Trump gonna Trump: ex-president diverts and deflects as legal woes mount | Donald Trump

No one could accuse Donald Trump of lying low when the long arm of the law finally caught up with him.

On Wednesday the former US president visited the Mexico border, highlighting his favourite campaign issue, then held an hour-long televised town hall with Sean Hannity, his favourite Fox News host.

It looked like a typically Trumpian bid to deflect attention from a scandal that had been expected to erupt that day: tax-related charges against his company and its longtime money man, Allen Weisselberg.

As it transpired, Weisselberg did not surrender himself to the Manhattan district attorney’s office until 6.20am on Thursday, with a court appearance later in the day. But it is already clear that Trump intends to use all his old tactics to deflect, punch back and undermine the rule of law itself.

This is dangerous, because a significant minority of the American population appears ready to accept his lies and, if the events of 6 January at the US Capitol are any guide, resort to physical violence if necessary.

Thus proceedings in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday could start a ticking timebomb beneath a divided nation heading into febrile elections in 2022 and 2024.

The first charges are relatively narrow, reportedly relating to fringe benefits that Weisselberg and possibly others received off the books without being properly reported to tax authorities.

That may just be an opening salvo in an investigation that may yet expand to allegations of bank, tax and insurance fraud and claims of “hush money” paid to women who say they had sexual relations with Trump. It may eventually ensnare the former president himself, especially if the seemingly loyal Weisselberg “flips”.

A report by the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington argues that “Trump is at serious risk of eventual criminal indictment in New York state”, citing five possible vulnerabilities. Adam Schiff, chair of the House intelligence committee, told the MSNBC channel: “This is a grifter from start to finish. He brought his swamp with him from New York to the Oval Office.”

He would make history as the first ex-US president charged with a crime. Would Trump take it all on the chin, responding to the charges against him with the quiet dignity of an elder statesman? No. In a never ending war on institutions, he has taken a sledgehammer to the media, the Democratic party, election integrity and science and would now do the same to justice.

Trump has already sought to portray the investigations into his business as a “witch hunt” by New York state attorney general Letitia James and Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, both Democrats, explicitly tying them to his own presidential ambitions.

In a statement in May, for example, he wrote: “This is purely political, and an affront to the almost 75 million voters who supported me in the presidential election, and it’s being driven by highly partisan Democrat prosecutors … Interesting that today a poll came out indicating I’m far in the lead for the Republican presidential primary and the general election in 2024.”

Perversely, the criminal case could even encourage Trump to run for president on the basis that, as an active candidate, he would find it easier to portray his accusers as politically motivated. He could mobilise the Republican party and a vast fundraising operation to cry foul and chip away at the legal process.

It is the same burn-it-all-down playbook that he used against special counsel Robert Mueller, arguing that the Russia investigation was all about electoral politics and taking away the voice of his supporters. It is likely to resonate in Republican heartlands that regard liberal New York with suspicion.

Indeed, Trump’s first post-presidential rally last Saturday in Wellington, Ohio, drew thousands of true believers. In interviews they said with absolute conviction that the election was stolen, Joe Biden is an illegitimate president, the 6 January insurrection was staged by the FBI or actually quite trivial and Trump might soon be reinstated in the White House.

With their roars of support for jailing everyone from congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to leading epidemiologist Anthony Fauci, the crowd seemed ready to follow Trump into the gates of hell. If they end up demonstrating outside a courtroom during another combustible election season, will law enforcement be prepared to stop them storming that building too?

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