What Trump’s conviction means for democracy

Testimony of Ambassador Norman L. Eisen (Ret.) at the Hearing on the Manhattan District Attorney's Office before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary

court room sketch Trump
Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass talks to jurors as attorney Todd Blanche and former U.S. President Donald Trump pay close attention during Trump's criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in Manhattan state court in New York City, U.S. April 18, 2024 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
Editor's note:

On June 13, 2024, Ambassador Norm Eisen (Ret.) testified at the Hearing on the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. 

Chairman Jordan, Ranking Member Nadler, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for inviting me back today for this hearing. I was in court throughout the over six weeks of the Manhattan criminal trial of former President Donald Trump for interfering in the 2016 election and covering it up. I want to make three points.

First, the verdict of 12 ordinary Americans—that Mr. Trump was part of a scheme to deceive voters and then falsified business records to hide it—was strongly supported by the evidence and the law.

Second, Mr. Trump’s 2016 misconduct had striking similarities to his actions in 2020: deceiving voters about that election and also covering that up with false documents—false electoral certificates. Based on Mr. Trump’s own statements, he seems to be warming up to run a similar voter deception playbook in 2024 as well.

Third, Mr. Trump’s reactions to the guilty verdict are of a piece with his attempts to subvert democracy and hispromise that he will be a dictator on day one if re-elected. He and his enablers are promising to baselessly prosecute his perceived adversaries and otherwise establish an autocratic regime (as I detail in the American Autocracy Threat Tracker I co-edit at “Just Security”). That represents the real politicization of the judicial system and weaponization of government.

The trial

I’m appearing today sharing my personal views only and will begin by talking about the trial itself. It spanned over 130 hours, 22 witnesses, and over 200 exhibits. A jury of 12 ordinary Americans—Mr. Trump’s peers in the city where he lived and worked most of his life—found him guilty. I spent most of the trial watching them and, unlike some in court who dozed, they paid extremely close attention throughout. Some took notes, others simply listened, but all took great care. Their seriousness and engagement is what I will remember most about the case, and I wrote about it often in the 25 trial diaries I published in my journalistic capacity covering the trial daily, which are attached.

The jurors got it right. Witness after witness from inside Mr. Trump’s orbit—many of whom expressed their continued respect and affection for the former president—supported both parts of the jury’s conclusion. First, that Donald Trump intended to influence the 2016 election by unlawful means, including in the form of a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels to benefit his campaign—over $127,000 in excess of the legal limits. Second, that he covered it up through 34 false business records that disguised the repayment of that excessive contribution as a “legal expense,” “retainer,” or the like.

The jury were not the only ones who got it right. So did the judge. If I have one quibble about Justice Juan Merchan, it is that he sometimes bent over too far backwards to be fair to the defendant. Why should Mr. Trump have been allowed to act in contempt of court by violating the gag order no less than ten times before he was warned that the eleventh would lead to more serious action? Justice Merchan was patient—on that and many other occasions. He complemented this jury of 12 ordinary Americans with the fairness and rigor he brought to resolving the many complex legal questions before him. The appellate process will prove that.

Let me also say that the lawyers for both sides, in my observation, did a terrific job. Mr. Trump’s defense counsel were generally excellent and put the prosecution to the test. I even wrote an essay singing the praises of the defense team. It’s number 16 of my 25 trial diaries attached.

Why the conviction matters

Turning to my second point—why do the trial and the verdict matter so much? Think of what this unanimous jury of average Americans found Mr. Trump did during and after the 2016 election: he lied to voters to grasp power and covered it up with phony documents. Does that sound familiar?

It should, because we saw this pattern repeat in 2020 with the “Big Lie”—that Mr. Trump actually won the election. He didn’t, as sixty-plus failed lawsuits demonstrateand as authority after authority has since found. His and his allies’ deception was undertaken for him to hold onto power—to keep the White House even though his opponent had won fair and square. And the false documents were not just business records in 2020—they were fake electoral slates that were part of a scheme to overturn the legitimate outcome of the election in this body.2016 was just the warm up.

And here’s another reason this verdict matters in establishing the pattern—the recipe for an attempted coup—beyond a reasonable doubt: Mr. Trump is limbering up to try it again. He will not commit to accepting the 2024 election results. Over and over again—like in 2020—Mr. Trump has made statements such as, “if everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results…. If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country.” But based on his past behavior, we know what that means: if he wins, he will accept it, and if he loses, he won’t.


The real weaponization

That brings me to my third point—where the real threat of the politicization of the justice system and weaponization of government lies. The attacks on the trial and verdict by the former president and his enablers, both those who attended the trial with him and otherwise,were politicizing a crime that has been prosecuted about 10,000 times in New York since 2015. If you do the falsifying records crime, you do the time in New York. It’s as simple as that.

And yet, there was a staggering amount of disinformation and misinformation spewed by the former president and his allies, who tried to say that there was no crime here, as if those 10,000 other falsifying business records cases did not exist. They said that the gag order was unconstitutional or that it prevented Mr. Trump from testifying in his own defense, which is simply false. They argued the conspiracy theory that the prosecution was managed by President Biden, even though he had nothing to do with it.Not to mention the unfair smears they made of the hard-working jury and the witnesses who came forward at great personal risk.

Many of the ugliest attacks were the false ones on Justice Merchan, who often ruled for the defense andsustained their objections, laboring to ensure that Mr. Trump received a fair trial. That was greeted by false claims that he was “corrupt” and doing “everything within his power” to help President Biden win the 2024 election.

As bad as all that was, the absolute worst were the calls by Mr. Trump and his allies “to prosecute his adversaries…during and after his Manhattan trial…in retaliation for that proceeding—despite the lack of any evidence of criminal wrong doing by those targeted.” Just last week, Mr. Trump pointed to his own prosecution and then said, “it’s very possible that it’s going to have to happen to them,” namely his political adversaries.

Contrast that with how President Biden greeted the news of his son’s conviction in a case led by a prosecutor originally appointed by Mr. Trump. Before the verdict, the president stated that he would not pardon Hunter Biden, and after the verdict he affirmed that he “accept[s] the outcome of this case and will continue to respect the judicial process.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has outright denied the validity of his jury’s verdict, and in doing so undermines a fundamental bedrock of our judicial system.

Mr. Trump’s words are all the more chilling because they are not isolated to the issue of this trial. We shouldtake them as a warning of what is to come should he return to office. Mr. Trump has promised to be a dictator on day one. He has pledged to attack American rule of law with other illegal actions if he regains power, which I catalog in the American Autocracy Threat Tracker. They range from promises to undertake mass immigrant roundups; to summarily fire tens of thousands of civil servants; to pardon convicted January 6th rioters, including those who attacked police—but who he views as “great patriots” and “hostages”—and on and on.

That is the real weaponization of government—not Mr. Trump’s being held accountable by 12 ordinary Americans in a fair trial for the voter deception and cover up that are the hallmark of how he approaches campaigning and governing.

And all of that—the seriousness of the crime, Mr. Trump’s total lack of remorse, and his apparent determination to continue his election interference and assault on the rule of law—is why a jail sentence is warranted for the former president. While it should and will not be served until after Mr. Trump completes his appeals (almost certainly after the election), it is justified as a matter of both accountability and deterrence.

Moreover, other strong steps are needed now to rein in these dangerous threats. I was glad to see that House members are coming together to combat the plans for autocratic takeover next year through the new Stop Project 2025 Task Force. My American Autocracy Threat Tracker concludes with a survey of concrete solutions the Committee, the new task force and other policymakers can consider. Those recommendations include proposals to:

  1. Find bipartisan legislative solutions, such as reining in excessive executive emergency powers or extending standing for state attorneys general to seek federal court review of particularly egregious federal autocratic conduct;
  2. Stand together against political violence, and stand up for the independent public servants who help our government and our democracy run;
  3. Invest in the free and fair elections that give legitimacy to our democracy, such as by properly funding elections and strengthening protections for election workers; and
  4. Many more ideas that we set forth in the Tracker.

I look forward to answering questions about those policies and other topics that are useful to the Committee.

Thank you.