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‘Sympathy’ for The Donald

How the 'Teflon Donald' hijacked the narrative about his possible NYC indictment

Former President Donald Trump boards his airplane, bound for Iowa, at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13.
Former President Donald Trump boards his airplane, bound for Iowa, at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Oops, Donald Trump did it again. And so did we.

The former reality show host and executive producer appears to have stage-managed, with many false statements, his own potential arrest and indictment in Manhattan. And we — the political world and media — once again fell for it.

Trump set off political and legal ripple waves Saturday morning by telling his Truth Social followers he expected to be arrested Tuesday. The indictment — which still could be incoming — would stem from the Manhattan district attorney office’s probe into how Trump’s organization made a payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. If an indictment is afoot, it would mark the first criminal charges for a former U.S. president. “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” he wrote.

But it didn’t happen Tuesday, and there was scant evidence at publication time it would on Wednesday. Trump’s private Boeing 757 jet has not been spotted at a New York area airport, nor has a Secret Service motorcade been spotted at the Big Apple courthouse where he is expected to be processed.

The NYC grand jury, in a telling bit of scheduling, heard testimony Monday and did not meet on Tuesday. Having not yet wrapped up its work, an arrest and indictment simply is not in the cards — though experts and former officials say it could still happen in the next few days.

Or weeks.

Jeh Johnson, a former Homeland Security director and also a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, said Tuesday any possible indictment could slip into next week — or beyond. He told MSNBC that the Manhattan district attorney’s office does not have to rush any decision to, for the first time, indict a former American commander in chief.

Trump reportedly speaks with his legal team regularly. So he would have known on Saturday morning that his defense team planned on Monday to call as a witness New York attorney Robert Costello, a longtime Trump ally and a former legal adviser to Michael Cohen, who was once Trump’s fixer and attorney. His legal team also would have known the grand jury was not slated to be in session on Tuesday.

That means the jury would not have had ample time to digest and discuss Costello’s claims that Cohen lied when he testified to them that Trump was intimately involved in an alleged hush money payment to Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) and a subsequent effort to hide the payment within Trump business organization financial records. Cohen already completed a prison sentence handed out, in part, over the fraudulent books.

“If they want to go after Donald Trump and they have solid evidence, so be it,” Costello told reporters Monday after his testimony. “But Michael Cohen is far from solid evidence.” Cohen did the cable TV rounds and called Costello some names, alleging he also lied, and tried to dent his credibility.

Trump, meantime, has spent much of the week going over District Attorney Alvin Bragg on his social media platform. He has launched personal and professional attack after attack, accusing Bragg of a politically motivated investigation, among other accusations.

Deny. Deflect. Discredit.

Team Trump has gone to the playbook that has, frankly, worked for The Donald over and over during his entire adult life.

Smokescreens and ‘sympathy’

As former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who says he will decide in a few weeks whether to oppose Trump in the 2024 GOP primary — put it on Sunday: “The circus continues.”

The Trump offensive is built on three pillars.

The hijack: By falsely blasting out to the world that he expected to be arrested and hauled into NYC processing on Tuesday, Trump hijacked the narrative.

With no arrest the day after Costello claimed to have over 300 emails with Cohen that, according to the lawyer, shows the former fixer lied to the grand jury, Trump can now step up his attacks on Bragg’s probe.

“There was no ‘misdemeanor’ here either. There was no crime, period. All other of the many Democrat law enforcement officers that looked at it, took a pass … and so did Bragg,” Trump posted on Monday. “But then, much latter, he changed his mind. Gee, I wonder why? Prosecutorial Misconduct and Interference with an Election. Investigate the Investigators!”

The smokescreens: Trump routinely drops false statements then sends surrogates out to, as his former chief strategist Steve Bannon has put it: “Flood the zone with s***.”

An indictment likely would help the former president in the GOP primary. But it also could turn off more moderate Republican and independent voters that went for President Joe Biden in 2020.

That’s why Team Trump is trying so hard to plant doubt in voters’ minds about Bragg’s true motivations and Cohen’s credibility.

Costello called Cohen “totally unreliable.”

And here was Trump on Truth Social on Tuesday: “On three separate occasions, Cohen asked me to grant him a Presidential Pardon on events having to do with these outside interests. I said, correctly, ‘NO.’ Sometime after that he became a Fake Storyteller, and began to lie about events!”

The ‘sympathy’: Republican lawmakers and potential 2024 presidential candidates rallied to Trump’s defense.

New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, a potential 2024 candidate, said the many probes of the former president are “building sympathy for Trump.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally, told Fox News on Tuesday morning an indictment would “blow up our country.”

“And this is a bunch of BS. You’ve had the prosecutor before Bragg, Mr. [Cyrus] Vance, look at the case and pass on it,” Graham said. “You had the U.S. attorney in New York say, ‘I’m not gonna do it.'”

Graham contends Bragg is reacting to a book written by a former prosecutor in the New York office, Mark Pomerantz. The senator summarized his view of that book’s premise and impact this way: Vance should have prosecuted Trump but let him off. “And Bragg feels that pressure,” Graham said.

‘Finger-printed, mug-shotted’

Former GOP Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., said one “very telling lesson is that we’re seeing the permanency of our partisan divide post-Trump presidency. There appeared to be zero hesitancy for Republicans to ignore the facts and law, and instead jump straight to innuendo, demonization, and denial. Not sure the country gets back to where we once were.”

Here’s the bottom line: As always, at the root of Team Trump’s Triple-D strategy is an argument everyone is out to get The Donald. Cohen is on a revenge tour. Bragg is a politicized D.A. who is trying to protect his office. And Biden is pulling all the strings from the Oval Office in an attempt to get an edge in a potential general election rematch.

But consider the prospect of a former U.S. president’s NYPD mugshot and fingerprints on display for the 594 days until Election Day 2024.

“[Trump] only profits and does well in chaos and turmoil. And so he wants to create the chaos and turmoil on his terms. He doesn’t want it on anybody else’s terms,” Christie said on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. “But look, at the end, being indicted never helps anybody. It’s not a help.”

“So I don’t think the American people probably see this as a huge crime,” he added. “But the vision of a former president of the United States being processed, finger-printed, mug-shotted … I don’t think [that] ever helps anybody.”

But if being cuffed and stuffed could help anyone, it probably is the “Teflon Donald.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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