Rule of Law

Trump Faces Different Bodies of Law With Same Contempt for Voters

Former President Donald Trump has now been criminally charged in Manhattan with 34 felony counts relating to his role in hush money payments made to an alleged former mistress, Stephanie Clifford (also known as Stormy Daniels). The unsealed indictment, when read alongside the more detailed statement of facts, explains why Trump’s actions violated New York law and potentially federal law, as well. While some critics have raised questions about the strength of the case, those questions have been powerfully answered by legal experts who explain why it is strong, and how frequently (and successfully) charges of falsification of business records and covert payments to benefit a political campaign have been brought against other New Yorkers.

A more puzzling criticism comes from those who have questioned the seriousness of this case, comparing it unfavorably to the many other criminal investigations into Trump, including investigations by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Special Counsel Jack Smith at the Department of Justice. But such criticism misses what all three cases have in common: alleged behavior by Donald Trump that reflects contempt for American voters.

While the counts in the Manhattan indictment may sound technical—falsification of business records—it’s important not to lose sight of why Trump allegedly participated in the unlawful scheme to falsify business records in New York. According to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s statement of facts, Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified business records “to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”

As Bragg further explains, Trump “orchestrated a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit the Defendant’s electoral prospects.” And there’s more. According to Bragg, “[i]n order to execute the unlawful scheme, the participants violated election laws and made and caused false entries in the business records of various entities in New York. The participants also took steps that mischaracterized, for tax purposes, the true nature of the payments made in furtherance of the scheme.”

If these allegations prove true, the crimes were motivated by the desire to keep relevant information away from voters who were poised to make decisions about whom to vote for in the 2016 presidential election, which was closely contested in the final months of the campaign. In other words, Trump was willing to violate the law to prevent the American people from having all the information that might have been relevant to their voting decisions. Uncertain of what Americans would do at the ballot box if they had all the information, Trump apparently ensured that they had less.

While the New York case involves allegations that Trump lied to try to keep voters from learning information that might cause them to vote against him in 2016, the Georgia case focuses on Trump’s effort to overturn the will of voters who voted against him just four years later. While there have been no indictments in Georgia thus far, we know that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating Trump and his allies for their efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. Faced with close advisors, family members, and even his own attorney general advising him that he had lost the 2020 election, Trump placed a now infamous call to Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, saying “I just want to find 11,780 votes.”

As the final report by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol describes it, “The President of the United States was asking a State’s chief election officer to ‘find’ enough votes to declare him the winner of an election he lost.” And apparently Trump also placed another call to Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, requesting that he call a special legislative session to overturn Trump’s loss in the state—that is, to overturn the will of voters in that state.

The story underlying one ongoing Department of Justice investigation of Trump is largely the same. The work of the Jan. 6 committee, informed by over 140,000 documents and roughly 1,000 interviews and depositions, gives us a sense of what DOJ may be investigating. In particular, the Select Committee referred Trump to DOJ for investigation and possible prosecution for crimes including obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement, and inciting or assisting an insurrection.

The actions underlying these charges—including planning for false slates of electors from various states, pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to intervene during the official counting of the Electoral College votes, and inciting the violent attack that temporarily stopped the work of the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021—were made in an attempt to overturn the election results, thwarting the will of voters in an election that had been certified in all 50 states roughly a month earlier.

There is arguably no right more important to American democracy than the right to vote. It is a right referenced in more places of the Constitution than any other right, and expansion of the franchise (through constitutional amendments and multiple civil rights movements) is one of the most inspiring chapters of our national story. Choosing who governs in our name depends upon voting and upon having that vote be counted. That is why no crime related to elections is trivial, and that includes the alleged crimes that are the subject of the Manhattan indictment.

Praveen Fernandes serves as vice president at the Constitutional Accountability Center, a public interest law firm and think tank dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of the U.S. Constitution’s text and history. He has worked on issues pertaining to law, democracy, and civil rights for roughly 20 years in positions inside and outside the government.