Washington Week full episode, July 21, 2023

Laura Barron-Lopez: Donald Trump’s Growing legal challenges test American democracy.

Donald Trump, Former U.S. President: The DOJ has become a weapon for the Democrats, an absolute weapon.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Former President Trump is put on notice by the special counsel again this time related to January 6th and election interference.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY): No person is above the law, including Donald Trump.

Laura Barron-Lopez: The likely indictment is one of many legal challenges confronting the 2024 Republican frontrunner, as a judge sets the start of the classified documents trial well into primary season, next.

Good evening, and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. I’m Laura Barron-Lopez. Tonight, the country waits for what could be former President Donald Trump’s third indictment. Trump announced earlier this week he was notified by Special Counsel Jack Smith that he’s a target of a federal investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

According to reports, the target letter cites three statutes, deprivation of rights, conspiracy to commit an offense against or defraud the United States, and tampering with a witness.

The target letter is the latest addition to Trump’s legal jeopardy. The current GOP frontrunner responded to the likelihood of more criminal charges while campaigning in New Hampshire.

Donald Trump: If you say something about an election, they want to put you in jail for the rest of your life. It’s a disgrace.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Trump already faces federal prosecution in the classified documents case in Miami. Today, Judge Aileen Cannon denied Trump’s request to delay the trial until after the 2024 election, setting the start for May. He’s also under indictment in the New York hush money case. And the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to charge Trump for election interference.

The legal cases will require Trump to appear in court, at times taking him off the campaign trail. It’s a remarkable set of circumstances that will challenge the country’s justice system, presidential election process, and democracy.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Dan Balz, he’s chief correspondent at The Washington Post, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, Fin Gomez, the political director at CBS News, and Sadie Gurman, Justice Department Reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you all for being here tonight.

Sadie, I want to start with you. The Wall Street Journal first reported some of the details of that target letter sent to the former president with those three statutes. What is the inclusion of those statutes tell us and don’t tell us about the potential charges that are coming?

Sadie Gurman, Justice Department Reporter, The Wall Street Journal: Sure. So, what we know from the three statutes that are referenced in this target letter are that prosecutors have amassed a trove of evidence that they think shows that former President Trump played a key role in efforts to overturn his election and really was the mastermind of those efforts.

What I found particularly interesting was that one of those statutes is a federal civil rights offense. It’s the deprivation of rights statute. This is something that was originally passed in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. Its original purpose was to prosecute efforts to prevent black people from voting. And it has more recently been used in contexts, such as voting fraud-type cases.

We know from our reporting about what the special counsel has been examining that there’s a broad range of conduct that could potentially fit into that category. We know that Jack Smith has been looking at everything from whether people in Trump’s orbit committed crimes by sending so-called fake slates of electors to Congress. We know that he’s been looking at things whether Trump’s efforts to fundraise off of false allegations of election fraud constitute a crime. He’s also been looking at efforts to persuade Pence to thwart the certification of the process and has also been looking at every action leading up to the storming of the Capitol on January 6th. So, it will be very interesting to see what specific conduct prosecutors think fits into that statute. It could be any number of things.

The other interesting statute to me is this witness tampering statute. It’s actually a very broadly written statute that covers obstruction of an official proceeding. This is a statute that has been charged against hundreds of rioters already, and many of those —

Laura Barron-Lopez: The January 6th rioters?

Sadie Gurman: In January 6th, that’s right. And many of those defendants have argued unsuccessfully that that statute shouldn’t cover what they view as a ceremonial procedure, like an election, but was rather intended for things like document destruction or tampering with a witness.

We know that Trump has a propensity to reach out to witnesses and investigations. We saw this during the January 6th committee hearings. It was one of the statutes that was referred to by that committee to the Justice Department for potential prosecutions. So, that’s interesting.

But the big question that these charges raise for me that is still outstanding is, if it’s a conspiracy to defraud the U.S., who is the co -conspirator? This is not something that we’ve been able to discern.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Yes, who else could be named in this indictment?

Sadie Gurman: That’s right.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Fin, how is Trump World preparing for this likely indictment?

Fin Gomez, Political Director, CBS News: How are they preparing for it is that, I mean, as of right now, politically, it’s all systems go. They say it hasn’t impacted them. They feel emboldened. In fact, as you’ve seen, there’s a new poll that just came out, a YouGov poll, that shows that among Republican voters, 50 percent say that he should not drop out if he’s convicted of a serious crime.

If anything, overall, they — I just spoke to a few senior aides just before the show, and they say that Trump feels defiant. They feel strong. And they say that the placement of this in May 2024 is actually good for them. It comes right after the main crux of the primary election contest and right after these first four states. And, of course, if you look back to 2016, this essentially was already done by that point.

So, according to them, they feel emboldened, they feel prepared and it’s all systems go.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Dan, the one that would potentially come as early as next week regarding January 6th and his efforts to overturn the election would be the second federal indictment for the former president. These possible criminal charges, can you just put them into context how monumental it is that the former president will be facing them?

Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent, The Washington Post: Well, of all of the investigations that are underway and for which he’s already been indicted, this is by far the biggest. I mean, this goes to the heart of what we have been talking about for the last better part of three years. It goes to the heart of the threats to the democratic system. It goes to the core issue of Trump’s lying about what happened in 2020 and the degree to which this has infected the rest of the Republican Party and parts of the country.

So, you know, I don’t mean to minimize any of the other cases, but this is the big one. And in many ways, it could be the most — you know, it could be a very difficult one to prove. And I think that the stakes are obviously very high for the former president, but they’re also very high for the Justice Department.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Jeff, this week alone, fake electors were charged in Michigan, Trump received the target letter from the Justice Department and there’s reporting in Georgia that is looking at charging criminal conspiracy. This all has to do with the efforts to steal the 2020 election.

When Congress certified the 2020 election results after the insurrection and when a number of election deniers lost in 2022, there was talk of the democracy held. Do you think that we’re going to look back on this week as another example of democracy holding?

Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor in Chief, The Atlantic: Well, it’s still holding. It’s not done yet. But the challenges here are unique.

You know, it’s funny you mentioned this. I was just talking to somebody, a senior official in a government department, and I asked this person an honest question. I didn’t know the answer to it. I said, can you be president from jail? I didn’t know the answer to that. And this person, instead of giving me the answer, because I think they didn’t know the answer, said, it’s amazing that we’re at this place, that we’re asking this question of each other. Can you run the country from prison? This is a live question.

And so, to your — by the way, the answer is yes, probably. You’re the expert. But the answer that I’ve been getting so far is, yes, maybe you could run the country from jail. But what it means is that we’re facing one novel situation after another. And what it shows to me, obviously this is about the law, this is about enforcement of the law, but what it shows to me is that there’s no respect for norms. It’s very, very hard to maintain a democracy. The law is incredibly important, obviously adhering to the law.

But if you have people who are willing to step outside the norms of democratic restraint that have governed most everyone who has ever participated in government, that puts you in another zone entirely. So, I mean, obviously, this country has been a going concern for quite a while. I don’t want to be overdramatic and say that, well, that’s proof that it’s finished. All I would say about this week is that it’s only July of 2023. I mean, God knows what August is going to bring us at this point. But going week by week instead of thinking apocalyptically at this point, but it’s all novel.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Speaking of people who’ve broken Democratic norms, Sadie, Rudy Giuliani, as far as we know, the Trump’s former lawyer has not been named or has not received a target letter from the Justice Department, as far as we know. But does that mean that he’s in the clear or not, or any of the other potential lawyers that have been in Trump’s orbit?

Sadie Gurman: Yes. So many of the high profile names that have been associated with this investigation are saying they haven’t received target letters. I, at this point, don’t think anybody is really in the clear. I mean, the grand jury is continuing to hear testimony this week from witnesses and is still continuing to call witnesses to come down and testify.

So, this is still an active investigation. And so I would not say that anybody is really in the clear at all at any point.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And then news today, which Fin alluded to earlier, but Aileen Cannon decided that in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, that that trial is going to begin May 20th of next year. So, what does her decision tell us about Judge Cannon and the way she’s going to handle this case, as well as are there any avenues left for Trump to try to delay the trial?

Sadie Gurman: Well, certainly. So, Judge Cannon is somebody whose actions we’ve been watching very close because she presided over a lawsuit previously related to the Mar-a-Lago search and made several favorable rulings toward Trump’s team. So, everyone was sort of waiting to see how she would thread the needle here.

In some ways, she did sort of try to strike a compromise between what the Justice Department had wanted. The Justice Department wanted the trial to start as early as December. She said that’s way too compressive a timeframe. It’s not fair to the Trump Team. The Trump Team wanted to start it after the election itself, saying he can’t get a fair trial, he can’t actively campaign while this is going on. So, she struck a balance and put it in May 2024.

What that means is that this will be — by then, in 2016, he was already the presumptive nominee. So, if he’s the clear nominee at that point and he’s convicted before the convention, he will be going into the convention in the November vote, a felon facing possible jail time.

The alternative to that, of course, is that if he’s acquitted, then he has all of this ammunition to say that this was a politically motivated attack by his rival.

Laura Barron-Lopez: So, Fin, it sounds like — go ahead.

Fin Gomez: No, I was just going to say, in comparison to the 2016 cycle, though, this time around now, it’s more winner take all states than before. So, it actually bodes well for Trump. I mean, politically, if you look at that trajectory where it lands, again, like most of the crux of the big elections have already — in the primary phase have already occurred. And by that winner-take-all premise, it just really bodes well for Trump politically —

Laura Barron-Lopez: In the primaries.

Fin Gomez: In the primaries. But, again, like how does it affect him in the general election? That’s the big question. They say it’s fine. They’re focused. By they, I mean, I mean, the Trump campaign. But, I mean, if you look at the polling numbers, independents are very, very — his numbers against independents have dropped. They’re not strong. And he goes into that phase facing trial dates, facing all these things, right into a very important part into the general election and it does hurt him.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Jeff?

Jeffrey Goldberg: No. Just to underscore how remarkable this all is, and stipulating that we don’t know how Ron DeSantis is going to do, Tim Scott, et cetera, but right now, it’s fair to say that there’s a very, very good chance that the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States in May or June of next year will be a convicted felon. That’s an astonishing fact, if that is what occurs. And, again, we don’t know how any of this is going to shake out, but the trends are the trends, and here we are.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Dan, as all of these legal perils pile up for the former president. Jeff is saying, look, we’re going to be in uncharted territory, potentially, if he is convicted. Do you see any chance in here of a Senator Tim Scott surging or Chris Christie’s attacks on the former president actually working?

Dan Balz: I would say not great chance, but I think we know from the history of presidential primaries that there are often surprises, and that, in some cases, the frontrunner goes from start to finish as a winner. But in many cases, they hit a speed bump, or they hit something worse than a speed bump, and then there’s a battle underway.

I think a couple of things here. One is, I think, Christie’s path to the nomination is very, very difficult. But the question is, if he and former president are on the debate stage, is he able to inflict real damage? I think that’s a question. He’s clearly itching to try to do that.

The other question is, as these early states vote, to what extent will we see something other than that we saw in 2016, which is, in that time, people were loathed to drop out. They wanted to hang on as long as they could. Everybody knows that that helps Donald Trump.

So, will people drop out of the race, and will we get to a situation in which it’s Trump versus a principal challenger? And in that kind of situation, it can also be unpredictable.

Again, I think, you know, the odds are that Donald Trump emerges as the nominee, but the only certainty of politics is surprise. And so there will be some kind of surprise along the way. And then the question is, how does that or does it really shake anything up?

Laura Barron-Lopez: As all of these cases are converging, Trump shared a threatening video on his social media site, Truth Social here.

Donald Trump: If you (BLEEP) around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Jeff, that type of message is part of a pattern from the former president. And at The Atlantic, you have directed reporters to cover extremism and radicalization very closely. How dangerous are videos like this, especially as we know that a number of domestic extremist groups have rallied around Trump?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, I mean, they’re extremely dangerous, obviously. They’re also very clever in the sense that the threat is not directed at an individual or a group. It’s a kind of threat into the air. It’s very hard for someone to come and charge him with making violent threats because he’s just saying in his mindset he’s just reporting what could happen.

And we’ve seen this before with him. He’s talked about himself, obviously, and the language has gotten darker and darker and darker. People remember 2016 and some of the interesting new ways he used language to make his point. We’re in much darker place now than that.

And, recently, he talked about himself as being the voter’s retribution, his people’s retribution for all of the humiliations and setbacks they faced in life. It’s obviously an appeal not just to the base but to the base emotions of the base.

The real issue, obviously, when you’re talking about moving from violent, threatening language to violence itself, is that he could plausibly say, I’m not telling anyone to be violent, I’m just reporting that people could be violent. Some people listen to that and take it as direction or take it as a demand by the private small number. But you only need one or two or ten people in this country to cause absolute chaos. So, it’s extremely dangerous. 

Laura Barron-Lopez: Right. You mentioned him being vague or coy about it all. He also, this week, speaking to an Iowa radio station, said that it would be a very dangerous thing if he were put in jail because his group of voters are more passionate than they ever have been.

Fin, you were just in or you’ve been across a number of the early voting states, Iowa, Nevada, Florida. What’s your assessment of how this vote base is feeling about Trump?

Fin Gomez: In a word, strongly. They do feel, and I’m speaking to voters in these early states, what you’ve seen with these investigations, with these arraignments, with these indictments, with these looming investigations, is that, politically, his power, his hold on the party, has only gotten stronger. Someone actually told me that it was more like a chokehold on the party. But if you talk to these early state voters, they see this, they see what’s happening and they have been circling the wagons.

If you look at his rivals, some of his chief rivals, yes, they’ve sharpened the criticism a bit, but for the most part, they still stand behind Trump by not directing their attacks at him. In many ways, he’s running as an incumbent within that party. And as Dan alluded to earlier, for them to make up some ground, it is a very difficult uphill climb and trajectory for them at this point.

There is Chris Christie, there’s Asa Hutchinson, to a lesser degree, who have been making some noise, who have been critical over Donald Trump, but for the rest of the field, they’ve been keeping their powder dry.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Sadie, the other — Dan, did you want to — okay.

Sadie, the other element to all of this is jury selection, which I know you’ve been paying close attention to, because, as we’ve all talked about, at least the Mar-a-Lago trial is going to be happening right in the middle of campaign season. How does that impact jury selection?

Sadie Gurman: Well, I think it certainly makes it more complicated. I mean, it’s going to be complicated to find jurors who haven’t already come to an opinion about this or haven’t read a lot of stories about it or who felt like they can be impartial.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You need to be an extreme low information voter to know what’s going on.

Sadie Gurman: Yes. I mean, but those people do exist. I mean, they do exist. But I also think that it will be kind of challenging from a security standpoint at the courthouse if you have these people walking in every single day, even prospective jurors. And we saw a scene like the one that we saw in Miami where it was basically a miniature Trump rally and at what point does that become intimidation of a juror or something like that.

So, I think that federal law enforcement is already taking a lot of measures to keep this circus-like atmosphere to a minimum and to protect all of the people involved. We’ve seen investigators involved in the case getting threats and that type of rhetoric and everything is just going to make that escalate as it gets closer.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Everything we’ve talked about, Dan, is very unprecedented territory. When we just look at the primary, how much do you think all of these indictments and trials are going to disrupt that process?

Dan Balz: Well, if the trial on the documents case doesn’t start until May, we could have, I won’t say a normal primary season, but calendar can play out, and that’s going to be something yet to happen.

We don’t know when and if the indictments come in the January 6th case, what timing of that trial would it be. Would that trial happen before the documents case? I don’t know. Could it happen after? Could it be after the election? There’s a lot of uncertainty about that. But this is part of, and a central part of the atmospherics of 2024. I mean, Donald Trump has changed everything in so many ways, and this is the latest version of that.

Whatever we say about the timetable of these cases, this is a core issue that will be in people’s minds and people will vote accordingly. But it’s not as though you’re going to have a normal primary in which people are just talking about the normal things and voters thinking, oh, well, that’s the only thing I have to worry about. This is part and parcel of why this election is so consequential.

Laura Barron-Lopez: It’s really sucking all of the oxygen out of every other issue, right, in the primary.

Dan Balz: As Donald Trump has done for the last six years.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And, Jeff, on that point, Republicans aren’t really running on the economy right now, and it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to be heading into the general election. President Biden is staying quiet. So, that way all of these legal peril issues for Trump can dominate the news. Abortion access appears to be galvanizing Democrats. Are Republicans running on any issue that could actually grow their voting base in the general election?

Jeffrey Goldberg: It doesn’t seem like it right now. I mean, the Ron DeSantis playbook is to exploit cultural division. Obviously, it doesn’t seem to be the harder he goes at it, he goes at it hard, and it doesn’t seem to pay dividends for him. But there are many, many, many reasons why he’s not very popular.

Chris Christie is in there to take down Trump. That’s what he’s decided. You don’t really hear and maybe that’s part of the fault of this oxygen-sucking environment that Trump has created and that we in the media are participating in. Obviously, we’re here talking about this and not the economy, not Ukraine, not abortion access, et cetera, et cetera. But we have to talk about this precisely because it’s unprecedented, precisely because it actually is tremendously important for the future of democracy.

But I don’t see anything, I don’t see any evidence that the Republicans are coming out and saying anything about the economy, anything about cultural issues, anything about Ukraine and NATO and foreign affairs and the rise of China and A.I. I mean, when have you heard a Republican candidate or, really, many candidates, to be fair, come out and give a considered thoughtful position on how do we regulate or not regulate A.I. into this sort of circus-like atmosphere. Nothing can penetrate. Nothing substantive can penetrate. And that’s a problem because we have a lot to talk about other than the bathroom at Mar-a-Lago and Januray 6th.

Laura Barron-Lopez: There are a lot of existential issues facing the country. But, for now, as we await this potentially third and historic indictment, that is what we are going to be covering extensively, and we have to leave it there for now.

Thank you to my panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting, and thanks to all of you for joining us as well.

Don’t forget to watch “PBS NEWS WEEKEND” for a look at the Women’s World Cup and efforts to achieve equity.

I’m Laura Barron-Lopez. Good night from Washington.

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