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Trump’s self-defense, annotated

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

(CNN) — The coming months are going to provide former President Donald Trump with the reality of campaigning from outside a courtroom.

He has, heretofore, chosen to attend various court dates. When his criminal trial in Manhattan gets under way in late March, he could conceivably have locked up the GOP nomination but will have to attend the anticipated six-week trial or ask the judge to be excused.

We got a preview of this unprecedented criminal trial mixed with a presidential campaign on Thursday at a key hearing in the New York criminal case. This time, Trump had a choice – he might also have attended a hearing in Georgia, where District Attorney Fani Willis, who is overseeing his election interference case in the state, faces allegations of misconduct related to her relationship with a prosecutor she appointed to oversee the case, a soap opera on the side of the Trump trials.

Trump routinely manipulates the media spectacle outside court by rambling on about his criminal prosecutions and his political rivals. The details vary, but the main talking points stay largely the same and are repeated on a loop: political persecution, crime-ridden cities and his strong polling.

Here’s some of what Trump said Thursday in New York before heading into the courtroom, along with context.

It’s not clear what legal scholars Trump is referring to, but he says he’s not guilty of crimes in all four of the criminal cases he’s facing. He will repeat variations of “this is not a crime” as a kind of mantra throughout these comments.

This particular case, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, relates to hush-money payments to squash three separate, negative stories before the 2016 election.

Payments were made to a former Trump Tower doorman by the parent company of the National Enquirer, American Media Inc., to buy the doorman’s story about an alleged Trump affair and Trump-fathered child. It was a “catch and kill” effort by the Enquirer, which never published the story it had bought. The Trump Organization has denied the affair allegation.

Six-figure payments were also made by AMI to “catch and kill” the story of a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who said she had an affair with Trump. He denies it.

Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen also paid $130,000 to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels through a shell company days before the 2016 presidential election. Daniels said she had an affair with Trump in 2006. Trump denies the allegation. But he compensated Cohen for the Daniels payment, and his company described the payment to Daniels as legal expenses.

Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments and served time in jail. Trump was never charged by federal prosecutors, perhaps in part because the Department of Justice has a policy of not prosecuting presidents.

The crime Trump is now accused of in New York is 34 counts of falsifying business records and misrepresenting the payments in order to influence the 2016 election.

Claiming violent crime in cites, especially those run by Democrats, is one of Trump’s favorite talking points. The idea that violent crime is at an “all-time high” is completely untrue, as CNN’s Daniel Dale wrote last October.

Crime rates have fallen since then. In data released by the New York City Police Department, rates of murder, rape, assault, burglary and car theft were all down in January 2024 compared with January 2023. Robbery and grand larceny increased. Dale pointed out in his fact check that the actual violent crime rates were much higher decades ago, when these horrible records were set.

It’s also worth noting that Trump is trying to compare his white-collar crimes with violent crimes, which seems like a false comparison. There are nonviolent crimes that are still crimes. Whether Trump is guilty will be up to a jury.

Trump often repeats this claim that his four, separate criminal trials are a coordinated “election interference” scheme. Not only does it flip the script on the fact that it is he who has been charged in state court in Georgia and federal court in Washington, DC, with election interference, but it also plays into his larger claim that anything opposed to him is part of a “witch hunt.”

It’s false and ridiculous to think that these cases are all coordinated by the Biden administration. A special counsel, Jack Smith, appointed to be autonomous from the Justice Department, is overseeing the two federal criminal prosecutions. Bragg is overseeing this hush-money prosecution. Willis is overseeing the Georgia state election case.

Anyone ranking the severity of trials against Trump would probably like to see his federal election interference trial go first on the calendar. But the judge in Manhattan has filled Trump’s calendar at the end of March, when that federal trial could theoretically have taken place. The federal trial date is on hold while the Supreme Court considers Trump’s argument that he has absolute immunity from prosecution for acts conducted while he was president.

What is this? While Trump first alleged that Biden “stuffed” the Manhattan DA’s office last year before he was indicted, this new detail is a head scratcher. Dale explains that Matthew Colangelo is a former Justice Department official who is now a senior counsel to Bragg. Their relationship predates Colangelo’s time at the Department of Justice.

There is also a pattern of Trump seeking to question people in the justice system. In his civil fraud trial in the case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, for instance, he seized on a clerk to the judge and alleged she was tied to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. The details will change, but Trump finding a person to demonize is predictable.

He’s looping. See above.

Trump is certainly leading, and perhaps untouchable, in the race for the Republican nomination. In many polls, he does currently have a slim lead in a hypothetical matchup against Biden.

But his lead is far from unprecedented. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are Republicans who won true landslide victories, carrying nearly every state in a general election. No one is talking about that kind of victory for Trump.

There is not now and there has never been evidence of systemic or widespread cheating to defeat Trump in either 2016 or 2020, although he has alleged as much for both elections.

It is certainly true that political rivals in weak democracies and autocracies face political prosecutions. Look at Alexey Navalny and multiple other critics of President Vladimir Putin who have been jailed after questionable prosecutions in Russia.

But to compare the US judicial system to that of a banana republic is ridiculous. Juries will determine Trump’s guilt or innocence. A Supreme Court with three Trump-appointed justices has final review of the system that is prosecuting him.

By “they,” Trump presumably means all of the distinct authorities trying to prosecute him. By “our process,” he means his strategy of delay, delay, delay.

Trump’s legal strategy is to win the election. If he wins in November, the likely outcome is that his two federal cases, if unresolved, would go away.

State prosecutions are different. It’s not clear that a state could not prosecute a president or a president-elect, but any prosecutions would certainly be complicated.

Trump’s prosecutions actually seem to have helped him in the Republican nomination race. His base has rallied around him, and his rivals have been unable to gain a serious foothold.

Actually, given the choice, Trump has frequently attended court hearings over campaign events – either in his criminal cases or in his $370 million civil fraud trial, where a verdict is expected as soon as Friday. Dale writes in a fact check that, no, Trump was not stuck in court today. The former president did not need to appear for this hearing. He had no South Carolina events scheduled and plans to fly back to Florida after the hearing.

When he says “other people,” he’s referring to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, his last remaining serious rival for the Republican nomination. Polling suggests he has a commanding lead over Haley in her home state as the GOP primary there approaches.

Here, he’s both looping and making the provocative claim that he could be guilty but not be a criminal.

Trump has built his presidential campaign around two main pillars: retribution for his 2020 loss, which he still does not accept, and being tougher on border policy.

Here he marries the twin pillars of his campaign with the phrase “Biden migrant crime.”

In New York, officials are dealing with a crush of asylum-seeking migrants who have been bused to the city from Texas and elsewhere. New York’s mayor has complained about the strain on the city and its services. And he has also recently helped feed the notion that crime in the city is being perpetrated by migrants, who under federal rules cannot obtain a work permit until they have been in the country for six months.

More than 150,000 migrants have arrived in New York City, and there have been viral videos of migrants involved in criminal activity. But as The New York Times notes, despite the rising number of migrants in the city, violent crime has dropped.

Wait, what? Trump has persistently refused to release his tax returns so his claim that he paid $300 million in taxes “over the period of time” is unverifiable. If a person is a money-making billionaire, it’s possible that paying $300 million represents a lower tax rate than many other Americans. Is he referring to federal taxes? State taxes?

We do know, because some years of his returns were leaked, that there were years in which he paid no federal income tax because he claimed massive losses from previous years. In the year he won the White House and in his first year as president, he paid $750 in federal income taxes.

We also know that Trump’s general outlook on taxes is to pay as little as possible.

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