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Trump trial delays bring focus to crucial Supreme Court case

Trump trial delays bring focus to crucial Supreme Court case

Donald Trump’s hush-money trial in New York is like an insatiable maw or some type of blackhole or a galactic vacuum cleaner that is sucking up everything around it.

In my conversations about these last few weeks, I have taken to describing the exhausting experience as Trump Trial Time (TTT).

This is in many ways to be expected. Trump’s criminal trial(s) are truly historic. He is the first former president to be put on trial for committing a felony. The hush-money trial has now taken on even more importance. Judge Aileen Cannon has indefinitely postponed Donald Trump’s federal trial in Florida for stealing classified documents. On Wednesday, Trump’s trial in Georgia for election interference was also indefinitely delayed pending an appeals court decision. Trump’s criminal trial for the coup attempt and plot to end democracy on Jan. 6 is also likely to be delayed as well. This means the New York hush-money trial may be the only opportunity before the 2024 election to hold Trump accountable for his crimes.

The storytelling and dramatic elements of Trump’s hush-money trial also explain why it has attracted obsessive attention from the news media. It is a story about a man who became president and paid money to his mistress, who at the time was an adult film star, to hide potentially incriminating evidence from the American people before an election. Stormy Daniels is also a compelling personality on her own terms because of how she overcame poverty, rose to fame, and the force of her personality and intelligence.

The hush-money trial also has other traits that make it so compelling for the mainstream news media: It is fundamentally a story about the law, money, crime, a cover-up, a scandal, and power. In all, this is a far more familiar and comforting story for the American mainstream news media to cover than the larger democracy crisis and the rise of neofascism.

And of course, sitting at the center of the spectacle is Donald Trump, who, mostly for horrible reasons, is one of the most discussed and fascinating public figures in recent American history.

During the hush-money trial he has mostly lived up to that role, acting the part of a mob boss and wannabe dictator and strongman who is sleeping in court, threatening the judges and witnesses, using profanity, generally being contemptuous and disrespectful, and acting like he wants to provoke Judge Merchan into finding him in contempt and putting him in jail.

But the mainstream news media’s obsession with the hush-money trial is committing the error of mostly ignoring Donald Trump’s attempts to convince the United States Supreme Court that he is basically a king and above the law because of “presidential immunity.” The court’s right-wing justices – three of whom were appointed by Donald Trump – appear likely to grant, in part or in whole, Trump’s demand for nearly unlimited power and by doing so to fundamentally betray the Constitution and American democracy.

Yes, the hush-money trial is vitally important. But it is Trump’s Supreme Court case that is of paramount importance for the future of American democracy.

Using the logic of television, Donald Trump’s hush-money trial is the main storyline. The Supreme Court case has been made into the B plot when it actually merits its own series – or perhaps even a big-budget film. When considered together, they are a type of split-screen event, where two things are happening simultaneously, but the public’s attention is divided, as Politico observes:

It will be a historic and surreal split screen: a former president, current presidential candidate and four-time criminal defendant whose lawyers will be fighting two very different sets of felony charges in two courthouses simultaneously. It’s a reminder of Trump’s ability — even while sitting in his New York trial about hush money payments to a porn star — to command the attention of every branch of the government he once again seeks to lead.

What has been glossed over, if not subsumed by TTT, are the horrible implications of what it would mean if Donald Trump is given the powers of dictator by a Supreme Court that has determined the president is basically above the law.

At the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie summarized this dangerous absurdity:

Donald Trump’s claim that he has absolute immunity for criminal acts taken in office as president is an insult to reason, an assault on common sense and a perversion of the fundamental maxim of American democracy: that no man is above the law.

More astonishing than the former president’s claim to immunity, however, is the fact that the Supreme Court took the case in the first place. It’s not just that there’s an obvious response — no, the president is not immune to criminal prosecution for illegal actions committed with the imprimatur of executive power, whether private or “official” (a distinction that does not exist in the Constitution) — but that the court has delayed, perhaps indefinitely, the former president’s reckoning with the criminal legal system of the United States….

Trump has asked the Supreme Court if he is, in effect, a king. And at least four members of the court, among them the so-called originalists, have said, in essence, that they’ll have to think about it.

The details and specifics of Donald Trump’s claims to presidential immunity need to be emphasized if one is to fully see and comprehend their true horror.

Trump’s attorneys are trying to convince the United States Supreme Court that a president can order his political rivals (or anyone else for that matter) killed by the military, for any reason, and it would be “legal.” Likewise, per this argument, a president can engage in wantonly corrupt behavior such as accepting bribes and that too would be “legal.” In theory, the courts and Congress and other parts of the government would provide checks and balances on presidential authority. In practice such a conclusion is ridiculous because what reasonable person would oppose a president who has the power to order them murdered, imprisoned, disappeared, or to suffer some other horrible fate without have any real fear of being held responsible for committing such “crimes.”

There is a way to describe a leader and country where such things are “legal”: a dictatorship.

Writing at the Nation, Elie Mystal shares his assessment of the American mainstream news media and its failures to properly cover the Supreme Court and Trump’s claims of unlimited power:

In the few days since the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Trump v. United States—the case that will determine whether Donald Trump has lifetime immunity from crimes he committed while in office—the national media has failed. The reports about what happened during the hearing, and how the Republican justices are likely to rule, range from credulous simplicity to outright gaslighting. The court will almost certainly take the extreme, unprecedented, and previously unfathomable position that Trump cannot be held criminally accountable for all of his actions—and the reason it is likely to do so is that the court knows the media will carry its water and normalize its ruling to a public that lacks the time and acumen to fully appreciate what it’s doing.

I’m not talking about Fox News or Newsmax, whose coverage I have not read or watched but assume it’s ranged from cultish to clownish, as it always does. I’m talking about the mainstream press, the so-called “liberal” press, which is taking its cue from the Supreme Court and trying to normalize the proposition that presidents should be immune from at least some crimes.

The idea of presidential criminal immunity is wholly unprecedented in the American experience. Other than Donald Trump, only Richard Nixon has claimed it, and Nixon’s argument was roundly rejected, not just by the courts but also by the media-industrial complex. This time, however, Trump’s claim—and the court’s bankrupt willingness to back it—is finding purchase in the national media.

Mystal concludes:

The president is not above the law, which means he cannot be immune from accountability for the rest of his life. The president should be, must be, and always has been subject to prosecution for crimes. Anybody telling you anything else is trying to keep you docile and compliant while they pretend that the Supreme Court has access to mystical knowledge we little people cannot comprehend.

The Supreme Court is poised to crown Donald Trump as king of America. That is the headline. That is the thesis that should be nailed to a church door.

The American news media, and especially the elite agenda-setting news media such as the New York Times and Washington Post, have a responsibility to adequately cover both the hush-money trial and Donald Trump’s plans and aspirations to be a dictator. Moreover, the elite agenda-setting news media possess the necessary resources to practice that type of essential pro-democracy journalism if they so choose.

Unfortunately, as an institution, the American news media, and its most elite outlets, have decided not to do it.

To that point, in a much-discussed new interview, New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn directly explains that he believes it is not the responsibility of the news media in a democracy to stop an aspiring dictator:

It’s also true that Trump could win this election in a popular vote. Given that Trump’s not in office, it will probably be fair. And there’s a very good chance, based on our polling and other independent polling, that he will win that election in a popular vote. So there are people out there in the world who may decide, based on their democratic rights, to elect Donald Trump as president. It is not the job of the news media to prevent that from happening. It’s the job of Biden and the people around Biden to prevent that from happening.

Ultimately, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s hush-money trial is too alluring and enthralling for the American news media.

It may not have been part of their strategic plan, but Donald Trump and the MAGA movement and the other right-wing and neofascist enemies of democracy are benefitting from the news media’s hyperfocus on the New York hush-money trial. How? Because that obsession diverts the American people’s attention away from how the Supreme Court is preparing to make Donald Trump and his successors de facto kings and dictators.

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