By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
When thinking of Donald Trump’s arraignment, I am reminded of a few lines from a Louis Carroll poem in Alice in Wonderland:
When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tone of the Shark:
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.
Like most bullies, when Donald Trump deals with those whom he sees as weak, he brays loudly. But in a venue where he has no power, he acts as meek and fearful as a little mouse.
On Tuesday, April 4, the former President was arraigned in New York on 34 felony charges for falsifying business records related to two hush money payments made during his 2016 presidential campaign. At his arraignment before Judge Juan Manuel Merchan, Trump kept his mouth shut, apart from quietly pleading not guilty to all charges.
But before the arraignment, Trump was busy trying to trash the legal process in advance and intimidate the prosecutor and the judge in the bargain.
Playing the big man, he posted a photo of himself wielding a baseball bat next to a photo of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. He called Bragg “the Corrupt D.A.” who “has no case,” adding: “what he does have is a venue where it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to get a Fair Trial.”
He slandered Merchan as a “Trump Hating Judge hand selected by the Soros backed D.A.” Trump even dragged Merchan’s daughter into his attacks, claiming that she worked for Kamala Harris “and now the Biden-Harris campaign.” During the 2020 election, Ms. Merchan’s firm, Authentic Campaigns was employed to do digital fundraising and advertising for Harris. According to NBC News, there’s no evidence that she currently works for any Biden-Harris political operation.
And of course, there were Trump’s threats of “death and destruction” if he were charged.
When, at the arraignment, prosecutors raised those inflammatory statements, one of Trump’s lawyers, Todd Blanche, tried to downplay Trump’s threats as just an expression of his frustration at what Trump felt was “a grave injustice happening with him being in this courtroom today.”
Judge Merchan acknowledged the importance of Trump’s freedom of speech, but disagreed that the defendant’s language was simply an expression of frustration. The judge admonished Trump to refrain from “making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest” or engaging in rhetoric that will “jeopardize the rule of law.” Merchan did not place any limitations on Trump’s speech at the arraignment but, according to MSNBC, he did warn that if he saw such behavior in the future, he would have to take a closer look. Trump did not protest.
However, once away from the courtroom, Trump contemptuously ignored Judge Merchan’s instruction. In his speech that night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump raved about “the George Soros-backed prosecutor Alvin Bragg of New York, who campaigned on the fact that he would get President Trump… He wants to get President Trump at any cost.”
He repeated his earlier rant: “I have a Trump-hating judge, with a Trump-hating wife and family, whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris and now receives money from the Biden-Harris campaign and a lot of it.”
Trump declared: “The criminal is the district attorney because he illegally leaked massive amounts of grand jury information, for which he should be prosecuted or at a minimum, he should resign.” This, like most words that come out of Trump’s mouth, is a lie.
Trump also preemptively attacked the Georgia prosecutor, Fanni Willis, and the DOJ special prosecutor Jack Smith—calling Willis “a local racist Democratic District Attorney,” and calling Smith “a radical left lunatic known as a bomb thrower who is harassing hundreds of … my people day after day.”
According to NBC News, within 24 hours of the arraignment, Merchan and his family were receiving numerous threats. In addition, D.A. Bragg and other officials in his office have been receiving threats by phone, email, and letters. The New York police detail assigned to the D.A.’s office has had to provide extra security to the staff.
Trump’s endangerment of lives is monstrous. And his flaunting of Judge Merchan’s authority is outrageous. It is unheard of for defendants to thumb their noses at a judge’s directives.
Even if a judge is unreasonable, he is the law in his courtroom, not to be crossed or disrespected. In the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven (originally, the Chicago Eight, before Bobby Seale’s case was severed), Judge Julius Hoffman had Bobby Seale gagged and tied to his chair for having the temerity to object to his personal lack of legal representation. (When Seale’s attorney was hospitalized, Seale was denied both a continuance to delay his case and, alternatively, to self-representation. He called Hoffman names, disrupting the proceeding.)
Unlike Judge Hoffman, Judge Merchan’s actions in relation to Mr. Trump’s provocative behavior have thus far been beyond reasonable. Nevertheless, Trump seems to feel he can disobey the Judge with impunity, continuing to endanger the judge, the prosecutors and, possibly scare off prospective jurors.
Trump’s behavior is appalling, but not surprising. His niece, psychologist Mary Trump, who has a strong familial grasp of her uncle’s mental makeup, tweeted that during the brief glimpse of Trump walking into the courtroom, “we saw the uncertainty, the fear, and the humiliation.” But she added the prescient prediction: “The false bravado will return, and the middle-of-the night posts will continue to be unhinged…” Her prediction was followed by his actions in less than a day.
Although Trump’s behavior was predictable, Judge Merchan’s lack of immediate reaction is somewhat mystifying. According to CNN, Merchan “does not stand for disruptions or delays…and is known to maintain control of his courtroom even when his cases draw considerable attention.” He also has been described, even by adversaries, as tough but fair, regardless of who is before him.
Furthermore, the judge is no shy flower when it comes to handling controversial cases. Merchan was the judge in the case against the Trump Organization and its C.F.O., Allen Weisselberg. There, the organization was found guilty of criminal tax fraud and Weisselberg pled guilty to a scheme involving untaxed benefits.
Some commentators have suggested that Trump may deliberately be trying to bait the judge into issuing a gag order because he is “spoiling for a public political fight on his constitutional, free speech rights.” Perhaps he is hoping to create delay with appeals to appellate courts, or even use a gag order to push for a change of venue or the judge’s recusal.
This may explain why Judge Merchan has not immediately taken some action based on Trump’s post-arraignment tirade. He may also be concerned about the appearance of limiting speech of a presidential candidate.
But, to protect the integrity of the legal system, the proceeding, and the lives of all those involved in the case from witnesses to jurors, Merchan cannot afford to allow his actions to be ruled by Trump’s reckless political machinations. Regardless of public reaction, Merchan should not treat Trump differently from any other defendant. The fact he is running for president should not factor into that equation.
The question remains: how much damage will Trump be allowed to do before the Judge reins him in? Or does Merchan have some other more creative plan for how to defang the former president?
Trump has proudly bleated he has more lawyers “working for me on this Corrupt Law Enforcement induced Bull…than …even the late great gangster, Alphonse Capone!” And Trump’s tactics contain more than a bit of the Al Capone touch.
Like Trump, Capone tried to intimidate those investigating him, and thought he had manipulated the system into giving him a sweet plea deal. And like Trump, Capone’s lawyer argued the case against Capone for tax evasion was an “encroachment and perversion of the government and the law.”
Perhaps, Judge Merchan should take a page out of the book of Capone’s Judge, James Herbert Wilkerson. Judge Wilkerson threw out the Capone plea deal, announcing: “The parties to a criminal case may not stipulate as to the judgment to be entered.” Wilkerson added, “It is time for somebody to impress upon the defendant that it is utterly impossible to bargain with a federal court.”
Capone went on to buy or intimidate the jury. But Wilkerson quite cleverly foiled Capone’s manipulation by switching juries at the last minute with a another judge.
Capone got an 11-year sentence.
May Judge Merchan prove as creative in preventing perversion of the legal system as Judge Wilkerson. And may Trump’s Capone-like tactics work as well for him as they did for Capone. The mobster ended up in Alcatraz.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.