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UVA’s Larry Sabato discusses historic Trump indictment

Donald Trump stands against a blue sky, wearing a blue blazer and a white dress shirt with the collar open as he talks into a microphone.
Evan Vucci
The Associated Press File
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas, on March 25.

A New York grand jury has indicted former President Donald J. Trump on criminal charges, according to NPR and numerous national news outlets.

A grand jury has been meeting for months in the hush money case involving former adult film star Stormy Daniels.  This is the same case for which former Trump attorney Michael Cohen was indicted, convicted and served time.

Trump has denied having a relationship with Daniels, according to NPR, but has said he reimbursed Cohen for the money she received.

VPM News Focal Point anchor Angie Miles spoke with political analyst and University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato about the circumstances leading to Trump's indictment.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Angie Miles: To provide some context on what's led to this legal turn of events for former President Donald Trump, we asked Professor Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He is also author or editor of two dozen books on American politics. And he joins us now with his perspective. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Sabato.

Larry Sabato: Thank you, Angie.

This is the shoe that people have been watching, and now it's dropped. How significant is it for a former United States president to be indicted or to be arrested?

Well, as you suggest, it's history. So, that means it's never happened before. And it's not an impossibility that this is just the first of a number of indictments coming from other sources, not from the New York Manhattan DA, but from Georgia and a special counsel that the attorney general has appointed, and perhaps from other directions. There are other things bubbling out there. But this one is significant, though I don't think it's as significant as other cases that may well come to maturation.

In this matter, particularly, it was 2018 when Michael Cohen was tried and was convicted as co-conspirator number two. There was wild speculation at the time that co-conspirator number one was, in fact, Donald Trump. And we're wondering, what do you think, was the reason for the time lapse? Why so long between 2018 and now?

There was disagreement in the Manhattan DA's office with a previous DA. This one was elected recently, and the prior DA came to the conclusion that it would be difficult to prosecute and get a judgment against former President Trump. This prosecutor has taken another look at it, has involved other people, other analysts, other views and he has come to a very different conclusion.

As I suggest it's possible that Trump will be convicted in the end, it's also possible that he won't. And in any event, I don't think this is the strongest case that will be before us concerning former President Trump.

OK. You mentioned those other cases. Some people say that all of it, it's the deep state or a witch hunt. Is this political?

Anything involving a president or former president is going to be political to one degree or another. But there's another principle at stake here. No one is above the law. Those of us who lived through Watergate remember this very well. It was the argument used to process and prosecute, eventually, President Nixon and those around him. Now, President Nixon was pardoned by his successor President Gerald Ford. But most of his underlings went to jail, just as Michael Cohen, the attorney for the Trump Organization, went to jail. And there are others around President Trump who probably will before it's over.

So, the former president has been calling for some time for there to be protests, pushback. His legal team has said it would be an all-out war. Should we be concerned about threats of violence or something on the scale of January 6th?

We have to be concerned now. Again, every American under the First Amendment has the right to protest, to redress grievances before the government, to express himself or herself. That's guaranteed. But it's pretty clear from two events, first Charlottesville in 2017, which I'm familiar with, because I watched it. And January 6, 2021, when President Trump himself, using Twitter, encouraged his followers to come and said, "It will be wild."

He knew some of what was going on. He knew some of these organizations, including the Proud Boys and others, were planning on making a major stand and trying to reverse the election results, really overturn an election. So, I think President Trump, when he says, "Protest, take our country back,” it has more meaning than it would if it were uttered or written by another president.

Are we talking about a domino here is, as we consider these other brewing cases, possible brewing charges. What do you feel is the strongest potential case against Donald Trump? And are we going to see more charges as the domino falls?

If I were President Trump, I would worry more about the special counsel, Jack Smith, appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland than anything else. He has quite a record and is considered a very serious judge, very careful to adhere to the law. And he appears to be moving towards some kind of action against former President Trump with regard to — not just the documents that were taken to Mar-a-Lago — but the fact that President Trump would not yield those documents, and may, may have lied to his own lawyer or lawyers about what he had in his possession.

This is serious business. And people say, “Well, President Biden had some documents and Vice President Pence had some classified documents.”

That's all true, but they turned them over immediately and cooperated fully. President Trump did anything but cooperate fully, and he clearly tried to hang onto many of the items that, under law, he's not supposed to have.

A difference in the in the response. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Nixon presidency and resignation, and you said, no one is above the law — something that was quoted frequently during that period. And as you said, his successor, Gerald Ford, in the Nixon case, did pardon him, saying that it was in the best interest of the country not to prosecute a former president. Do you see that sort of reading of the tea leaves in a case like this with Donald Trump?

It's always sketchy to bet, but I would bet a large sum of money that President Biden will not be pardoning former President Trump. Now, if a Republican’s elected in the 2024 election, it's always possible that they could even pledge to do so during the election campaign. Who knows? It may be President Trump himself and under some interpretations of the pardoning power, President Trump — if he became president again in 2025 — might well be able to pardon himself.

That is sort of somewhat mind-boggling to consider what that turn of events might be like. On the political front once more. We know that there were GOP members of Congress who made what seemed an attempt at pressure on Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan prosecutor — [they] talked about defunding his position or positions like his to try and stop this train. What are the ramifications of that, a political approach to what is really a legal matter?

Well, it's irresponsible, but they can call for it because they know there's zero chance of it happening. It would be stopped in a Democratic Senate. And if somehow if got out of the Senate, as well as the House, again, I put a very large bet that President Biden would be vetoing that. And there's no way that you have the votes in either the House or the Senate to overcome a veto.

Well, thank you so much. We're talking about history, of course, in the case of Donald Trump and the various legal crises swirling around him. Thank you, Larry Sabato, for bringing us your expertise on this matter.

I enjoyed talking to you, Angie, thank you.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.