Donald Trump’s conviction is nothing more than a ‘thrill kill’

After years of trying — in the words of the judge — “to get the damned rascal in this court,” it was a conviction that many welcomed. 

But those words were not from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, and the conviction was not that of former President Donald Trump. 

Rather they were from US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, at the end of the 18th century, when America embraced political prosecutions to target critics and opponents. 

The man on trial then was James T. Callender, a muckraking writer critical of President John Adams.

For accusing politicians of corruption, Callender was charged with sedition, fined $200 and put in prison. 

It was one of the many political prosecutions carried out by the Adams administration. 

Undeniable reality 

Political prosecutions are something most citizens associate with dictatorships. 

But the Trump prosecution has forced many to confront the undeniable reality of the politicization of our legal system. 

In many respects, President Biden and Democrats have re-created the Adams era.

Biden has led calls for censorship of political critics and his administration has coordinated the silencing and the blacklisting of those with opposing views. 

Democratic politicians have pressured social-media companies to serve as surrogates for the government in banning, throttling and defunding individuals and groups. 

Indeed, I have previously written that Biden is now the most anti-free-speech president since Adams. 

The Adams era also reflected the same blind loyalty of many media outlets.

Federalist publications supported the crackdowns while echoing charges against political opponents as seditionists and insurrectionists.

Jeffersonian publications, like Callender’s, attacked Adams for his “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” 

The nation was divided down the middle as both sides accused each other of being traitors and insurrectionists. Sound familiar? 

A chilling return 

Yet, it is the politicization of the legal system that is the most chilling return to the Adams era.

Even liberal legal analysts have admitted that the case against Trump was unprecedented and would not have been brought against anyone other than Trump. 

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig recently wrote that there should be concern over a judge being appointed (not randomly selected) who is not just a Biden donor but someone who “has earmarked donations for ‘resisting the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s radical right-wing legacy.’ ” 

Adding to these concerns is the movement of the third-highest official in the Biden Justice Department to the staff of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to build the case against Trump.

Before joining the case, Matthew Colangelo was also paid by the Democratic National Committee for “political consulting.” 

So Trump was convicted in a trial with a Biden donor judge, who has a daughter who is a major Democratic operative, a lead prosecutor previously paid as a DNC political consultant and a jury selected in a district that voted roughly 90% against Trump. 

The trial itself was a travesty.

Even after sitting in the courtroom watching the trial and the verdict, I still have no idea what Trump was convicted of in the case. 

The charges were built on a dead misdemeanor barred with the passage of the statute of limitations.

It was zapped back into life by alleging that the falsification of business records occurred to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election. 

Merchan told the jury members that they did not have to agree on what those unlawful means may have been. 

Specifically, he allowed them to base their verdict on any one of three vaguely defined crimes of a federal election violation, falsification of business records or taxation violations.

Thus, the jury could have divided 4-4-4 on what actually occurred but the verdict was still treated as unanimous by Merchan to convict Trump. 

Repulsive and chilling 

Like much else in the case, that didn’t matter in deep-blue Manhattan. 

Legal analysts and commentators openly celebrated on MSNBC and CNN — joining many in the streets. 

This was a thrill-kill conviction, and the response of many in the media bordered on the indecent. 

For many outside of Manhattan, the scene was repulsive and chilling.

You can hate Donald Trump but still be repelled by the use of the criminal justice system for political purposes. 

There is, however, one silver lining. We went through political prosecutions under Adams and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Jefferson. 

Yet, we survived. Our system corrected such abuses over time. 

The Alien and Sedition used to prosecute Callender expired.

Justice Samuel Chase was impeached for his partisanship (though not convicted).

With this case, you feel the weight of history in the conviction of a former president, but also a historical awakening.

Sometimes it takes a great abuse to shock the public into recognizing the need to act.

In the faces of ecstasy of demonstrators and commentators alike this week, we see the same joyful release from the bounds of legal process. The addictive quality of rage. 

For them, it was a cathartic moment that was described by one commentator as a reason to celebrate and a “majestic” moment. 

For the rest of us, it was more menacing than majestic.

It could prove to be the moment that galvanized many outside of Manhattan; the moment when citizens saw where our rage has taken us.

Sometimes we have to be forced to see what we have become to better understand who we are.

We are better than this. 

Jonathan Turley is an attorney and professor at George Washington University Law School. 

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