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What happens next in Trump indictment process

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

You have heard this before, and you will hear it again before Trump likely appears in court Tuesday - we still do not know exactly what charges Trump is facing. We do know that they stem from evidence presented to the grand jury that Trump paid a former adult film actress to keep an alleged affair between them secret. So what comes next? I talked about it this week on the NPR Politics Podcast with NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and Domenico Montanaro, NPR's senior political editor and correspondent. I started by asking Domenico how the two impeachment trials that Trump has already faced might give us a sense of what the coming political climate might be like.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Oh, yeah. I mean, we've seen this book over and over again. I mean, yes, this is historic. It's a big deal. But the thing that Trump most wants and the left most wants are the same thing - a picture of him in handcuffs, a photo that's released, a mugshot - because Trump can use that to raise money, fire up his base. He's done a tremendous job politically in insulating himself, at least when it comes to a Republican primary and with his base. The opposite, though, is true when it comes to everybody else, as his brand has become increasingly toxic.

DETROW: But everybody else are, I mean, by and large, the people who put Joe Biden in the White House, right? He made a calculated political push to focus on moderates, on independents.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

DETROW: I guess we don't really have a sense how the trial of not only a former president, but a presidential candidate, if it gets to that point, could play out with that large, large pool of voters.

MONTANARO: I mean, look. The stakes are super high here, not just for the New York district attorney, Alvin Bragg personally, but also politically, because there's a big difference between an indictment and a conviction. And, you know, Trump has been pushing this idea that this is politically motivated. There's some evidence in polling that people believe him. And it's not the case with potentially the largest or most serious peril for Trump. You know, there are three other criminal cases. And if Bragg is not able to secure a conviction here, that'll just play into the Trump narrative. We've seen him, even when a majority of senators voted for his impeachment, he claimed vindication. He did that even when the Mueller investigation in - looking into his role with Russia in his campaign, that he didn't exonerate him, yet Trump still declared vindication. So anything short of a conviction, you can guarantee that's what Trump's playbook is going to be.

DETROW: There have been a lot of threats against the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. And there's also been this clear focus of Republican officials responding to these charges of attacking him and criticizing him and saying that this is partisan and saying this is all about charging the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Carrie, what has his response been to these attacks?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: You know, a lawyer working for DA Alvin Bragg sent a quite strong letter to House Republican chairmen, including Jim Jordan of Ohio, saying it seems like you're collaborating with the former president and acting more like his criminal defense attorneys than a legislative body trying to make policy or new laws. And basically, Bragg says your incursion, your attempted incursion into my ongoing investigation of Donald Trump is unjustified, unprecedented and unnecessary. Bragg says that he will answer some questions, but he wants to know what the congressmen really want to know. And earlier, they had asked him about whether he used any federal funds to try to prosecute Donald Trump. Well, he said, in fact, a very, very small amount of money, something like $5,000, might have been spent mostly in the Supreme Court litigation that the former president brought under the previous Manhattan DA. But Bragg is not giving any ground. And a lot of this friction with House GOP chairmen, I think, will continue.

DETROW: Carrie, does the fact that other charges might come in other investigations affect this case moving forward?

JOHNSON: I don't think it does. Normally, the federal government and state authorities do try to coordinate on some matters. I don't think there has been much coordination here, in part because of the fear of leaks and Attorney General Merrick Garland's policy of basically being very protective of sensitive information. In fact, I asked the AG recently about the political calendar, the idea that the first GOP debate is coming up in August of this year, and whether the special counsel, Jack Smith, would be done by then. He said he didn't know. He wasn't keeping close-enough tabs on what Jack Smith was doing day-to-day. But obviously, there are a lot of fights going on in the federal courthouse with the former president asserting all kinds of legal privileges and mostly losing those fights. That's part of why this investigation is taking a while is because Trump keeps putting forward arguments about executive privilege and attorney-client privilege and all kinds of other things. But he appears to have mostly lost those battles.

DETROW: Stepping back. We have operated in this world for, you know, at least 50 years for sure that presidents just aren't charged with crimes. And part of that is the Justice Department's memo that we talked so much about during the Trump administration about charging current presidents with crimes. But that's not in the law. I think a broader part of it is the fact that Gerald Ford made a decision to pardon Richard Nixon to head off any sort of criminal prosecution of a former president. I mean, this seems to be blowing that all up. This is a new world going forward. This is something that's going to happen.

JOHNSON: Well, certainly, we know from the district attorney, Alvin Bragg's mouth himself, that the former president has been charged in New York. We're still waiting to see what the exact nature of those charges are and also the strength. The strength of that legal case is still an open question. That said, that bridge has been crossed now and we can't uncross it. And so while it was controversial in the moment for Ford to pardon Nixon over the years, a lot of people understood that as being kind of a healing measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERALD FORD: It could go on and on and on or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.

JOHNSON: With the rise of Donald Trump and some of the violations of norms and alleged violations of laws we saw, both before he entered the White House and during his time in the White House, a lot of people have come to question the wisdom of that Justice Department memo, which basically says the federal government can't prosecute a sitting president. You know, the Justice Department, to my knowledge, has not reevaluated that position. That is still the case. The thing that's different is that Donald Trump is not the president now, but he's trying to be the president again. And Scott, you know, he's already pledged on the campaign trail to pardon people convicted in connection with January 6, in connection with the beating up of police officers on January 6, the storming of the Capitol. So this story is not even remotely over. We're just at the beginning in some ways.

DETROW: Domenico, on one hand, I feel like this - I keep seeing the phrase taboo of charging a current or former president. Maybe there's a better term for it. But I feel like so much of that has to go with the power and the symbolism of the office, right? So you have that on one hand. And then on the other hand, you have the particular former president of Donald Trump who seems to be telling everyone who comes across that he can't wait to be handcuffed and perp walked for the street. He's fundraising off of this. He's, you know, last week holding a rally where he plays songs by people in jail because of January 6. So he certainly seems to be all about the spectacle that's going to happen over the next few months.

MONTANARO: Trump loves pushing the envelope, right? And I think that you could argue that what Gerald Ford did in pardoning Richard Nixon, you know, while it was unpopular at the time and became a bit more popular or understandable, you have a president now or a former president now who pushes the limits and pushes the line of what's acceptable. But really, Ford wound up opening a Pandora's box a bit to being able to say, OK, you know, let's see how far someone who could come in the coming decades could go. You know, and the thing is, we're unique to this in this country because other democracies have certainly had their leaders charged with crimes. And, you know, fairly recently, I mean, in Israel, you've had two prime ministers, including the one who's serving currently, who's facing charges. France has had a couple who've faced, you know, embezzlement and other charges. So...

DETROW: Brazil - Lula was charged, went to jail, came back, is also now the current president.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And this is something that is just, I think, hard for Americans to cross this threshold of, to realize and see, because of the way it's always been. But Trump is, again, somebody who just, you know, continues to see how far he can go with something, how far he can take it, because, you know, there's nothing crossing him out from, you know, facing charges, even being convicted and running for president still.

DETROW: That was NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro, and national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson speaking with me on the NPR Politics Podcast. You can hear it every weekday wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.