Darren Samuelsohn: Untangling Trump’s Trials

The self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth” is in an unfathomable position. Heavily favored to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president is a man found guilty of rape and fraud in civil courts and facing nearly 100 felony counts in criminal proceedings. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Darren Samuelsohn, a longtime Washington reporter from The Messenger who will give us a useful overview of the 44th President’s various and sundry legal wranglings. We sort through the labyrinthian timelines of the cases, discuss how these trials paradoxically seem to solidify Trump’s support among Republicans, and look at how the complex web of a former president’s criminality has stretched all three branches of the United States Government paper thin.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Darren Samuelsohn (DS) | 00:14 – Where do these criminal trials factor into people’s attentions? The political discourse in the, in the general election campaign, I mean, we never experienced anything like this as a country before.

Narrator | 00:27 – The self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth” is in an unfathomable position. Heavily favored to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president is a man found guilty of rape and fraud in civil courts and facing nearly 100 felony counts in criminal proceedings. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Darren Samuelsohn, a longtime Washington reporter from The Messenger who will give us a useful overview of the 44th President’s various and sundry legal wranglings. We sort through the labyrinthian timelines of the cases, discuss how these trials paradoxically seem to solidify Trump’s support among Republicans, and look at how the complex web of a former president’s criminality has stretched all three branches of the United States Government paper thin.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:25 I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Darren Samuelsohn. He is a senior editor at The Messenger. Darren, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Darren Samuelsohn (DS) | 01:37 – Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:38 – It’s a pleasure to have you covering the 44th President’s legal machinations as a political junkie. I’m sure you didn’t see yourself 10, 15 years ago being up in the weeds trying to understand many, many legal terms, and that’s an expert like yourself. You can imagine how consumers of media are confused. And so that’s why I wanted to have you on to try to break down some of Trump’s legal troubles right now. And just trying to track the Trump criminal cases. We have the federal election interference case. We have the Georgia election interference case. We have the classified documents case, and then the hush money case. These are the criminal cases. And then there’s also the civil case with E. Jean Carroll. And is there another one that I’m forgetting?

Darren Samuelsohn (DS) | 02:29 – There’s definitely one other big one. That’s the civil trial in New York City, uh, where Trump’s company is on the line, right? Uh, with, uh, you know, a trial that took place, basically the last quarter of 2023 was occupied by Donald Trump showing up in court, day in and day out in, in Manhattan. Uh, where soon gonna have that case kicked to the judge where he’ll be issuing his ruling. Uh, there are appeals ongoing as well, so this is not gonna be over anytime soon.

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:54 -So that’s six cases, right?

DS | 02:56 – That’s at least six. And there’s, there, there are other civil cases also, uh, that are happening. And then myriad tangential things to everything that we just discussed, because now the United States Supreme Court is involved on a ton of really big, high profile, big questions that connect directly to everything that you just laid out there. So, I mean, to your original point, Donald Trump, yeah, he’s testing the system to no end, and it’s happening every day. It’s been that way ever since. He, you know, took the escalator down, uh, and announced his run for president in 2015. So, I mean, this has been building and building and building over, over many, many years, going back. And I’ve been covering this basically since, since then. If not, you know, earlier than that. I mean, you know, while Trump was president, that was the big question was would this ever get to Trump? And covering, you know, covering Manafort or covering Roger Stone, you know, that was always, the stories were always like, well, how can this lead to federal prosecutors going after Donald Trump or state prosecutors going after Trump with a huge question that was looming that goes all the way back to Watergate, which is, can a sitting president of the United States be criminally charged? And that, you know, obviously in the clin, excuse me, in the Nixon, uh, in Nixon case, it never quite reached that point because he resigned, uh, amidst impeachment hearings and the writing on the wall that he was going to be toast as president. And then, you know, the next time we really truly see this, I guess it’s, it happens again in the Reagan administration on Iran Contra, and then, um, comes back again during Clinton, uh, with Paula Jones and, and Monica Lewinsky. Um, but again, Donald Trump truly, you know, becomes the first post president to face all of these criminal charges that we’re talking about now. And, I guess I have a unique background covering the civil cases and then the first go around of criminal cases involving Trump’s people that here we sit now and, and yeah, it’s a ton. It’s way, way, way more than what I was dealing with when I was at Politico covering the Mueller investigation. I mean, as you point out, there’s just a lot of material happening on any given day and it requires a lot of windows on my screen open at all times to be seeing what’s happening because, yeah, it’s hard to keep track of all this stuff. We’ve got a pretty good system in place to do that. 

AW | 05:06 – So let’s start with a federal election interference case, which is one of the two criminal cases that Special Counsel Jack Smith is overseeing along with the classified documents case. Give us a quick executive summary of the federal election interference case, if you can Darren. 

DS | 05:24 – Absolutely. Sure. So the federal election interference case brought last summer charges only Donald Trump with, uh, basically, uh, obstruction of the 2020 election. Forgive me, I’m blanking right now on exactly the, the specific crimes, but there’s, there’s a whole host accounts against him. There are several unindicted co-conspirators, people who Trump is accused of working with Rudy Giuliani as widely seen as one. John Eastman is another, Sidney Powell, Jeffrey Clark. Um, a lot of the names that overlap with the Georgia State charges that are also playing out. What’s most important, I guess, about the, the federal case is it’s the one that is slated for trial, earliest currently in March of this year. So less than two months from now, is, is the current schedule for that trial. That’s the one taking place in Washington, DC  in front of a jury of Washington DC residents. Trump’s lawyers have already acknowledged they expect him to be convicted in this case. So in some respects, it’s really a question of whether this trial even happens. It sure looks like it will happen. There are some hurdles right now that we are dealing, that we’re watching play out in terms of when the case will actually get to trial. That is literally what’s going on right now before the US Court of Appeals, where there’s this big question of presidential immunity, which Trump is using as a claim to try and knock this case out before it can even go to trial. This is a question that could very well get to the United States Supreme Court. And in fact, Jack Smith already asked the United States Supreme Court to take the case, and the Supreme Court said, “No, follow the proper process,” which is to go through the United States Court of Appeals here in Washington first. And we just had oral arguments on this. This is the arguments where Trump’s lawyers were, were pressed to, to say whether Trump could even be charged if he had ordered up his seal Team six to assassinate a political rival. And, Trump’s lawyers said, yeah, if it’s a presidential act, that would be okay, as well as selling pardons was another hypothetical that they, that they tossed at Trump’s lawyers. And, and likewise, Trump’s lawyers argued that he could, this similar argument to what Trump was saying way back in the 2016 campaign, albeit a little bit less on the legal front, but when he was saying he could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, this claim is one that he’s been making over and over, that he’s immune from crimes when he is president. And the way this looks though is, is, uh, the Court of appeals and the Supreme Court are probably going to say, no, that’s not right, Donald Trump, you do not have absolute immunity, uh, as president. They will cite most likely a very important Supreme Court case from the Nixon, uh, era, uh, when Nixon was trying to shield the, the White House tapes from the impeachment investigators back then and the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision against Richard Nixon, which ultimately, you know, helps propel him toward resignation. Says, no, President Nixon, you cannot be using executive privilege to, to, to keep the, uh, the tapes from the Watergate. Prosecutors. Very likely we’re going to hear the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals might be the final say on this. Uh, no, that will kick it back to Judge Chutkan, who is the federal judge overseeing this trial. And then away we go. It might not happen in March, like it’s currently scheduled. It might happen in April or May, depending on how much more time these this particular fight draws out. But it’s likely we’re going to see a trial for Donald Trump. And that’s why it’s so important. It’s, it seems like it’s the one trial, uh, that we most likely will have. And if, and if it doesn’t happen, then one of these other cases that we’re talking about, most likely, the, the New York case, the Stormy Daniels hush money case, which is a state case, which is also scheduled for the end of March of this year, is sitting there waiting. And, and basically it’s kind of like running the option in football. One of these two cases is going to happen. It’s a question of whether, you know, it’ll be this, this federal case will happen, or if not, I think then the Stormy Daniels, uh, New York case will then take, will go at in March. And it’s, this is a question of like resources. Like Donald Trump can’t be in two places at one time. He’s a criminal defendant. And so that’s why you’ve got these four cases, they’re all sort of lined up here in 2024. And again, it’s a matter of which case will occupy Donald Trump’s time in the month of March, which of course overlaps with all of the primary voting when he is very likely to be, uh, cementing his role as the Republican nominee for president. And this is why Trump’s legal strategy has been so intertwined politically with his legal strategy to delay these cases and slow this whole process down as much as he possibly can. And the point there is to, again, try and slow walk any of these steps that we’re talking about so that he, you know, if he’s elected president on November 4th, 5th of 2024 immediately begins the transition from Joe Biden to, to Donald Trump. And every indication is that he brings in a justice department that, you know, not only makes these cases, the federal cases, let’s be importantly clear about that the federal cases, the two cases would, would vanish all manner of political, uh, turmoil would come from doing that. Or if again, if he doesn’t think that constitutionally that is valid, he could even take office, step down for a moment, let his vice president step in, who could then pardon himself, pardon Trump as president, then Trump could come back as president. It’s a West wing scenario, if there ever was one in terms of the television show.

AW | 10:43 – Or more like the Kremlin, when Putin overrode that law that prohibited him for running for a third term or something, he was like, “Oh, I’ll just be vice president for four years!” And then he took over again. One sees Trump running basically to get out of jail. “I don’t want to go to prison, so I want to be president.”

DS | 11:05 – Yeah, it’s absolutely part and parcel. I mean, he’s running for president. I mean, in some respects, the cases are helping him dramatically. I mean, he has cemented his role as the Republican nominee. He’s been raising money by his court off of his court appearances. I mean, you look at the campaign emails that come out day in and day out, that that are, you know, sent to his followers. They are asking for money to help with his legal defense, to defend him against, uh, the Biden administration. Def defend him against his opponent. I mean, again his lawyers were arguing in court as recently as, uh, just the last couple of days in federal appeals court, um, on the immunity question. You know, they’re, they’re, they’re, they’re raising the prospect that this is going to lead to tit for tat recriminations. And again, Trump is talking openly about prosecuting Joe Biden, uh, Barack Obama, you know, all manner of people if he comes back into office. Not to mention, you know, the Jack Smiths of the world, the people who are currently prosecuting or investigating him, Trump is vowing to go ahead and go after those folks. Um, which, you know, there are all manner of difficult challenges in trying to pull that off, uh, in terms of actually getting judges to agree. That said, you can really ruin someone’s life by just causing an investigation of them or, uh, you know, bringing charges against them. So yeah, this is like where we are in terms of politics in 2024. It’s important to note, you know, to bring up the two state cases, the New York case and the Georgia case, uh, as president of the United States. Trump can’t pardon himself from those cases. He can’t order his Justice Department to shut those cases down because those are state driven cases. In the event of a conviction in New York, it’s unlikely Trump will see jail time is what you often hear on the hush money case, and even if he was convicted in a New York case, but then again, it’s up to the judge to decide what to do there in terms of a penalty. And then in Georgia, same thing, uh, you know, convicted there. He would be, again, facing j facing jail time in state penitentiary in Georgia. However, if he’s elected president, it’s important to note there is something called the supremacy clause, the United States Constitution, which likely would become a very, we would all become very familiar with that in terms of, uh, legal, uh, expertise. Trump’s lawyers have already invoked it to say that, you know, if Trump is the duly elected president of the United States, uh, that overrides anything else. And so if the voters have decided to make Trump president, uh, that would almost what the argument would be that Trump would suspend or try and get the Georgia Courts to suspend that case for the duration of time while he’s a president, which means that after he is president, you know, assuming his term ended in, in January, 2029, we haven’t seen a change to the Constitution that allows Trump to serve a third term or fourth term or a fifth term, that, you know, he might have to, in 2029, report to, uh, a Georgia penitentiary if he had been convicted at that point,

(Music Break) | 14:03

AW | 14:55 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Darren Samuelsohn. He is a senior editor at The Messenger. So Darren going through Trump’s trials, I think it’s pretty stunning that his political fortunes seem to go up during these trials when he’s not even pretending that he didn’t do these things.

DS | 15:16 – Again, the Republican base can win Donald Trump the nomination for the presidency. It does not win in the general election. And that’s where, again, so often in American history and American politics, you win the nomination by playing to the, to the base of your party, and then you have to tack back to the middle in order to, to capture those, uh, you know, the general election voters who actually can win you, uh, a presidential election. And obviously Donald Trump was successful in 2016 and finding, uh, a lot of voters who didn’t, who didn’t vote and who didn’t turn out. Um, in states that traditionally have gone democratic, uh, industrial heartland states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, uh, all states that then Joe Biden would flip back in 2020, uh, into the Democrats column. And so, you know, that is really what I think we will we’ll be watching closely is like, where do these criminal trials factor into, you know, people’s attentions, the political discourse in the, in the general election campaign. I mean, we never experienced anything like this as a country before. And does that turn people off? Does that excite people to come out, you know, in the, I mean, you’re going to hear from the Biden campaign over and over, you know, this is about democracy and protecting democracy, um, which was a winning line in 2020 that they were able to use to, to secure the presidency.

AW | 16:30 – Are they all scheduled to be coming to trial in 2024 Darren?

DS | 16:35 – Yeah, so the answer to that is, I mean, check back with me every week because it’s constantly changing. I mean, if standing here right now, you know, you know, the moment that you and I are talking, there are three criminal trials on the books scheduled, and that’s, as a legal reporter editor, you have to be very careful to just talk about what’s on the books that’s scheduled. Three cases are scheduled, the fourth one, and those three are again, the, the criminal trial in DC March 4th, scheduled to begin. Then March 24th, fifth, sixth is when the Stormy Daniels New York case is scheduled to begin. I believe May 20th is when the Alene Cannon Florida case is scheduled to begin. And then the last one, the Georgia case is currently, there’s a proposal to schedule it for August of this year in Georgia. That’s a proposal from Fannie Willis that the judge has yet to rule on. Um, let’s just take those at their face value for a second. And I say that because I don’t think all four will happen. I think maybe one of these four will ultimately happen.

AW | 17:33 – Before the election?

DS | 17:34 – Yes, before the election. I think that the, again, the, I think that Jack Smith case will happen before the election. The, the, the Washington DC case on 2020 will happen before the election.

AW | 17:44 – You mentioned the Aileen Cannon case, even though that is also a Jack Smith case, the classified documents in Mar-a-Lago, which seems like a pretty cut and dried case, but as you and I are both thinking of it as the Alene Cannon case, because this is a judge who seemed pretty underqualified when she got to the federal bench and seems by all indications to be in the bag for Trump. And that seems to be his best bet is that this judge is going to come through for him, which, you know, we were talking about, we’ve never seen anything like this in the political realm, having  a presidential candidate be mired in so many legal cases, concomitantly, but it’s also really tests our legal system when we, when we’re starting to think about who’s calling the strikes and balls, whether these people are legitimately placed in their roles or whether they have a, apolitical agenda. It’s stressing all three branches of our government simultaneously. 

DS | 18:43 – Yeah. Stressing all three branches, stressing, you know, the, the fourth estate as well, for sure. I mean, I would say on Alien can, I mean, she is the judge overseeing the case. She’s not the one who gets to decide whether Trump is guilty or, or not guilty, though she could, don’t get me wrong, she could rule on Trump’s motions to dismiss and dismiss the case of, and if she did that Trump, excuse me, Jack Smith, I’m sure would appeal to the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals, which overruled, don’t rem don’t forget, uh, Aileen Cannon in an earlier Mar-a-Lago, the special master situation that she set up at the end of last year after the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, uh, to get the documents, that they have now since charged Trump with mishandling. So Judge Can, has come in for a lot of incoming fire for, for handling of that case. And now obviously on a number of pretrial motions and, and how she’s even reprimanded Jack Smith on, on a number of occasions for things. You know, the big question there is when will that trial actually take place? I mean, if, let’s just kind of again, think through if the March trial gets pushed back a little bit in D.C.

AW | 19:44 The federal election interference case  that’s supposed to take place on March 4th, is that what you’re referring to?

DS | 19:49 – Correct. That’s the one I’m referring to. Sorry, yeah. Sometimes I go into shorthand, but yeah, March 4th, that case will probably be delayed by a couple of weeks, months, maybe because of the appeals process playing out right now on this pretrial question. But once that trial gets put on the books, I think that one will again, take precedent over the, the Eileen Cannon case, which is also already in, in some degree of uncertainty, because it gets tricky here, but we’re dealing with classified documents that the federal government that Trump is charged with taking the federal government may not want those introduced as evidence in the course of the trial because of, um, the classified nature of those materials. And there’s a whole…

AW | 20:28 – Long redaction process.

DS | 20:30 – Correct. Yeah. So enough to say that it’s such a complicated case with so much complicated evidence that, again, Judge Cannon doesn’t get to make the, the ultimate verdict. It’s the jury in South Florida that will decide if Trump’s guilty or innocent. And I think that just, there’s so much related to the classified nature of these materials and the back and forth, not to mention, uh, there’s been a lot of infighting. The cases currently in, in all respects is on sort of a, a lot of, uh, it’s sort of on hold right now, uh, for a variety of reasons. And there’s a big hearing coming up on, I believe it’s March 1st before Judge Cannon, and that’s when she’s going to announce when the trial will really happen. So that’s why I also will say like, check back in March 1st because we’ll learn from Cannon at that point, whether she’s going to go ahead. And by then, we’ll also know, hopefully from the Supreme Court and the appeals court, what’s going on in that Washington DC federal case, because if they move that case back a little bit, we know that that case is going to take about two months to present in terms of the prosecution and the defense. And you just have to, again, remember, you can’t have Trump on two trials in two places at one time. So Canon will adjust her schedule based on that, which means she probably pushes her case back to some period in the, in the summer, which then starts to overlap really directly with the campaign season at a level where you could see Canon saying, okay, we move this case to after the election.

AW | 21:49 – That’s just the federal criminal cases. So let’s start with the civil case. So the E. Jean Carroll rape case, that’s already been decided, right? It’s just a question of how much money he has to pay her or is, or, or, or is he appealing that

DS | 22:06 – So this is E. Jean Carroll trial starts on Tuesday, the 16th of January. This is his second defamation case. He was already found guilty of defamation once and then found, I can’t remember the dollar figure that was attached to it, but he’s already been ordered to pay her. He went out and continued to defame her after that. 

AW | 22:24 – Oh, so they have another trial just on him doubling down on the defamation?

DS | 22:28 Correct. Okay. <laugh>, correct. Very similar to what Rudy Giuliani has recently been doing after being found, you know, culpable of defamation on the Georgia election workers, same scenario. First, he has to be found guilty of the defamation times two. So that’s what’s going to happen. And that, I believe is before a federal jury in, uh, in Manhattan, same courthouse, same jurisdiction as the last one.

AW | 22:49 – And then the New York fraud case?

DS | 22:51 – New York fraud case, uh, I mean, he’s already been found guilty there, so it’s not really a question of, um, will he be found guilty or not. It’s already happened. The judge found that way before the trial even started, which has kind of, uh, been interesting, and it’s really a matter of, again, how much will he be penalized and will he be banned from, uh, uh, business in New York forevermore, which is, you know, that goes right to the heart of what Donald Trump is all about. It’s, you know, it’s how he became who he became is, is his New York real estate business marketing, excuse me, uh, branding, empire golf courses, all the, all of it. So if he loses all of that in New York, obviously, uh, get ready for a long appeal process that will, that it’s already playing out. I mean, he’s already appealed, um, that earlier judge’s ruling. So the question there is just how much money, um, and is he banned? Does he get a sort of a New York death penalty for business purposes in Manhattan?

AW | 23:41 – And then moving on to the criminal cases, the, the Stormy Daniels hush money case seems to be the least harsh in terms of if he were found guilty, the penalties don’t seem as dire. Is that a fair characterization? 

DS | 23:56 – That is a fair characterization. Yeah. I mean this is now bringing us back to 2015, 2016, which is kind of fascinating. This was a, a, a case that was investigated by the feds, and then they ultimately decided not to bring charges against Trump who was a, a sitting president while they were doing their investigation. So remember this, again, there’s a Justice Department protocols that say they can’t indict a sitting president while they’re in office. And so that’s why they remember they in, they did go ahead and indict Michael Cohen, who then flipped and pled guilty and testified against Trump, which is ultimately what propelled the Manhattan DA here to bring the charges against Trump all these years later. And hard to know. I mean, I think Manhattan jury, I mean, it just takes one person to, to hang that jury. And, um, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s going to be a very interesting, contentious case. And Trump will, you know, Trump has supporters in New York for sure. Interestingly though, I mean, remember going back to the Gene Carroll first defamation trial. I remember as they were talking through who the jurors were, there were some Trump fans on that jury who still voted, and found him guilty. So, you know, it again, depends on who the people are on that jury, which I’m sure is going to be a, a huge focus of Trump’s world, his legal team to, you know, try and find some Trump supporters to, for their, for their sake, get on that jury.

AW | 25:10 – And then we’ve kind of covered the classified documents and federal election interference case, but which one of those two do you think has more of a likelihood of finding Trump guilty? 

DS | 25:22 – I mean, I’ll quote, you know, sources close to Trump world who told us and we reported, you know, two, three months ago, they’re expecting conviction and that they think their best chances at the Supreme Court 

AW | 25:31 – In both cases. 

DS | 25:32 – No, that’s just the Jack Smith. I’m sorry, that’s just the election interference case. I mean, I think the legal commentators of the world flipping to the Mar-a-Lago case say that one is a slam dunk as well. Conviction. But I’ll point out, and we have a, we published a story on this at, in the messenger, I want to say right after the, the charges were brought in, uh, the summer South. Florida’s an interesting place. It’s my hometown where I grew up and know very well. And, and they have a history of, of finding, uh, of acquitting, uh, public figures, um, whether it be sports stars, um, Miami Dolphin wide receiver, mark Duper, uh, overcame, I believe federal charges and, and was acquitted. Um, after his, uh, after a, a criminal case played out there, Jack Smith did decide to take the case down there. There was a big question of whether he would be charged Trump in Florida or Washington and Trump’s people were making clear arguments that it needed to be down in Florida, knowing full well they’d be in front of a jury, that would be a little bit better for them. It’s a question of whether it’s a Miami jury versus a Palm Beach jury. 

AW | 26:32 I’ve been incorrectly calling it four federal criminal cases, but this Georgia election interference case is a state criminal case, and the confusing part is that there are other people who are…Out of the 18 indictments, there are people who’ve been trying to change locale, trying to move it to federal court, but that keeps getting shot down, right? 

DS | 26:55 – Yeah. So basically two of the, actually I think it’s four or five of the defendants, um, are all in the moment trying to force the case into federal court and their portions of the federal case into federal court. And so far they have not had success. Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, is the one who has pushed this the furthest. He’s gotten it to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and three judge panel there, including, um, I believe one or two Trump appointees, uh, rejected him on that. I might be wrong on the Trump appointees part, but, um, it was a three judge panel in, in Atlanta said, no, this case needs to happen in state court. Um, Meadows is currently trying to take it up to the full panel of the 11th circuit, which would be in front of all of the judges of the 11th circuit. He could win there. It’s really hard to know just straight up.

AW | 27:44 – Well, you obviously have your hands full, and I appreciate you taking the time to walk us through all this and I hope you can come back later in the year as the election heats up and we can talk more about the political ramifications of all these cases, Darren Samuelsohn of The Messenger. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

DS | 28:01 – It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and The Clash. To read a transcript of this show, go to Sea ChangeRadio.com stream, or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.