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Why a liberal and a conservative agree Trump's indictment is unwise

Former President Donald Trump appearing in court for his arraignment on Tuesday, April 4 in New York.
Seth Wenig
Former President Donald Trump appearing in court for his arraignment on Tuesday, April 4 in New York.

Updated April 6, 2023 at 1:22 PM ET

When Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted former President Donald Trump this week, he said he was upholding "a solemn responsibility." He added "everyone stands equal with the law."

Naturally, many Trump critics appreciated this moment, while Trump's supporters called it political.

But two longtime Trump critics on opposite sides of the political spectrum are now agreeing that prosecuting him on this was a bad idea. Mona Charen, a conservative columnist with The Bulwark, and Jonathan Chait, a liberal columnist with New York Magazine, spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Interview highlights

On what's wrong with going ahead with the prosecution

Mona Charen

My problem with this particular prosecution is that it is shockingly weak. We kept thinking there must be more to it than the falsifying business records, which is a misdemeanor which can only be bootstrapped into a felony if it is in service of some other crime. And we waited in vain to find out what was the other crime. And Alvin Bragg did not say what the other crime was.

And this is my bottom line in all of this: It would be a catastrophe for the United States to do anything that strengthens Donald Trump and increases the chances that he will ever sit in the Oval Office again by bringing a weak case and possibly giving him the opportunity to portray himself as a victim and a martyr, but also possibly giving him the opportunity to defeat the case, have it either thrown out or have him acquitted. It will only burnish his sense of invulnerability. And we've seen what he does with those feelings in the past.

Jonathan Chait

There are a lot of cases, as anyone who knows how prosecutors work, where there's real discretion involved as to whether something violates the law. You could look back at James Comey's decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton over the emails. He said, and I think correctly that no, the no prosecutor would bring charges under these circumstances. So I think people are using that construction as a justification for what he's doing so that we don't need to actually look at these charges in a specific way and say, is prosecution the correct choice? Is that the choice we would make if it was Donald Trump but some other person who who maybe ran for some other office in 2016?

On whether law enforcement authorities are being unfair to Trump

Mona Charen

Gosh, it is so hard to answer that in the affirmative, since this is a person who has done more to trash respect for law in this country than any other person since Robert E Lee. But look, it is an unwise prosecution because it's very weak and it's so wobbly that even dyed-in-the-wool NeverTrump fanatics like me are twisting our faces up and saying, 'What was he thinking?' I mean, it's not so much the unfairness to Donald Trump that worries me. It's the fact that the case will not succeed and will only strengthen Donald Trump.

Jonathan Chait

I think Donald Trump is basically a career criminal. But it is possible to frame a guilty man. And I'm not saying he's being framed, but he's being prosecuted in a way that very few people either in this situation would be charged for. So in a way, he's being singled out unfairly. But I would almost flip the premise of the question around and say, is he being treated unfairly? I would say that Bragg may be doing a favor for Trump by bringing the first legal charge against him, while others are expected to follow. That creates the predicate for his victimization narrative. So the only effect of this will just be to jump start Republican support for him in corners of the Republican Party into supporting his legal case, when in other circumstances they might have had more critical distance from him.

On what you tell others who are opposed to Trump to do, given the way they see this case

Jonathan Chait

My advice is just to have a little bit of patience. If you're itching to see a strong legal case where Donald Trump will be convicted and possibly sent to prison, you probably won't have to wait very long for one to come along. And you can have your principles and still have the outcome you want, if you just admit to yourself that this case isn't worth bringing, but the next one probably will be.

Mona Charen

Unfortunately, there's just no way to unwind what has already happened. So this train has left the station and the best course would be - rather than try to justify this particular prosecution and twist themselves into pretzels in the attempt to do that - to focus on the cases that are stronger. The Mar-a-Lago documents, the January 6th insurrection, and the solicitation of election fraud in Georgia.

Jan Johnson and Ziad Buchh edited and produced the audio version of this story. Destinee Adams and Miranda Kennedy edited it for digital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.