The indictment of Donald Trump by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg Thursday sent shockwaves around the country. Trump’s defenders — and even some legal experts — haven’t been shy about describing the prosecution of Trump as politically motivated. While the specific indictment has yet to be revealed, Bragg appears likely to charge Trump with felony “falsifying of business records” pertaining to a Federal Election Commission violation relating to buying the silence of pornographer Stormy Daniels, who alleged the two had an affair. Bragg is further employing a dubious and novel legal theory to charge Trump because the statute of limitations on this crime has expired.
Daniels would later publicly deny she had an affair with Trump and that she had been paid hush money to stop talking about it. Her personal lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who was a driving force in bringing the allegations against Trump, would later end up in prison for tax fraud and stealing from clients, including Daniels. As for the seriousness of the underlying FEC charge, Hillary Clinton and the DNC only paid a fine for the FEC violations relating to the false and defamatory Trump-Russia dossier, which amounts to a far bigger public deception than Trump buying off a woman over their alleged private affair.
But in evaluating whether Bragg’s charges against Trump are politically motivated, it’s worth remembering that Trump is the second major GOP presidential candidate in less than a decade that has been indicted by a local Democratic district attorney. And in that case, involving former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the prosecution was redolent of corruption and naked attempts to harm Perry’s national political ambitions.
In 2014, Perry was indicted on two felony charges. The first charge was abuse of official capacity, and the second was coercion of a public servant. Perry’s crime was using the veto power granted to him in the Texas Constitution.
What happened was this: Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, was convicted of drunk driving and incarcerated. Working from the Travis County DA’s office, Lehmberg managed the state public integrity unit, a legal office responsible for rooting out public corruption. After she refused to resign her position following a fair bit of criticism over the fact that a person in charge of rooting out public corruption should not be known for being convicted of a crime, Perry threatened to veto the public integrity unit’s $7.5 million budget and eventually did veto the budget.
So the Travis County DA’s office, the very same office where Lehmberg worked, convened a grand jury and indicted Perry. It wasn’t difficult; aside from the old saying that prosecutors could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, Travis County is where “the People’s Republic of Austin” is located. It’s a notoriously liberal enclave where it is easy to find a jury politically hostile to Perry, who was an otherwise popular three-term GOP governor.
Following the indictment, Perry was forced to come in and be fingerprinted, and he was even forced to take a mugshot that was publicly released. There’s little doubt that whatever the outcome of the trial, a goal here was to publicly embarrass Perry, who was gearing up to run for president in 2016. In fact, the week Perry was forced to come in for his mugshot, he was scheduled to visit New Hampshire in preparation for his anticipated presidential campaign.
For their part, the Texas state Democratic Party responded with a statement that was pure gaslighting, accusing Perry of bringing “dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas” and calling on Perry to resign.
As for the charges against Perry, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals eventually dismissed the charges against Perry in a 6-2 ruling. The abuse of official capacity charge was dismissed on the grounds that it violated the separation of powers in the state constitution. It was always the case that Perry had wide latitude and authority to issue a veto in this instance. “The governor’s power to exercise a veto may not be circumscribed by the Legislature, by the courts, or by district attorneys,” noted the ruling by Judge Sharon Keller of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The second charge, coercion of a public official, was dismissed on the grounds that it was a violation of the First Amendment to say the governor could not threaten to lawfully wield power on the grounds he was intimidating other public officials.
Despite the fact that the charges against Perry were completely groundless and an egregious act of political retribution, the damage to Perry’s presidential campaign was already done. The 18-month legal battle cost him $2 million in legal fees, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. His exoneration from the Court of Criminal Appeals didn’t come until February 2016, when the presidential campaign was well underway.
“There is no doubt that these sham legal proceedings cast a shadow over his recent political campaign, especially among some potential finance supporters,” Deirdre Delisi, Perry’s former chief of staff, told The New York Times.
Obviously, the politics surrounding the indictment of a former president are in many ways different than Perry’s trouble. But the basic facts behind what happened to Perry should have been an ominous warning: Local Democrats conspired to bring politically motivated charges against Perry with the explicit goal of punishing him personally and affecting national politics. Even though the national press was at times wary of what was happening, there was no significant blowback or opprobrium to prevent Democrats from running this playbook again.
And because of the specious nature of previous partisan attempts to take down Trump, including the laughable Mueller investigation as well as the first impeachment, which was conducted in an unprecedented and opaque manner to shield Biden from having to answer allegations of corruption during the 2020 campaign, the stakes for Bragg’s prosecution of Trump could not be higher.
If the prosecution of Trump, let alone a successful conviction, is viewed by even a significant minority of Americans as groundless and politically motivated, the diminished respect for the rule of law could have profound repercussions and open the floodgates for tit-for-tat political prosecution.
And this destruction of important legal and political norms won’t have occurred overnight. The prosecution of Perry, which occurred well before Trump was a serious and controversial political figure, is just one of many incidents that have given Republican voters plenty of reasons to believe Democrats are willing to excuse blatant corruption in the name of pursuing power.