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As Trump faced trial, key GOP lawmakers aided his public defense

Lawmakers used power of their office to contest judge, jury and prosecutors ahead of Thursday's guilty verdicts

Former President Donald Trump makes comments to the media Thursday as he returns to court for his hush money trial in Manhattan.
Former President Donald Trump makes comments to the media Thursday as he returns to court for his hush money trial in Manhattan. (Seth Wenig/Getty Images pool photo)

During the weeks Donald Trump stood trial on state criminal charges, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s allies in Congress used the power of their office to aid his defense in the court of public opinion.

Guilty verdicts on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records on Thursday against the former president came after key Republican lawmakers held a hearing, wrote letters, released a report, filed an ethics complaint about the judge and spoke to media cameras near the Manhattan courthouse.

Those actions called into question the prosecutors, the judge, the witnesses and the jurors at a time when Trump was bound by a gag order, and amplified Trump’s arguments that sought to paint the legal process as a political weapon meant to damage his campaign.

It’s not unusual for political parties to go to bat for their candidate in a presidential election, either by giving speeches or doing symbolic votes with the goal of gaining an edge.

But congressional experts say the unparalleled scene of a former president on trial has explored new boundaries for what is considered allowable congressional oversight.

“So defending the president — or former president, now candidate — publicly going to his trial, complaining about the judicial process being corrupt, this is all very peculiar and not par for the course at all,” said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University.

Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, said some of the actions from House Republicans represent an escalation of more “partisan support tactics” and that pursuing actions under the committee label adds congressional gravitas.

“With the letterhead comes some institutional clout,” Burgat said.

In the past weeks, Trump and House Republicans even ended up sharing a witness during the trial. Attorney Robert Costello criticized the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses at the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, and a week later Trump’s defense attorneys called him to the stand at the trial itself.

Democrats and detractors say the actions of the GOP lawmakers overstepped their role as federal lawmakers to attempt to sway a state prosecution. Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., the ranking member of that subcommittee, said Trump and his media allies were demanding Republicans “use their positions to aid his criminal defense.”

“We’re here because former president Trump is on trial in New York,” the ranking member said at a hearing. Trump knows, she said, that the testimony at that trial “is harmful to his criminal defense and his political prospects.”

Republicans had already filed legislation to block federal funds from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office, gotten into a legal fight over a subpoena for a former prosecutor from that office, and held a field hearing in New York City on Bragg’s performance as a prosecutor.

But the start of the trial prompted a flurry of new action. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, when asked if Republicans had set out to impact Trump’s trial, said his committee was “just doing our jobs” as members of Congress with their oversight efforts.

“Our job is just to get the facts, these cases are falling apart all over, falling apart because they’re all based on politics,” Jordan said.

Outside help

Opening statements were April 22 in Trump’s trial on charges he falsified documents about a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about a one-time sexual encounter.

Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee released a 34-page interim staff report that pointed to the involvement of a former prosecutor, Mark Pomerantz, as part of their proof that Bragg’s office had a “vendetta” against Trump and was conducting a “political prosecution.”

Pomerantz resigned in 2022 in protest of not charging Trump, and then wrote a book that the report describes as revealing how Bragg’s office had scoured every aspect of Trump’s life looking for potential crimes, the report said.

The report also highlighted the House Republicans’ previous probe into Bragg’s prosecution of Trump, including a letter that asked the Justice Department to investigate whether former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who they dubbed a “star witness” in the hush money case, had lied to Congress on the same topic in 2019.

On April 29, Jordan, along with Republican Reps. Nicole Malliotakis of New York and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, published an opinion piece that echoed the conclusions of the report and criticized a gag order against Trump.

“Think about that. As part of a political prosecution, at the height of the presidential campaign, Democrats in New York have silenced the Republican candidate and prevented him from defending himself from these attacks,” the trio wrote.

On April 30 amid the prosecution’s case, the Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department questioning the motives of another member of the prosecution team.

The panel asked DOJ for information and documents by May 14 about Matthew Colangelo, a former senior DOJ official who was hired to be part of Bragg’s team and gave the opening statements at the trial, as part of “oversight of politically motivated prosecutions by state and local officials.”

Two days later the Judiciary Committee, in a press release that referred to the interim report, released the video of the Pomerantz deposition, taken nearly one year earlier.

And on May 8, as the prosecution got closer to calling Cohen to the stand, Jordan and Rep. James R. Comer, the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, wrote the Justice Department to once again request an investigation into whether Cohen lied to Congress.

Stepping it up

Starting May 13, as Cohen took the stand, Republican members of Congress got more outspoken in their defense.

That Monday, Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Malliotakis went to Manhattan and spoke outside the courthouse, where Tuberville implied without evidence that the jurors may not be U.S. citizens.

Later, on Newsmax, Tuberville called the trial a one-way circus because of the gag order and said he had spoken up in Trump’s defense. “The gag order’s not on me or any other politician, the gag order’s on President Trump,” Tuberville said. “Someone needs to speak on his behalf, and we were able to do that.”

On May 14, the second day of Cohen’s testimony, Speaker Mike Johnson, the second in line for the presidency, went to New York City and said the justice system has been “weaponized” against Trump. “They are doing this intentionally to keep him here, to keep him off the campaign trail,” Johnson said.

Trump had complained for weeks that he cannot hit the campaign trail because he is stuck in a Manhattan courtroom, but he opted against using a holiday weekend break in the criminal hush money trial to visit multiple battleground states.

Other Republican members of Congress later would make the same trip to support Trump, including: Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert; Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs; Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson; and Florida Reps. Anna Paulina Luna, Matt Gaetz, Byron Donalds and Cory Mills.

On May 15, Jordan sent a letter to the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James that demanded documents related to the hiring of the lead prosecutor, Colangelo.

But it was a hearing that day by the Weaponization subcommittee that drew the most direct connection between congressional Republicans and the happenings in the courtroom in New York.

Costello testifies

The star of the hearing was Costello, the former attorney for Trump whose opening statement swiped at Cohen as “a habitual liar and totally unreliable witness.”

Jordan, the chairman of that subcommittee, would later call Costello “an amazing witness” at the committee’s hearing who did a “great job” testifying for Trump’s defense days later.

At the hearing, Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., accused Costello of jury tampering by criticizing Cohen’s credibility while the witness was on the stand. “You know better, and it is shameful,” Goldman said.

“All the Republican majority is trying to do here today is lawfare, is interfere in ongoing criminal investigations that our system is perfectly well-equipped to handle,” Goldman said.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, when it was her turn to ask questions, started with “Bragg’s weaponized sham trial” in New York and criticized Cohen, pointing out that Cohen was asked directly on the stand if he was honest when he testified to Congress in 2019 and had answered “no.”

The New York Republican called Judge Juan Merchan’s gag order on Trump an example of “lawfare,” a play on the idea that courts are used for political warfare, and said his daughter, who has done Democratic consulting work, is raising millions of dollars off the case.

And she asked about the “rigged” jury process, because prosecutors asked potential jurors if they followed Trump on social media but did not ask about if they followed Biden or Cohen.

“Isn’t it true that 87 percent of the jurors said they voted for Joe Biden?” Stefanik said. “Is this unprecedented and lawfared jury shopping?”

Stefanik reportedly filed an ethics complaint against Merchan during the trial over his daughter’s work for Democrats.

The judge consulted with the New York state Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, which pointed out that the matter before the judge “does not involve either the judge’s relative or the relative’s business, whether directly or indirectly” and concluded that “the judge’s impartiality cannot reasonably be questioned based on the judge’s relative’s business and/or political activities.”

Last year, a state judicial disciplinary panel dismissed a complaint against Merchan related to smaller donations he made to entities backing Democrats, according to media reports.

Goldman, in a later interview, chided the Weaponization subcommittee as “effectively an arm of the Trump campaign.” He also said Republicans are attacking the rule of law to defend Trump, something he says can reach further than Trump’s poll numbers.

“It undermines the basic fabric of our country,” Goldman said. “Because if people question our very detailed and tried and true criminal justice system and question whether or not it is working in an impartial manner, then it’s a significant blow to the democratic foundations of our country.”

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