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Saturday Q&A

Given the major, historic news of the last couple of days, we are going to do what we do sometimes and put aside normal order. Today, it's going to be all questions about you-know-who (no, not Voldemort, though that's not far off).

Current Events: The Trump Indictment

D.P. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Do you think there's a chance Trump will be tried and convicted for the classified documents indictment before the 2024 election?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes. An excellent chance, in fact. The case appears to be very straightforward, and has already been locked and loaded by Jack Smith and his team. Smith himself says he wants to move quickly. After all, he's ready to go anyhow, and he and AG Merrick Garland want to put as much time between the court case and the 2024 election as is possible.

Trump, as is his wont, will presumably try to drag things out. But there's a lot of time between now and Nov. 2024 and, barring Cannon or some other judge standing on their head to help him out, he's going to have a hard time coming up with reasons why he needs 18 months' worth of delays. Recall that he tried mightily to delay the E. Jean Carroll case once it was ready to go, without a lot of success.

R.D. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: Is there any chance Jack Smith would offer a plea deal? Trump pleads guilty and they sentence him to 10 years in prison.

(V) & (Z) answer: If Trump is willing to accept a 10-year sentence right now, then Smith would surely make that deal. That removes all uncertainty, saves a lot of time and energy, and achieves the goal of convicting Trump and saddling him with a de facto life sentence.

But since it would be a de facto life sentence, and since he is convinced he's innocent, and because he thinks he's going to be president again, Trump would never take the deal. He might not accept any plea deal right now, no matter how exposed he is, since he's so fully convinced of his righteousness and his martyrdom. And if there is a deal he would take (6 months' house arrest at Mar-a-Lago?), it would be too light to be acceptable to Smith.

J.J. in Johnstown, PA, asks: With the indictment of Trump now unsealed, it looks like Jack Smith has the now "Federal Defendant Donald Trump" dead to rights. As you have noted many times, one of Trump's legal strategies has always been to file appeals to delay as long as possible. Shortly after news of the indictment broke, two of his top lawyers, Jim Trusty and John Rowley, resigned. Does his top lawyers resigning "reset" the clock for a trial, so that a new "top" defense team can review everything? Given the highly classified contents of these documents and how long it would take to vet new lawyers for security clearances (doubtful they would pass the clearance process), it seems like his best defense is to simply run the clock out. Can he continue to perpetually "punt" by cycling lawyers out of the starting lineup? (Apologies for the sports analogies).

(V) & (Z) answer: Unless Trump ends up with a judge who is toting his water, this is not likely to work. Most judges did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday, and they know a delaying action when they see it, particularly when it comes from a guy who's been pulling the same stunt for 50 years. If a future Trump attorney wants to withdraw, they are going to need a very good reason. And even if that is granted, the replacements won't be given luxurious quantities of time to get up to speed.

J.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: After what felt like the longest foreplay in history, Donald Trump will finally be headed to federal court for a trial... in Florida, no less. As I understand it, Florida has what is known as a "sunshine law" mandating that all public proceedings, including criminal trials, are allowed to be televised to the public by the news media, gavel to gavel. Does this also hold true for federal trials?

(V) & (Z) answer: The federal courts are not subject to state law. And as the official website of the federal court system explains: "Electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings in federal courts has been expressly prohibited under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 since the criminal rules were adopted in 1946." So, no TV coverage of United States of America vs. Donald Trump.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: Regarding the audio of Trump talking about the stolen top secret documents, if it was made at his Bedminster "resort" in New Jersey, shouldn't the indictments come from that state instead of Florida? Could Trump be charged with similar indictments in New Jersey since by his own voice admission he had classified documents there? And why in God's name, haven't the Feds searched Bedminster to find this Iran battle plan, which is still missing?

(V) & (Z) answer: We can only say two things at this point. First, as we note above, there is much that remains unknown about the case against Trump. It's possible (though we don't think it likely) that Bedminster was part of the investigation, and that fact will eventually come out in court.

Second, and most importantly, prosecutors go with the crimes they can most readily prove. The Mar-a-Lago stuff looks like a slam dunk. And the audio recording, assuming it was made at Bedminster, is excellent evidence in terms of Trump's state of mind, and his true beliefs about whether the documents were unclassified or not. On the other hand, the audio recording is not great evidence of crimes committed at Bedminster, since Trump might well have been waving around anything while he was talking.

G.R. in Butte, MT, asks: I have started thinking that even if Trump is convicted and given a prison sentence (which I honestly don't think will happen), the second a Republican gets power they'll pardon Trump because that's what the base will want... and if Trump himself is elected all hell will break lose as he goes on a tour of revenge. Apologies for all of the pessimism but it's hard not to feel this way about the current state of American politics, and I was wondering if you had comments on this.

(V) & (Z) answer: We agree with you that if Trump gets elected, he'll pardon himself. We can't imagine any reason he wouldn't do so, especially since he's convinced himself and much of his base that this is a sham. As to a "revenge tour," he loathed his enemies, real and perceived, when he was president the first time, and didn't manage to do much more besides come up with third-grade-level nasty names. We're not sure what new tools or schemes he would have during a second term that he didn't have during a first term.

Any other Republican wannabe president is surely going to try to avoid this hot potato. Not only would pardoning Trump generate vast blowback from voters, it would greatly displease the military establishment, as it would send the message that keeping information secure doesn't really matter. It could be that some Republican candidate, in desperation, says "elect me and I'll pardon Donald Trump." And it could be that once one of them makes that promise, they all have to make it. However, as you may have heard, politicians do not always make good on their promises. And again, most of them are going to resist so much as a hint of a promise. We suspect that you're about to hear a lot of reporters ask: "Would you pardon Donald Trump if you were elected president?" And you're about to hear a lot of candidates say things like: "Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" and "We'll have to examine all the facts and make a decision then."

J.H. in El Segundo, CA, asks: Assuming TFG gets convicted in multiple states and by the feds, which prison would he go to? If we further assume he starts his stay in federal prison, what would happen to the state charges?

(V) & (Z) answer: Keeping in mind that while the New York charges could result in prison time, they probably won't, so we are really talking about Georgia vs. the federal government here. The Georgia case, if and when it is filed, will surely move forward even if Trump is convicted in federal court. And when it came time for prison sentences, the feds would be first in line, since they went first and since those crimes are more serious.

If Trump is convicted, and is sent to an existing federal prison, then our guess is it would be Federal Prison Camp, Pensacola. The government does make some effort to put inmates relatively close to their families, and FPC Pensacola is a white-collar, low security facility with experience housing politicians (e.g., Chris Collins) and grifters (e.g. Todd Chrisley).

That said, given the rather unusual logistical challenges that would arise from imprisoning a former president, the feds might have to create a prison just for Trump by repurposing some other structure or facility. He probably can't be placed among a general prison population, and the U.S.S.S. has to be able to protect him, so it might well be easiest to, for example, stick him in an empty barracks at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, or something like that.

C.V. in Columbia, NJ, asks: Normally, keeping a person in prison is a considerable cost to the government. If Trump is sent to prison, would the government save money since his secret service detail costs would be greatly reduced due to his limited movement and increased security already provided by the prison system?

(V) & (Z) answer: Probably so. Plus, the U.S.S.S. would not have to pay for multiple, full-price rooms at Mar-a-Lago anymore.

S.R. in Kansas City, MO, asks: Could there ever come a time during the legal process, arrest, or sentencing when DT would be required to give a DNA sample? If so, would that DNA be available to resolve a possible paternity lawsuit?

(V) & (Z) answer: Under the terms of 34 U.S. Code 40702, last updated in 2009, the government is allowed to collect DNA from anyone it has in custody, and is required to collect DNA from anyone who is convicted of a crime. In both cases, however, the DNA sample must remain private, and is only available for law enforcement purposes and not for paternity suits.

J.S. in The Hague, Netherlands, asks: What are the Florida laws regarding book deals for people who serve on grand juries?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, note that it's a federal grand jury, and so it is federal law that matters here. And federal law is very clear that federal grand juries are required to keep their deliberations secret, even after the cases they considered have been litigated. The official handbook for federal grand jurors warns:

[T]he grand jury may disclose matters occurring before it only to the government attorneys for use in the performance of their duties, but even the government attorneys may not be informed of what took place during the grand jury's deliberations and voting. The only other time matters occurring before the grand jury may be disclosed to anyone is when disclosure is ordered by the court in the interests of justice. Disclosure of such matters may never be made to a grand juror's friends or family, including a grand juror's spouse.

Needless to say, if you can't even spill the beans to family and friends, you certainly can't write a book. There have been a few lawsuits by people who wanted to write books, and who argued they should be allowed to on First Amendment grounds, but the courts have always said "nope!"

J.M. in Houston, TX, asks: You wrote, of your poll question about how long it would take for Donald Trump to be indicted:

The lowest guess, registered by 36 people, was "1 day." That was not far off, as it turns out. The correct guess, "2 days," was also the most common guess. There were over 200 respondents who hit the bullseye. The three highest guesses were 517, 530 and 533 days. Those weren't such good guesses, it would seem. The average guess was 41.5 days. Sometimes the wisdom of the crowds doesn't work out, though in fairness, it was hard to imagine that things would come together so fast.

I'm not sure that final statement is correct. While obviously I can't see the data set, but I can imagine what it looks like based on the info you provided. Arithmetic mean is probably not the right metric to evaluate the "center" of a data set with this shape. What was the median? What about the geometric mean? inquiring minds want to know!

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, we made a mistake when reporting the data. We downloaded the results, and opened them in Excel, forgetting that Excel treats fields with a zero in them as blanks. As it turns out, there were actually 44 people (a bit less than 2% of the respondents) who thought Trump would not be indicted at all. They were not correct, of course.

For those who felt Trump would be indicted, the median answer was 23 days and the geometric mean was 22 days.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: How does this first indictment complicate the second case about the January 6th events? Will it cause Jack Smith to delay that indictment or have no impact on its timing?

(V) & (Z) answer: Based on the available evidence, it seems that Smith does his job, and when it's done, he goes to court and files his case. We don't imagine that the Mar-a-Lago case will affect the timing of the January 6 case, excepting that Smith and his team will now be able to devote most of their time to the latter, which may speed things up a bit.

K.M. in Tacoma, WA, asks: Can you remind us how the Hillary Clinton e-mail case differs from Trump's document case. Classified and sensitive information was central to the gravity of both cases. The Republicans are making the case that Trump is being treated differently.

(V) & (Z) answer: In a word: intent.

As we have noted many times, for a civilian to get popped for mishandling classified documents, they either have to be engaging in a willful act of rulebreaking, or they have to be so reckless that their actions were effectively willful. If this was not the case, then there would be a parade of federal employees headed to prison for inadvertent and/or moderately careless errors.

Clinton, by all indications, was not a tech wizard, and did not particularly grasp the notation system used for classified information in e-mails. She was just following the lead of her two immediate predecessors, along with the advice of people in her orbit who were more tech savvy. She never knowingly exposed or kept information she wasn't supposed to expose/keep. By contrast, as is made very clear in the indictment, Trump not only knew he was doing wrong, he took active steps to hide his misdeeds from both his own attorneys and from the feds.

There is also a question of degree when it comes to crimes. If you drive drunk and the police pull you over before anyone gets hurt, you're going to get a very different punishment than if you drive drunk and plow into a family of four, killing them all. While some of the information on Clinton's e-mail server was indeed classified, it was relatively trivial stuff. By contrast, the information being held at Mar-a-Lago was among the country's most sensitive intelligence.

We'll also point out that Clinton and Trump were subjected to similar processes. People whose job it is to understand the law and to evaluate such cases decided, several times, that Clinton should not be prosecuted. The same sort of people looked at Trump, tried very hard to let him un-hang himself, and when he chose to keep playing games, went after him.

But again, the easy answer is intent. The evidence did not support the conclusion that Clinton deliberately mishandled information. It does appear to support that conclusion for Trump.

B.F. in Poway, CA, asks: (Z) made the following comment, in reference to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) embracing the "Trump is a victim" bit: "We are not clear how you can successfully campaign against a rival by playing into his narrative of victimhood and martrydom, but we didn't graduate from two different Ivy League schools, so maybe it's beyond our capacity to grasp."

Especially with his numbers so low, don't you think it is a rational strategy for DeSantis to best position himself for the eventuality that Trump is forced out of the race? In that case, I'd say this narrative works quite well for him.

(V) & (Z) answer: Reasonable people can disagree, but we don't see it. If DeSantis is running a "next man up" campaign, then he should not be sparring with Trump at all, but he is. Further, if Trump's base is absolutely convinced he's a martyr, as opposed to a felon, then they are likely to cast millions (and probably tens of millions) of protest votes for him whether he is on the ballot or not. DeSantis needs Trump to be fully discredited, not for him to be Jesus v2.0.

J.A. in Kansas City, MO, asks: Wow! Seems like a particularly significant set of headlines on Friday! Do you track significance of this sort across the history of the site? What other day or days would best today?

(V) & (Z) answer: You're right; between the indictment, and the Supreme Court ruling about Alabama, and the death of Pat Robertson, it was a pretty big day. That said, it's somewhat hard to compare, because there are different kinds of big days. For example, presidential election days are big days. Further, there are some days where the lead story is so big, we give most or all of the day over to it (see the posting for Jan. 7, 2021, for example).

If readers have suggestions for particular big news days, send them along, and we'll run a selection.

Reader Question of the Week

Fortunately, the question we put before readers last week fits pretty well with the theme of the day. Here it is:

P.V. in Kailua, HI, asks: I believe that the most probable outcome of the 2024 Presidential election is that Trump will be the Republican nominee, lose to Biden, claim that the election was rigged, then—just as in 2020—do all that is in his power, which is thankfully less than it was in 2020, to create chaos surrounding certification of the results, including attempting to incite violence from his followers with his usual coded language. What should the Federal and State governments be doing now to prepare for this completely predictable situation?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

C.E. in Murrysville, PA: Put Trump in the supermax prison in Florence, CO.

M.S. in Sterling, NY: After he's convicted of seditious treason for 1/6, send him to ADX Florence, the supermax prison in Colorado, and put him in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, then eliminate his one allowed phone call, which he would naturally use to try and sic the few remaining cult idiots to violence.

T.G. in Lee's Summit, MO: Put his prison on lockdown on Election Day.

K.H. in Albuquerque, NM: GOP-led states and local agencies are already preparing for this eventuality by gutting election boards, diminishing the authority of attorneys-general with D's by their name, pushing independent state legislature theory, putting election deniers in key offices, etc. There are grave threats from bills that encroach on the political independence of local election officials.

According to this assessment, "the next most likely events are associated with the 2024 presidential election: local officials refusing to certify vote counts (55%) and a state legislature naming alternative electors (46%). These expectations are likely based on local- and state-level Republican activism across the country against supposed threats to election integrity. Despite an absence of evidence that maladministration or fraud are widespread, party activists and many Republican politicians are advancing claims that electoral administration and outcomes (when Democrats win) are untrustworthy. That drumbeat appears to have persuaded our experts that, in at least some localities and perhaps some states, the 2024 election results will be rejected. Expectations that Congress would refuse to certify the election result are only slightly lower (39%)."

On the Democratic (and democratic) side, one can hope that continued conviction of Jan. 6 insurrectionists will make others hesitant to follow in their footsteps. With election reform legislation a non-starter in the GOP-controlled House, I am pessimistic about opportunities to counter Republican behavior. My best suggestion to counter Trump-led chaos is to make it a Democratic landslide.

G.R. in Carol Stream, IL: Promote civics education.

R.H. in Macungie, PA: State governments should declare that TFG isn't eligible to be on any ballot pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment. This would then be challenged in court and would end with the U.S. Supreme Court making the final decision.

A.C. in Columbus, OH: I don't think there's much that needs to be done. Trump was at the height of his power and influence in 2020. Yet, he still was eventually compelled to leave the office of the presidency (and swipe some documents on the way out the door). I don't think he will be able to command his acolytes the way he did last time. Of course, it's always a good idea to shore up election security and provide more ways for people to safely vote, but I don't think it needs to be done with an eye specifically on stopping a violent Trump uprising.

E.D. in Temecula Valley, CA: Pass a law stating that in a dispute, a state's electoral count cannot be changed without a court ruling.

R.T. in Arlington, TX: This isn't very sexy, but I think it would do a lot for voter confidence in general. Imagine if you got a tracking number for your ballot like you get for a UPS package. You could check a website to tell you where your vote is in the overall process. The first event would identify which ballot box (machine) was used to hold your ballot. The next would give the time when your ballot box left your polling location and then arrived at the next physical location. Then when the ballot box was first opened and the totals from that ballot box alone. Then when the totals from the ballot boxes were consolidated at the next administrative level (presumably the county). Then when the county total was reported to the state level. The idea is to make all of the counting and totalling completely transparent, without revealing any individual's vote. You could have independent checking for arithmetic errors in the process and any unusual delays would stand out for further investigation. Poll watchers would be largely unnecessary except for the initial counting of ballot boxes.

A.S.W. in Melrose, MA: Two words: duct tape.

Here is the question for next week:

V & Z ask: Have you ever served on a jury? And if so, is there anything about that experience that might give insight into what might unfold in the Trump documents case? Tell us your story.

Submit your answers here!

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