidential candidate with a crime, the shield from accountability he once enjoyed has vanished.
Multiple federal courts have also made clear in recent weeks that his attempts to claim some form of executive privilege to keep former aides from testifying before a pair of federal grand juries overseen by Mr Smith aren’t worth much under Supreme Court precedents dating back to the Watergate era.
George Conway, the conservative attorney who Mr Trump once asked to run the Justice Department’s civil division, told The Independent Mr Trump’s supposed eagerness to become a martyr by facing indictments is “complete bulls***”.
“You can see the terror in his Truth Social posts — he is absolutely out of his mind about this. And it may turn out that he does want to make a spectacle of it in order to rally his troops to appear tough. It will look weak for him to be hauled into court in handcuffs. So, you know, he's got a lose-lose proposition,” he said.
Mr Conway, who gained significant notoriety as a critic of the ex-president while his then-wife Kellyanne Conway was serving as a senior aide to Mr Trump, said usual tactics of delay and intimidation that the ex-president has deployed in civil proceedings are not going to fly when the ex-president is on the wrong end of a criminal case against him.
The veteran litigator also noted that as a criminal defendant, Mr Trump will have to deal with something else he’s never before encountered — a judge with the power to impose conditions of pre-trial release that could limit his ability to travel and speak freely about his case, or even take his freedom entirely should he decide to flout any restrictions that are imposed on him.
While both New York and the federal court system default to releasing defendants before trial, a judge’s decision to release a defendant almost always comes with conditions.
In the federal system, this means Mr Trump will almost certainly be required to notify courts of his travel schedule in advance, and he may possibly need permission to travel.
One person who spoke with The Independent about the ex-president’s mindset — a former associate who enjoyed a close relationship with the Trump family for years but who asked not to be named because of Mr Trump’s tendency to lash out and send his followers after his critics — said it will be nigh-impossible for the former president to abide by even the most lenient conditions because he doesn’t understand the law like normal people.
The former Trump family confidante said Mr Trump’s moral compass is so non-existent that he can’t fathom how and why a judge would be able to tell him what to do, what he can and can’t say, or where he can go.
Add to that the ex-president’s contempt for the very idea that he would be held to account by prosecutors in the first place, and you get a high probability that Mr Trump ends up on the wrong side of a gag order — or worse.
Mr Conway, who spent most of his career practicing law in New York courts, told The Independent it would take “a certain amount of courage” on the part of whatever jurist is assigned Mr Trump’s case to keep him from using his usual tactics of intimidation and bluster to poison any potential jury pool and incite his supporters against prosecutors, jurors, or even the courts.
But he said there are judges who are fully capable of dealing with the ex-president’s conduct, citing the example of the New York federal judge who recently issued an order permitting the jury in writer E Jean Carroll’s defamation and rape lawsuits against Mr Trump to remain anonymous.
That judge, Lewis Kaplan, is “not taking any crap” in Ms Carroll’s lawsuit, he said, adding that Judge Kaplan or someone like him would be the “perfect” candidate to hear any case against the ex-president.
“I think that in order to keep this guy under control, from fomenting violence, a judge is going to have to show some real cojones,” he said, while still balancing the former president’s First Amendment rights with the need to protect the integrity of the court system.
“Because he's a criminal defendant, and [he] can affect that the jury, a judge can muzzle [him] … but it’s a very tricky position.”
Each of the former Trump associates who spoke to The Independent agreed that it’s entirely possible that the former president’s quickest path to incarceration runs through violating a judge’s order between his indictment and trial.
But one former confidante, Mr Trump’s ex-lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, said his former client would do more than push the envelope on what he’s allowed to say and do once he’s indicted.
When reached by text message, he said Mr Trump is “incapable of processing accountability”.
“Becoming a criminal defendant and having to be processed and mug-shotted poses a direct conflict to his inflated self-image and fragile ego,” he said.
Cohen, who spent more than a year in federal custody and two more years on home confinement after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the same hush-money scheme Mr Bragg charged the ex-president over, said Mr Trump “fully understands” that his usual methods of threats, delays and shouts about alleged witch hunts aren’t working, and suggested that knowledge makes him more dangerous.
“It is the reason he has ramped up attacks on anyone and everyone he deems a threat,” he said.
The former attorney, who may be a key witness in any case Mr Bragg brings against Mr Trump, also said his former employer won’t react well to any judge placing any conditions on him. Cohen testified before the Manhattan grand jury on more than one occasion.
“Donald will play the victim and call on his supporters to protest in solidarity with him. He will lie to his supporters, grift off the situation and call for civil unrest,” he said.
“Donald would rather see the country burn than accept responsibility”.