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History in the Making: David Cay Johnston on Why Trump’s Arraignment May Renew American Democracy

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On the day of Donald Trump’s historic arraignment in New York, making him the first former president ever to be criminally charged, we speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who has covered Trump for decades. Trump is said to face 34 felony counts for falsifying business records. The case centers in part on hush-money payments Trump made during the 2016 presidential campaign to adult film star Stormy Daniels. After his appearance before a judge in Manhattan, where he is expected to plead not guilty to all charges, Trump will fly back to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where he will speak publicly later in the day. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a revival and a renewal of American democracy,” says Johnston, co-founder of the news site DCReport and author of The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family. Johnston also teaches at Syracuse University College of Law.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Trump is expected to turn himself in and plead not guilty today, as he becomes the first U.S. president ever to be criminally charged. While the indictment remains sealed, Newsweek is reporting Trump will face 34 felony counts for falsifying business records. The case centers in part on hush-money payments Trump made during the 2016 presidential campaign to adult film star Stormy Daniels. It was days before Election Day.

Trump’s arraignment hearing in a New York court is scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Supporters, including Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene, are expected to rally outside the courthouse.

According to news accounts, Trump will be arrested and fingerprinted, but he won’t be handcuffed. Video cameras will not be allowed inside the courtroom, but the judge ruled late last night five still photographers will be allowed inside briefly to take pictures.

After the hearing, Trump is expected to fly back to his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, where he’ll speak publicly tonight. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is also expected to speak to the press today for the first time about the charges against Trump.

We’re joined now by a guest who’s closely reported on Trump for decades. David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and co-founder of DCReport. His most recent book, The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family. He also teaches at Syracuse University College of Law.

David, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is an historic day, not only here in New York but around the country, the first sitting or ex-president to face criminal charges. Talk about the significance of what’s taking place today.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, hopefully this is the beginning of a revival and a renewal of American democracy. There is an enormous amount of people in America, across the political spectrum, who believe that we have one set of laws for the rich and powerful, and one set of laws for them. And while many of the people who support Donald Trump are enraged about this indictment, the fact is that this shows that we are making further progress toward the far-from-fulfilled promise of equal justice under law. And this will not be the last indictment of Donald Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, David, what do you say to those who raise the point, first of all, that this is probably the least important of the alleged or possible crimes that Trump committed and that it took so long to bring this indictment? What’s your response to that?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, it’s certainly taken an incredibly long time to bring about this indictment. Alvin Bragg, when he took office over a year ago, rejected the investigation underway, that the Trump Organization was not a business but a racketeering enterprise posing as a business. He has now come back with this case, which you’re going to see, Juan, is a fabric of charges, not a single thread running from Trump to Stormy Daniels or Karen McDougal, the Playboy playmate, but an interwoven thread of crimes.

And where does someone get the idea that you’re allowed to break this law with impunity and not that law? That has no principle underlying it whatsoever. In the case where Donald Trump’s Trump Organization, his payroll company, and his chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who’s right now behind bars, were tried, they were convicted of 17 felonies over about $1.8 million of compensation that was hidden from the tax authorities. And Donald and the people around him went, “Well, that’s nothing.” Well, if you’re a medium-wage worker in America, that’s your entire career, you won’t make $1.8 million. So, I think it’s outrageous to suggest, as many people are, Juan, that somehow you get to take a walk on felonies because, well, it’s not the biggest thing we could charge you with. That’s just absurd.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the likelihood of this case being wrapped up or actually going to trial before the elections next year?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, that’s up to Donald Trump. There are speedy trial laws, both here in the state court in New York and if and when he’s indicted by the federal government. And Donald will have to make a choice: Do you want to go to trial now and get this behind you, or do you want to risk that you’re going to be on trial while you’re campaigning for the White House? Now, let me be clear: Donald Trump could get back to the White House, be a convicted felon, and he’s still entitled to be president. I mean, at least in theory, if American voters are that out of touch with who Donald Trump really is, he could serve as president of the United States from a military prison or other lockup.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of white-collar crime, that’s what Trump Org., Alvin Bragg got on every count, very experienced, former deputy attorney general. He also took on the former New York state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. He was the lead prosecutor in charges of white-collar crime. The Republicans are making a lot of here is Alvin Bragg, who won’t take on certain issues around crimes, that he’s not going to go after certain criminal charges with people. But when it comes to white-collar crime, is an important lesson being taught here around America, crimes that are usually not prosecuted in this country?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Absolutely. For a long time I’ve been calling for a redirection in law enforcement, away from street crimes, particularly nonviolent street crimes, and toward white-collar crimes, which do vastly more damage to our economy than street crimes. And Bragg is one of a number of prosecutors who have been looking at the way we’ve been doing things, that clearly don’t work, and saying, “Well, let’s try another approach to this.”

I’ve also said that our legal scholars need to undertake some serious thinking about revising white-collar crime law, which is very complex, which has lots of outs and excuses and loopholes, basically, and we need to develop a new and better theory of white-collar crime that both protects all the rights of those who are accused, but also makes it easier to show criminal conduct.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, in terms of the inevitability that some feel of Trump’s run for the Republican nomination, you’ve been doing some analysis of his crowds in recent months. Could you talk about what you found versus what the press sometimes reports or what Trump himself claims?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, one of the things that’s benefited Donald for the whole 35 years I’ve known him is he says things, and all sorts of gullible reporters just assume that there’s no need to check the facts. So, during the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders often drew larger crowds than Donald Trump.

And at his Waco rally announcing his campaign, Donald Trump drew an audience that he claimed was thousands and thousands. Many of the journalists covering it used this language. One TV reporter said there were hundreds of people. We examined photos, and we asked readers to send us more images. And the crowd was larger than we initially reported, less than 1,500 people, but, at most, it’s a few thousands of people, not, as Trump often likes to make you think, tens of thousands of people.

The reality is that Donald Trump’s support is waning, and it is shriveling towards impotence. He doesn’t even have the support of a majority of Republicans, and Republicans in America are a minority party.

AMY GOODMAN: David Cay Johnston, I wanted to go back to what Alvin Bragg said he won’t prosecute, cases like marijuana misdemeanors, resisting arrest, fare evasion, prostitution and more, what the Republicans are making the most of. He won’t go after crime, they say, but he’s going after Donald Trump. So let’s talk about this white-collar crime, but over — I mean, you haven’t just covered him for the last few years. You have written two full books on Donald Trump, starting with the best-selling, The Making

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Three, three.

AMY GOODMAN:of Donald Trump. Three, three. I forgot about the last one. Talk about his history and what he has done, and what you were shocked by that he wasn’t charged with over the years, and then how this, then, white-collar crime fits into these other investigations, the one by the state attorney general, Letitia James, here in New York; Georgia is about overturning the election; and then, the federal, Merrick Garland and Jack Smith, of course, about the insurrection.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Donald first came to public light because he was — his and his father’s company were steering Black and Puerto Rican people who wanted to rent from them — they owned, at the time, thousands of apartments — to specific buildings. And they had to submit to the jurisdiction of the federal government for a couple of years.

In the Atlantic City casinos, the only known case of cheating was at a Donald Trump casino, where the customer was cheated. Donald’s casinos plied 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children with liquor, limousines and hotel rooms because they had money to gamble. So, we’re not talking about a dolled-up 18-year-old man or woman slipping past the casino authorities; we’re talking about sixth-grader and junior high children.

Donald hired 400 people who, by his description, are illegal immigrants to take down the building Bonwit Teller, with which he replaced it with Trump Tower. He wouldn’t pay them until they threatened to kill his overseer. And when they finally did get paid, there was a mob guy sitting there forcing each of them to hand over part of their pay.

Donald has lied and cheated and stolen from people left and right. He spent a decade up to his eyeballs with a major international drug trafficker, for whom he did extraordinary and inexplicable favors.

Nothing has ever happened to him in all of these cases. He beat four federal grand juries as a young man. He was not punished for sales tax cheating, when then-Mayor of New York Ed Koch said he should go to jail for 15 days. He’s just gotten away with it and gotten away with it, through the techniques taught to him by the notorious Roy Cohn, from the McCarthy era, who was one of his lawyers.

And now, finally, Donald is being called to account. And in this case, it’s very clear that Alvin Bragg and the grand jury, that his prosecutors are directing, have had numerous witnesses come in. This is not going to be some slapdash case. Bragg would not bring a case that doesn’t have really solid information. And I’ve written in the New York Daily News and elsewhere, you know, advisories on here would be a way to prosecute Donald Trump successfully.

On the other side of this, the attacks on New York City and Alvin Bragg’s crime policies, New York is the safest large city in America, number one, the safest large city in America, and has been for a long time. And the things that Bragg is doing are part of what I think is a historic shift that, of course, is going to be resisted by people who think that white-collar crimes and wealthy white people ought to be exempted from the criminal justice system. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Having researched all this and written three books, as we wrap up, David Cay Johnston, did you ever think you would see him in a criminal court making history?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yes, I have felt — I spent the last eight years of my time on Donald 24/7, not doing what I intended to do. And I believed, all the way along, that once he started this push for the presidency, instead of prosecutors being able to say, “Ah, he’s not — an overblown, blowhard developer in New York,” he would bring himself such attention that no longer could law enforcement look the other way. But what matters here is conviction. An indictment is only a formal charge, and Mr. Trump is presumed innocent up until the day that a jury finds otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, formerly with The New York Times, co-founder of DCReport, author of three books on Donald Trump, The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America and his 2016 best-selling book, The Making of Donald Trump.

Coming up, two elections, Ari Berman on today’s race that could decide the fate of democracy in Wisconsin and the 2024 election, and then Juan González on what’s happening in Chicago. Stay with us.

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