Once again, the legal pitfalls and enthusiasm deficit that plague Donald Trump’s bid for the 2024 Republican nomination are on display. On Thursday, a federal judge imposed $938,000 in sanctions on Trump and his lawyers. Meanwhile, an appearance touted by Trump as a major campaign event was nothing more than a closed-door speech to deep-pocketed election-deniers at a Trump property.
For those looking for uplift from a Trump campaign, those days are over. Rather, personal grievance and claims of a stolen 2020 election will likely be his dominant themes. For the 45th president, that may bring catharsis. For everyone else in the Republican party, that spells chaos, headache and the possibility of another Trump defeat at the hands of Joe Biden and the Democrats.
“Mr Trump is a prolific and sophisticated litigant who is repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries,” the court thundered in its ruling. “He is the mastermind of strategic abuse of the judicial process.”
Judge Donald Middlebrooks shredded Trump and his lawyers for bringing a failed and frivolous racketeering lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, her political allies and a passel of ex-government officials. In the judge’s eyes, the lawsuit was little else than a repackaged Trump campaign stump speech.
A day later, Trump dropped a separate lawsuit filed against Letitia James, New York’s attorney general. That case too was pending before Middlebrooks, who similarly viewed that matter as “vexatious and frivolous”. The threat of sanctions hung in the air.
As for the Trump speech the public never heard, it now is another self-inflicted nothingburger, up there with his much-touted Trump NFT superhero trading cards – a waste of time and attention, a lost opportunity.
Earlier in the day, Trump had vowed to deliver a major political announcement later that night. He also promised to resume his signature rallies. Instead, he spoke behind closed doors at Trump Doral, his resort in Miami, to Judicial Watch, a tax-exempt group ostensibly dedicated to promoting “integrity, transparency and accountability in government and fidelity to the rule of law”.
That is the line Judicial Watch feeds the IRS. Reality is different. Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch’s president, pushed Trump to declare victory early on election night 2020 and stop counting ballots. Fitton also argued that White House records were Trump’s to keep.
Rule of law? Not so much, actually.
To be sure, Trump still leads the pack of prospective Republican presidential nominees. No other Republican contender possesses the same rapport with the party’s white working-class base; no one else is owed so much by Kevin McCarthy, the beleaguered speaker of the House.
By the numbers, Trump retains a double-digit advantage over Ron DeSantis, Florida’s spite-filled but mirthless governor. So far, the 45th president’s mounting legal woes, listless campaign and friction with the evangelical leadership have not displaced him from his perch.
At the same time, the Republican field appears poised for a growth spurt, and if 2016 teaches anything, it is that more actually is merrier from Trump’s vantage point. It dilutes the opposition.
Right now, anyway, Trump’s prospective challengers are running in place or forming circular firing squads. Mike Pence, his vice-president, hawks So Help Me God, a memoir. His numbers last hit double digits in June 2022. Candidates in retrograde usually lose.
Apparently, Pence is betting that abortion and the supreme court’s decision overturning Roe v Wade may get him to the promised land. Or not. In case Pence forgot, voters in otherwise reliably conservative Kansas and Kentucky rejected abortion bans.
Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, and Nikki Haley, his one-time UN ambassador, are publicly engaged in a personal spat. In Never Give an Inch, his soon-to-be released memoir, Pompeo trashes Haley for “abandoning” Trump and being less than consequential.
Celebrity Apprentice is back. “Haley has become just another career politician whose ambitions matter more than her words,” Taylor Budowich, a former Trump spokesman who sued the January 6 committee, has since chimed in.
To be sure, Haley gives as good as she gets. She accuses Pompeo of peddling “lies and gossip to sell a book” – arguing that Pompeo “is printing a Haley anecdote that he says he doesn’t know for certain happened this way”, to quote Maggie Haberman.
Yet for all of his would-be opponents’ missteps, Trump’s road to re-nomination won’t be a coronation. His mojo is missing, his aura of inevitability damaged, if not gone. In the two months since Trump announced his candidacy, he has barely ventured from the confines of Mar-a-Lago, his redoubt by the Atlantic.
There is also the primary calendar. Trump could well face Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s popular governor, in the state’s primary. A Trump loss in the Granite State would be monumental. He won that contest seven years ago. And down in Georgia, governor Brian Kemp may be aching for revenge.
Beyond that, Trump has suffered a series of recent legal setbacks. Last month, a Manhattan jury convicted the Trump Organization on tax and fraud charges. As a coda, the court imposed $1.6m in fines, the maximum allowed under state law.
Then there is the pending sexual assault and defamation litigation brought by E Jean Carroll. At a rage-filled deposition, the ex-reality show host flashed moments of verbal incontinence. There, he confused the plaintiff with Marla Maples, his second wife. In that split second, his much-hyped “she’s not my type” defense may have vanished.
The near future does not appear much brighter. A trial is set for later this spring.
Meanwhile, the special counsel moves ahead and the Manhattan district attorney reportedly shows renewed interest in Trump Organization payments to Stormy Daniels. Along the way, Michael Cohen has resurfaced. The circus is back.
To top it off, in Georgia, a Fulton county court will hear arguments this coming week on whether to release a grand jury report on the 2020 election. If indicted, Trump’s fate on extradition could well rest with DeSantis. Now that’s ironic.
Lloyd Green is an attorney in New York and served in the US Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992