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Fact-checking Trump's defenses in his court cases

He has described the cases against him with colorful hyperbole, defended his conduct with faulty comparisons and lobbed false attacks and baseless accusations at opponents and adjudicators alike.
Last Updated : 18 April 2024, 03:16 IST
Last Updated : 18 April 2024, 03:16 IST

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Washington: As former President Donald Trump battles a series of criminal and civil actions while he runs to reclaim the White House, he has put his legal woes at center stage, making them a rallying cry for his reelection.

It is a tactic that is likely to be on full display this week as his trial in New York over his role in a hush money payment in the 2016 race gets underway. Just as he has done with his other legal troubles, Trump has dismissed the charges in that case as part of an "election interference" scheme orchestrated by President Joe Biden.

He has described the cases against him with colorful hyperbole, defended his conduct with faulty comparisons and lobbed false attacks and baseless accusations at opponents and adjudicators alike.

Asked for evidence of Trump's claims, the campaign did not directly address the matter but continued to insist, with no evidence, that Trump was the target of a "witch hunt" led by the Democratic Party.

Here's a fact-check of some of his most repeated claims.

Baseless Accusations of a Biden-Orchestrated Conspiracy

WHAT TRUMP SAID

"Biden said it. He said -- you know what their whole plan is? It was just released the other day. It didn't -- it was leaked by one of the many people that probably thought it was wrong. Their whole plan is to go after Trump in every way possible, especially criminally and legally."

-- at a rally in Georgia in March

This lacks evidence. Of the four criminal cases against Trump, two were brought by state or local prosecutors, meaning that the Justice Department itself has no control over them. His two other criminal cases are overseen by a special counsel, whom Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

It is unclear what leak Trump was referring to, and The New York Times was unable to find an instance of such a plan to target Trump "criminally and legally." False posts circulating on social media have used deceptively edited clips to suggest that Biden or his aides have admitted to weaponizing the legal system.

Still, there is no evidence that Biden is personally directing the cases against his political opponent. Biden has publicly emphasized the independence of the Justice Department. Moreover, the Times and other news outlets have reported that Biden's campaign strategy is to say nothing about Trump's legal woes.

"Jack Smith just admitted what the American People already know, namely, that his case is being directed and supervised by the Biden Administration. So, although he denies it, Garland is carrying out the orders from his boss to prosecute me, and to interfere in the 2024 Election."

-- in a Truth Social post in March

This is misleading. Trump was referring to -- and wildly distorting -- a court filing from prosecutors in the classified documents case.

The document was responding to a motion by Trump's lawyer to dismiss the case, claiming that Attorney General Merrick Garland had no authority to appoint Jack Smith, the special counsel in the case. Prosecutors argued that the Supreme Court had affirmed such an authority 50 years ago in the Watergate case, and that many special counsels had been appointed since then, including by the Justice Department under Trump.

Trump was apparently referring to a description in the filing of the special counsel's role, although he used it out of context: "The special counsel was retained from outside of the department to 'ensure a full and thorough investigation' of certain sensitive matters. While he remains subject to attorney general direction and supervision, he also retains 'a substantial degree of independent decision making.'"

"Look, the Manhattan DA has a man named Colangelo in there. He was Merrick Garland's top person. They put him into the Manhattan DA's office. Fani Willis and her lover spent a lot of time in Washington talking about my case. They came out during the hearings talking about my case. The AG of New York, Letitia James, deals with Washington all the time."

-- in an interview with Fox News in March

This is exaggerated. Asked for proof of his claim that Biden was personally directing the local cases against him, Trump pointed to purported ties between prosecutors and "Washington," but provided no evidence that Biden had been involved in any of the hiring decisions, conversations or meetings that Trump cited.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg hired Matthew Colangelo as a senior counsel in December 2022. Colangelo previously worked at the New York state attorney general's office and at the federal Justice Department as acting associate attorney general -- the third highest-ranking, not "top," official -- before that position was filled permanently. There is no proof that the appointment of Colangelo was directed by Biden or the Justice Department. The two men previously worked together at the state attorney general's office under James' predecessor, and Colangelo's appointment came as Bragg ramped up his investigation into Trump's role in hush money payments made in the 2016 election.

The Times earlier reported that Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, and her office had been consulting with the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack as part of her election interference case. An outside lawyer hired by Willis -- Nathan Wade, her former romantic partner who resigned from the case in March -- to lead the prosecution met twice with the White House Counsel's Office in 2022. It is not clear what the purpose of those meetings was, but a former White House counsel told the Times that the office can become involved when prosecutors seek the testimony of former officials.

Trump often points out that James, the New York attorney general who brought a civil fraud case accusing him of inflating the value of his properties, has visited the White House three times. According to visitor logs, her first visit was in April 2022 at the South Lawn, where a crowd had gathered to celebrate the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. She again visited in July 2023 to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and other state attorneys general about efforts to stop fentanyl trafficking. And she visited in August 2023 to attend an event Harris hosted recognizing Black women serving in public office. The White House has said Biden did not speak to individual guests at the first event and did not attend the latter two.

Hyperbolic Claims of Persecution

"Why didn't they bring these Fake Biden inspired cases against me 3 years ago? Because Crooked Joe Biden wanted them to be brought right in the middle of my 2024 Presidential Election Campaign, strictly Third World Country 'stuff!'"

-- in a post on Truth Social in March

False. Of the multiple cases Trump has been embroiled in, at least three began before Biden took office while another three center on Trump's postelection and postpresidency conduct. There is no evidence that Biden has sought to drag out the cases. Investigations and prosecutions generally take time, and Trump himself has repeatedly sought to delay proceedings.

The inquiry over hush money payments began while Trump was still in office in 2018. James began her investigation into the Trump Organization over its financial dealings in March 2019. Writer E. Jean Carroll filed her first lawsuit against Trump in November 2019, accusing him of defamation.

Willis opened her investigation into Trump and his allies' efforts to overturn the election in Georgia in February 2021. A top Justice Department official said in January 2022 that it had opened an investigation into a plan by Trump and his allies to reverse the results of the 2020 election; the investigation was widened in March 2022. Jack Smith was appointed the special prosecutor in the documents case in November 2022.

"It is a form of Navalny. It is a form of communism or fascism."

-- in a town hall on Fox News in February

False. Asked about the ruling in his civil fraud case, Trump compared himself to Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who had died days earlier in prison. The two cases are not at all similar.

Navalny had been behind bars since early 2021, sometimes in solitary confinement, and serving multiple prison sentences. He had also been poisoned in 2020, and survived earlier physical attacks. At the time of his death, he was being held in a penal colony north of the Arctic Circle. In contrast, Trump was ordered to pay a fine, which was reduced and which he has appealed.

"A bond of the size set by the Democrat Club-controlled Judge, in Corrupt, Racist Letitia James' unlawful Witch Hunt, is unConstitutional, un-American, unprecedented, and practically impossible for ANY Company, including one as successful as mine. The Bonding Companies have never heard of such a bond, of this size, before, nor do they have the ability to post such a bond, even if they wanted to. The statute used to attack me has never been used for such a purpose before."

-- in posts on Truth Social in March

False. A New York State Supreme Court judge ruled in February that Trump must pay $355 million, in addition to interest -- or about $454 million -- in his civil fraud case. Trump initially had trouble securing a bond and argued, wrongly, that both the bond amount and James' use of the New York state law were unprecedented.

As PolitiFact has reported, some companies have posted bonds as large as $1 billion. The state statute Trump cited was enacted in 1956, and has been used by New York attorneys general in lawsuits and actions against the oil giant Exxon Mobil, the tobacco company Juul, and two other entities belonging to Trump: his family charity, the Trump Foundation, and his for-profit Trump University.

Faulty and Irrelevant Comparisons

"I got indicted more than Al Capone."

-- in a rally in Ohio in March

False. Trump has been indicted four times. Al Capone, the famous gangster, was indicted at least six times, according to A. Brad Schwartz, a historian who has written a biography of him.

"Well, nobody else has been over the years, because, you know, Hillary took a lot and Bill took a lot. Bill took them out in his socks, they call it the socks case, which he won with a very tough judge, which he won. Bush took them. Everybody. Reagan took them out. Everybody took them out. It only became a big subject when I took things out."

-- in the Fox News town hall

False. The examples Trump cites as comparable to the federal criminal case in which he is accused of mishandling classified documents, obstructing justice and making false statements to officials in fact have little in common with it.

Prosecutors say Trump took hundreds of classified documents from the White House at the end of his term, ignored a subpoena to return them to the National Archives and Records Administration, stored them in locations accessible to resort employees and shared military secrets with visitors to his properties.

Hillary Clinton set up a private email server during her time as secretary of state. While it did store emails that contained classified information, several official inquiries have concluded that she did not systematically or deliberately mishandle classified material.

Former President Bill Clinton's case is even less relevant. A conservative legal group sued the National Archives for access to audiotapes of interviews between Clinton and author and historian Taylor Branch. Branch has said that Clinton stored the recordings in his sock drawer. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2012, reasoning that the National Archives did not have the tapes in its possession and had no obligation or authority to seize them.

And there is no evidence that any presidents before Trump took classified documents with them upon leaving office, despite Trump's repeated insistence that there was a precedent. The National Archives has said that it "assumed physical and legal custody of the presidential records from the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, when those presidents left office."

"Reports that indicate or imply that those presidential records were in the possession of the former presidents or their representatives, after they left office, or that the records were housed in substandard conditions, are false and misleading," the agency has said.

"The special counsel's report tries to let Biden off by claiming that he is too mentally incompetent to convict at a trial."

-- in a rally in South Carolina in February

This is misleading. Trump was referring to the report released by Robert Hur, the special counsel who investigated Biden's handling of classified material. Hur described Biden as a "well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory" who had "diminished faculties and faulty memory." He did not declare Biden mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Hur wrote that while he believed Biden knew he was not allowed to keep classified notebooks, there was not sufficient evidence "to prove his willfulness beyond a reasonable doubt." He added that Biden's "diminished faculties in advancing age and his sympathetic demeanor" would make it difficult to persuade a jury to convict him.

Inaccurate Attacks on Judges

"Judge Juan Merchan is totally compromised, and should be removed from this TRUMP Non-Case immediately. His Daughter, Loren, is a Rabid Trump Hater, who has admitted to having conversations with her father about me, and yet he gagged me."

This is exaggerated. Loren Merchan, the daughter of the judge presiding over the hush money case, served as the president of a digital campaign strategy agency that has done work for many prominent Democrats, including Biden's 2020 campaign.

The "conversations" Trump mentioned refer to an anecdote from a podcast interview Merchan did in 2019 about campaign strategy. In the episode, Merchan recounted that her father had said in recent conversations: "I hate that politicians use Twitter. It's so unprofessional." She said she had argued that there are improper uses of social media, such as posts by Trump sharing "anything that he thinks," but that social media allows candidates to bypass traditional media.

Experts in judicial ethics have said Merchan's work is not sufficient grounds for recusal. When Trump's legal team sought his recusal based on his daughter, Juan Merchan sought counsel from the New York State Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, which said it did not see any conflict of interest.

"This judge, he levels a fine for $355 million on a loan that's a fraction of that size because he's a corrupt Democrat clubhouse judge. He wouldn't allow a jury. There was no jury."

False. Trump's civil fraud trial did not go to a jury, but not because Justice Arthur Engoron, the judge presiding over the case, refused one. There was no jury because it was brought by James under a New York state law that provides the attorney general with broad authority to investigate corporate fraud and requires adjudication at what is known as a bench trial, which is conducted by a judge alone.

Engoron addressed the unusual setting at the beginning of the trial in October: "You have probably noticed or already read that this case has no jury. Neither side asked for one and, in any event, the remedies sought are all equitable in nature, mandating that the trial be a bench trial, one that a judge alone decides. I promise to do my best, despite my lame attempts at humor."

"Engoron's fraudulent valuation of Mar-a-Lago for $18,000,000, when it is worth 50 to 100 times that amount, is another piece of the Election Interference HOAX."

This is misleading. Engoron did not himself value Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida club and residence, at $18 million.

"From 2011-2021, the Palm Beach County assessor appraised the market value of Mar-a-Lago at between $18 million and $27.6 million," Engoron wrote in his September ruling against Trump.

Trump, for his part, valued the property at $426 million to $612 million, an overvaluation that Engoron said was at least 2,300% of the assessor's appraisal.

(Mar-a-Lago has a current market value of $37 million, according to the Palm Beach County appraiser.)

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Published 18 April 2024, 03:16 IST

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