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Trouble for Trump in Georgia: A tape recording, a TV trial and all those co-defendants

Donald Trump

Another day, another indictment?

Not exactly.

The fourth time Donald Trump has faced criminal charges since leaving the White House − a statement that manages to simultaneously sound unimaginable and mundane − is not like all the others. The charges by a Fulton County grand jury in Atlanta that the former president tried to overturn the 2020 election are familiar, outlined already in a congressional impeachment trial and a federal special counsel’s indictment.

But there are ways in which this trial will not be like all the others. The law and the politics in this case pose distinctive perils that could make it the most serious challenge of all to Trump’s future and whether that entails a term in prison or in the White House.

Here’s how:

There’s a tape of that phone call

“So what are we going to do here folks?” Trump can be heard saying toward the end of an hourlong phone call on Jan. 2, 2021, with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which he pleaded, beseeched and threatened him to “find” the votes Trump needed to carry Georgia. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”

In Trump’s own voice, in his own words, he can be heard trying to overturn an election outcome that Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, repeatedly told him had been accurately counted and confirmed as a victory for Democrat Joe Biden. Trump was undeterred in exchanges that are easy to understand and hard to explain away.

By the way, it was another taped phone conversation, one in which he tried to coerce the new president of Ukraine to help him politically, that prompted Trump’s first impeachment.

The trial will be on TV

The other pending trials will feature what might seem like an archaic form of journalism, the courtroom drawing, plus the descriptive powers of reporters to convey in words the dramatic exchanges between witnesses and prosecutors, between witnesses and defense lawyers.

Cameras aren’t typically allowed in federal or New York courtrooms, but they are required in Georgia courtrooms, with a judge’s approval. That would give Americans the opportunity to see every moment and make their own decisions about who and what to believe.

The possible ratings? In another celebrated trial, of former football star O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles in 1995 for double murder, 57% of the country tuned in to watch the verdict. He was acquitted, a decision that divided the nation along racial and other lines.

Pardon me? Not so fast

Trump’s legal and political strategies have become intertwined. They have lent synergy to his efforts to win the White House and to avoid the consequences of his federal indictments.

Even if he is convicted on federal charges of mishandling sensitive government documents and of trying to overturn a legitimate election, he could, as a reelected president, issue a pardon to himself. What’s more, several of his Republican rivals for the nomination say they would likely pardon him, if they won the White House.

But no president can pardon someone convicted in a state court, and getting a pardon in Georgia is particularly complicated.

Georgia is one of a handful of states that doesn’t give the power to pardon to the governor. Instead, the state constitution establishes an independent Board of Paroles and Pardons, its five members appointed to staggered seven-year terms by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. The current members were all appointed by GOP governors, but a 2022 analysis by the Brookings Institution concluded that the panel doesn’t have the power to issue preemptive pardons before a defendant has been convicted.

Even then, the board’s guidelines say applications would be considered only after specific provisions have been met, among them fulfilling any prison term. The mandatory minimum for the charges against Trump is five years.

It’s David vs. Goliath

Or, rather, Fani T. Willis vs. Donald J. Trump.

Trump has denounced all his indictments as evidence of a Democratic “witch hunt” engineered by the Biden administration to persecute him and deny him another term in the White House. “They never went after those that Rigged the election,” he wrote on his social media account Tuesday, vowing to release an “Irrefutable” report that would prove his debunked claims of election fraud in Georgia.

While Fulton County District Attorney Willis is a Democrat, she was elected to her post, not appointed by President Joe Biden. She isn’t backed by the Department of Justice or the Biden administration.

She is a local prosecutor taking on a former president. The charges could not be more serious − an alleged effort to undermine democracy − or her reach more sweeping. The 98-page indictment targets not only Trump but also 18 co-defendants, from the former White House chief of staff to obscure functionaries, using the RICO law (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) originally designed to prosecute the mob.

That sounds like a daunting task, even an impossible one. Still, in the past 2 ½ years, Willis has gained a reputation as a hard-charging prosecutor. She sought the death penalty for a serial murderer and sent public school teachers to jail in a cheating scandal. She used the racketeering statute against them too.

And to remind you: David won.

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