Legally, the most important words former President Donald Trump said after he was charged with 34 felonies by the Manhattan District Attorney last week were “not guilty.” But, politically, the most significant may be “election interference.”
Trump’s repetition of those words, which have been taken up by other top Republicans, show how he is trying to turn his historic position as the first former president charged with crimes to his advantage. It's another example of what's been a consistent refrain throughout his political career — claiming without evidence that an election is being rigged against him.
After his initial court appearance in the New York case, the first of several in which he is in legal jeopardy, Trump ticked through the varied investigations he was facing and branded them as “massive” attempts to interfere with the 2024 election.
“Our justice system has become lawless," Trump said as he appeared before supporters at his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago. "They’re using it now, in addition to everything else, to win elections.”
Trump has made some version of those claims in at least 20 social media posts since March 3, the bulk of which occurred in the last two weeks, accelerating when a Manhattan grand jury appeared to be wrapping up its work and preparing to indict the former president. Trump declared his latest bid for the White House shortly after the November midterms, in what some in his orbit saw as an effort to head off the various probes swirling around him.
Alleging an election is being stolen from him is a routine Trump tactic, despite no evidence to back up his assertions. When competing for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, Trump claimed his loss in the Iowa caucuses was due to fraud. When he won the White House that November but lost the popular vote, Trump claimed the only reason for falling short in the latter category was because undocumented immigrants voted. A task force he formed to find voter fraud disbanded without finding any evidence to back up his claim.
In 2020, Trump began arguing the election would be fraudulent months before voting started. He attacked efforts to loosen restrictions on mail voting during the coronavirus pandemic, and expanded those allegations after losing the election to claim he'd actually won it. Those lies led to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the 2020 election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
Trump is behaving like a politician in the legal crosshairs, said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist.
“He's certainly not the first politician to be prosecuted — sometimes fairly, sometimes not — to play the political victim card,” Levitsky said.
Levitsky, who cowrote the book “How Democracies Die,” said that several former presidents of other countries, when prosecuted, have claimed it was a plot to foil their future elections. Most recently, that was the complaint of Brazil's former president Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva after he was jailed before the 2018 election. Silva was freed by his country's supreme court and won back the presidency in October.
What's notable in Trump's case, however, is that his own party is echoing the stolen election claims ahead of the next campaign. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last month said he was directing his party's committee chairs to “investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.”
“That a whole party is carrying this line is somewhat unusual," Levitsky said.
Last week's charges in New York court stemmed from Trump's reimbursements to his lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, of hush money paid in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election to porn actress Stormy Daniels, who alleged they had an affair. Even some critics of Trump have seen the charges as a stretch of New York laws.
The heart of the Manhattan case is prosecutors' claim that Trump falsified business records at his company to make the payoff in order to keep a potentially damaging story quiet while he was campaigning — an illegal attempt by Trump, they argued, to try to influence the election.
The former president also faces legal jeopardy from other investigations, two of which are related to his attempts to try to interfere with the 2020 election.
Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, are probing Trump's January 2021 call to the state's top elections officer asking him to “find” enough votes to declare Trump the winner there. The U.S. Justice Department also has launched a federal special counsel probe into Trump's attempts to try to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election.
Trump is also enmeshed in a federal special counsel investigation of his handling of classified documents found at his Florida estate.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, when asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether the timing of the case was political, responded by saying: “I bring cases when they’re ready."
Bragg’s office declined to comment on Trump’s statements about “election interference," as did the Department of Justice.
Critics warn that Trump is, once again, sowing suspicions of fraud that could damage democracy. “We’ve seen this film before,” Joanna Lydgate, chief executive officer of States United Action, which tracks politicians who embrace Trump's election lies, said in a statement. “We know this is dangerous because we all saw what happened on January 6th.”
Trump has routinely waved off such warnings, and has seamlessly integrated his current legal jeopardy into the false allegations he’s made for three years about Democratic Party wrongdoing leading to his ouster.
In his first campaign rally, in Waco, Texas, days before the Manhattan indictment, Trump railed against all the investigations and said that his opponents were using the probes “because it’s harder for them to stuff the ballot boxes, of which they stuffed plenty.”
“The new weapon being used by out-of-control unhinged Democrats to cheat on election is criminally investigating a candidate,” he said.
Trump and other Republicans have sometimes contradicted themselves, decrying the investigations as an attempt to tarnish Trump while also predicting they'll aid his bid for the White House.
“I think you’ll see his poll numbers go up,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., one of the president's most vocal backers in the House, predicated at a GOP conference last month. “He’s never been in a stronger position.” She condemned the charges last week as “unprecedented election interference.”
Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, which has long been critical of Trump's allegations of election rigging, noted that all the investigations of the former president began well before he started running for president again.
“Nobody is above the law, including former presidents, and running for president cannot and must not serve as a shield for wrongful conduct,” Scherb said.