Trump’s legal dramas overshadow his campaign as GOP field grows

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Donald Trump has always said and done exactly what he wants when he wants in a turbulent business and political life that has defied all efforts to bring him under control.

But on Tuesday, the ex-president will be subject to someone else’s timetable and authority, amid increasing signs the legal system may represent a vein of accountability even Trump cannot flout.

Trump is due to appear by remote video at a hearing where a judge will explain the limits of what he can say about the business records and hush money case in Manhattan in which he became the first former president to be criminally indicted earlier this spring. His appearance, in a case in which he has pleaded not guilty, is largely a procedural affair. But it is one of the first of what may become multiple occasions when Trump is compelled to appear in court when he would rather be promoting his bid for a third Republican nomination – or doing just about anything else.

Tuesday’s hearing will amplify the extraordinary spectacle of a former president bidding for a non-consecutive second term while fighting off a flurry of legal investigations. It will highlight one of the unknowns of the quickly accelerating GOP primary – the extent to which the frontrunner’s tangle of legal problems will drain time, energy and focus from his campaign. Trump’s virtual date in court is also taking place as the GOP contest kicks into its highest gear yet, with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott jumping in on Monday and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to formally announce his White House bid within days.

And things could get much more complicated for Trump.

New CNN reporting is revealing the extent of special counsel Jack Smith’s penetration of Trump’s inner circle as he investigates the ex-president’s hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Multiple sources familiar with notes taken by a Trump lawyer and turned over to investigators said Trump asked whether he could push back against Justice Department efforts to recover classified documents in his possession. The notes could help flesh out his actions and thinking as Smith investigates potential breaches of the Espionage Act and obstruction.

On another front, two sources familiar with the investigation said prosecutors with the special counsel’s office subpoenaed the Trump Organization for information regarding business deals in foreign countries. One of the sources suggested investigators appear to be focused on the ex-president’s dealings in nations that could have possibly been interested in the types of classified materials recovered from Mar-a-Lago after he left office. The Trump Organization did not respond to CNN’s request for comment and it was unclear when the subpoena was issued. Its existence was first reported by the New York Times.

It remains unclear how all the new revelations regarding the classified documents fit into an investigation of unknown breadth that has unfolded largely out of public view. But there are increasing signs that Smith may be nearing the end of his probe.

Trump’s long-term tendency to resist even the law’s attempt to rein him in was in evidence on another front on Monday after his recent unrepentant behavior appeared to leave him more legally exposed. Former magazine writer E. Jean Carroll, who this month won $5 million in damages from Trump over her civil sex abuse and defamation case, asked a judge to amend a separate defamation case against him so that she can seek more damages after he insulted her in a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on May 10.

Legal chaos

Trump’s habit of digging himself into deeper trouble with his unrestrained rhetoric came amid new signs of discord among his legal team. In an interview with CNN’s Paula Reid on Saturday, one of his former attorneys, Timothy Parlatore, said he left because some members of Trump’s inner circle made the task of defending their boss more difficult than it needed to be. Parlatore specifically named the ex-president’s long-time aide Boris Epshteyn. Trump’s spokesman said such claims were “categorically false.”

As if this stack of legal problems was not enough, Trump is still waiting to hear whether he will be indicted by a district attorney in Georgia over his efforts to overthrow President Joe Biden’s general election victory in the swing state in 2020. And Smith is also investigating Trump’s behavior in the run-up to the mob attack on Congress by his supporters on January 6, 2021.

There is little evidence so far that Trump’s voters care about his growing legal headaches. In fact, his indictment in the Manhattan case coincided with a rise in his primary poll numbers. And his Republican opponents have only made the most oblique criticisms of his plight – a sign they understand the political peril of attacking a frontrunner who is putting claims of political persecution at the center of his new White House bid.

Still, if Trump’s courtroom imbroglios worsen, it raises the question whether he will be able to balance multiple court appearances, depositions and even trials with a full campaign schedule. Any sense of chaos could play into the arguments of candidates like DeSantis that he can offer many of the ideological qualities of “Make America Great Again” conservatism without the drama and chaos that often thwarted Trump’s capacity to put his ideas into action while in office. And should the ex-president win the GOP nomination, the enormity of a presidential candidate appearing in court – potentially in multiple different investigations – might again alienate the critical swing voters who have turned away from Republicans in recent elections.

Trump has not been proven guilty in any of these cases and is entitled to the presumption of innocence like any other citizen. The Carroll case, in which he was found liable for sexual abuse, was a civil action and not a criminal one. Yet the sheer weight of legal uncertainty surrounding Trump suggests the 2024 campaign has the potential to be a toxic ride that will further strain the judicial and political institutions that he has already stretched to the limit.

Trump to face new constraints after Tuesday hearing

The judge presiding over the New York hush money case is expected to tell the former president Tuesday exactly what he can and cannot say publicly about the criminal case against him. Trump is accused of falsifying business records in relation to payments made during the 2016 campaign to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who had alleged an affair that Trump denies.

Judge Juan Merchan has already signed off on a protective order that forbids the sharing of evidence the defense receives from the prosecution on social media platforms including Truth Social, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat or YouTube, without prior approval from the court.

The hearing comes after Trump has repeatedly made derogatory comments and social media posts about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, potential witnesses and the judge. There is no gag order in place and the restrictions specifically refer to discussion and dissemination of evidence his legal team will get from prosecutors to prepare for trial.

But Trump’s attorneys have already argued that the protective order infringes his First Amendment rights. And the fact that he is running for president and is willing to weaponize every step of his legal fights means that this case will become ever more deeply dragged into the political arena.

Also on Tuesday, the parties in the case may nail down a trial date – another potential development that could further thicken the political intrigue. Merchan had previously ordered them to seek a start date sometime in February or March 2024. Such a timetable would create the unfathomable scene of a presidential candidate going on criminal trial in the height of primary season. Trump would no doubt seek to turn the trial into a political platform at a critical stage of the campaign, but it could also hamper his capacity to drop into critical swing states.

And it would be a staggering story line even by the ex-president’s improbable standards.

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