The law is on Trump's tail, and he sounds pretty worried

Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Donald Trump is beginning to sound panicky.

"WHY WON'T BRAGG DROP THIS CASE?" he wrote on his Truth Social account last week of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is investigating Trump's alleged payment of hush money to a porn star. "... THIS IS NO LEGAL SYSTEM, THIS IS THE GESTAPO, THIS IS RUSSIA AND CHINA, BUT WORSE."

In a string of social media posts, the former president called Bragg, who is Black, "a degenerate psychopath" and an "animal."

Former U.S. President Donald Trump greets the crowd as he arrives to speak at a 2024 election campaign rally in Waco, Texas, Saturday, March 25, 2023. Trump held the rally at the site of the deadly 1993 standoff between an anti-government cult and federal agents. (Shelby Tauber/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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Trump urged his supporters to "PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!" and warned that indicting him could result in "death & destruction."

All that over an indictment that hasn't been delivered, in a probe looking at whether Trump treated the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels as a business expense.

The least of his worries: There's a baroque theory that Trump welcomes criminal prosecutions because every battle makes him a hero in the eyes of his followers.

But he didn't sound heroic last week. He sounded frightened and whiny.

The comically squalid hush money case is probably the least of his troubles. The real threat to his serenity — and his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination — comes from three weightier investigations.

Charges from those probes would make Trump the center of attention, which he likes. But they'll also take his time and energy away from running for president. They'll take money, too, since he'll need expensive lawyers to defend him in each venue.

Indictments could also give his 2024 GOP rivals more opportunities to question his character and fitness for office — old-fashioned criteria Republicans once used to evaluate candidates.

Trump faces major trouble in Georgia, where Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis is investigating his pressure campaign on officials in the state to overturn its 2020 presidential election results. It's a felony in Georgia to ask an official to commit election fraud. Trump called Willis, who is Black, a "racist" for conducting the probe.

A federal prosecutor, special counsel Jack Smith, is investigating Trump's retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home, along with false claims by his lawyers that he had returned all of them. Trump called that prosecutor a "thug."

The biggest potential criminal case is Smith's investigation of Trump's role in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, and his broader effort to overturn the 2020 election. That could lead to federal charges of inciting insurrection, obstructing a federal proceeding and conspiring to defraud the United States. Trump said Smith is the one who should be considered a "terrorist."

Indicted U.S. presidents for $1,000, Alex: Compared with those investigations, the hush money probe may amount to little more than a trivia question: Who was the first prosecutor to indict a president, and why?

Now add the danger that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump's principal rival for the nomination, might weaponize the former president's legal troubles against him.

Last week, DeSantis, who is expected to announce his candidacy this spring, used a voter's question about Daniels to draw a not-so-subtle contrast between himself and Trump.

"Look, I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair," he said slyly.

He worked in another mention of "porn star hush money payments," and added: "I've got real issues to deal with here in the state of Florida."

DeSantis expanded on the theme the next day, telling Piers Morgan of Fox News: "At the end of the day, as a leader, you really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers. … It's not saying that you don't ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think, what type of character are you bringing?"

That was pretty mild, but it elicited an explosion from Trump.

"Ron DeSanctimonious … is, for a Republican, an average Governor," he said in a long social media post. "... He fought for massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare. … We don't want Ron as our President!"

In other words, game on.

If DeSantis keeps this up, he could turn the race into a battle for Republican voters looking for a candidate who promises to fight their culture wars, torment their liberal enemies and cut their taxes — without Trump's baggage.

But he'll have to show that he can deliver more than one punch. In the 2016 GOP primary campaign, Trump faced challenges from other candidates — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz — all of whom crumpled when the front-runner struck back with bare-knuckled insults and character assassination.

On the campaign trail: In the campaign underway now, Trump's legal problems seem unlikely to help him.

They'll not only take up his time. They'll keep him in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. They'll have him talking about his grievances instead of issues voters care about, such as inflation.

If Trump is indicted by only one prosecutor, he'll claim he's being victimized. If he's indicted by three different prosecutors in three different venues, that's more likely to raise doubts about his fitness for office.

Some will remain doggedly loyal to him, no matter what. But others will look at all of those Dumpster fires and yearn for a less chaotic alternative. That provides opportunities for DeSantis and others to show what they can offer.

Trump knows it. That's why, instead of welcoming his impending martyrdom in the courts, he sounds so unhappy.

— Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times