Column: Trump’s indictment is a historic first. Because of this, more are likely to follow

The news that a Manhattan grand jury has returned an indictment against Donald Trump — the first criminal complaint against a former president in the country’s history — is monumental in itself. We should pause for a moment to appreciate the giant leap that Manhattan Dist. atty Alvin Bragg has taken responsibility for a man who has shown nothing but contempt for the rule of law.

But Thursday’s announcement also heralds a new normal that will be among the strangest and most stressful periods in America’s legal and political annals. The charges in the New York case, along with others likely to be followed by Georgia and the federal government, are being drawn into a presidential campaign through which Trump is seeking vindication.

Trump’s instinct will be to burden the prosecution and their prosecutors as much as possible, claiming fresh evidence of political vendetta against him and his supporters at every turn. In recent months he has warned his supporters to see the charges as an attack on them and him as their salvation and vengeance. This quasi-religious posturing will only intensify as the negotiation dates draw nearer.

Even in New York, new developments suggest Bragg’s case goes beyond the scheme of paying Stormy Daniels hush money. The 11 Hour appearance before the grand jury by David Pecker, a former chairman of the company that publishes the National Enquirer, suggests Bragg’s office was also looking for hush money paid to model Karen McDougal in a plan to which extended into Trump’s presidency. That could widen the charge to a longer-running conspiracy to deceive and cover up and counter partisans who have attacked the Daniels case as insignificant.

Additionally, amid speculation about the Manhattan investigation in recent weeks, Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigations have taken dramatic steps to accuse Trump of both secret records discovered at his Mar-a-Lago, Fla., estate and to account for the events surrounding the January 6 , 2021, Uprising. Meanwhile in Fulton County, Georgia, Dist. atty Fani Willis is investigating Trump’s related meddling in the 2020 state election, which could well lead to additional indictments.

In the classified documents case, US District Court Judge Beryl Howell ordered Trump’s attorney, Evan Corcoran, to testify before a grand jury and agreed with the Justice Department that his communications with Trump were not protected by attorney-client privilege because they may have served to encourage illegal storage of classified documents. Corcoran’s testimony could well form the centerpiece of a federal indictment against Trump in what appears to be a fairly straightforward and well-investigated case.

The breakthroughs in the investigations into the January 6 uprising were no less significant. Most notably, Smith won important federal district court judgments dismissing claims to the former Vice President’s privileges Mike Pence and Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadowsboth of whom tried to avoid testimony.

The full and truthful testimony of these two men could shake the former president. Meadows was neck-deep in almost every aspect of Trump’s post-election plans and was the closest eyewitness to Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6. Pence, meanwhile, has been on the receiving end of Trump’s harsh efforts to get him to break the law.

We are not at the end of the road with any of the former Trump lieutenants. The US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has on numerous occasions dismissed executive privilege arguments against the production of such testimony, and Meadows’ case can be expected to be dealt with expeditiously there. But the former chief of staff could well choose to incriminate Fifth Amendment protections against himself, leaving the Justice Department with a very difficult decision: whether to coerce his testimony against Trump by granting him immunity, which federal prosecutors normally do reluctant to do a culpable party.

Pence’s claim is newer – even if ultimately not more convincing. He has argued that the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause, which protects members of Congress from reprisal for legislative conduct, immunizes him from testifying since the vice president serves as president of the Senate. Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg, the new chief justice of the U.S. District Court in Washington, ruled that the clause could prevent Pence from testifying about his conduct in congressional confirmation of the 2020 election, but not from his conduct as a witness as Trump’s vice president. In other words, it wouldn’t stop Pence from having to describe in great detail Trump’s campaign to force him to commit a crime.

After years of waiting for an answer to Trump’s transgressions, Thursday’s historical development has something of a “final” feel to it. But, importantly, it is only the first phase of an extended test of the system’s ability to deliver justice in uniquely difficult circumstances.

Harry Litman hosts the Podcast Talking Feds.. @harrylitmann

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