Trump’s legal problems mount without the protections of the presidency

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Stark recusal by federal judges he appointed. Far reaching allegations of fraud by the Attorney General of New York. It’s been a week of growing legal problems for Donald Trump, laid bare the challenges are piling up as the former president operates without the protection of the White House.

The bravado that served him well in the political arena is less practical in a legal field dominated by verifiable evidence, where judges this week have looked askance at his claims and where a fraud investigation took root when Trump was still president , burst into public view in an allegation-filled 222-page state lawsuit.

In politics, “you can say what you want, and if people like it, it works. In a legal field, it’s different,” said Chris Edelson, a presidential power scholar and professor at American University Government. where there are tangible consequences for missteps, misdeeds, false statements in a way that doesn’t apply in politics.”

That distinction between politics and law was evident in a single 30-hour period this week.

Trump insisted on Fox News in an interview that aired Wednesday that the highly classified government records he kept at Mar-a-Lago had indeed been declassified, that a president has the power to declassify information “even by thinking about it .”

A day earlier, though an independent judge recommended by his own lawyers appeared skeptical when the Trump team declined to provide information to support his claims that the documents had been declassified. The special master, Raymond Deariea veteran federal judge, said Trump’s team was also trying to “have its cake and eat it” and that, without information to back up the allegations, he was inclined to view the records as the government does: classified.

On Wednesday morning, Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, Trump charged in a lawsuit inflating his net worth with billions of dollars and habitually misleading banks about the value of appreciated assets. The lawsuit, the culmination of a three-year investigation that began when he was president, also names three of his grown children as defendants and seeks to bar them from running a company in the state again. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

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Hours later, three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit — two of them Trump appointees — handed him a surprise loss in the Mar-a-Lago investigation.

The court overwhelmingly rejected arguments that he was entitled to allow the special master to conduct an independent review of about 100 classified documents taken during last month’s FBI search.

That ruling cleared the way for the Justice Department to resume its use of the classified records in its investigation. It overturned a panel placed by a lower court judge, Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee whose rulings in the Mar-a-Lago case had been the only bright spot for the former president to date. On Thursday, she responded by striking the parts of her order that had required the Justice Department to give Dearie and Trump’s lawyers access to the classified records.

Dearie followed through with his own order, giving the Trump team until Sept. 30 to identify errors or mistakes in the FBI’s detailed inventory of items taken in the search.

Between Dearie’s position and the appeals court’s ruling: “I think there may be basically a developing consensus, if not an already developed consensus, that the government has the stronger position on many of these issues and many of these controversies.” said Richard Serafini, a Florida criminal defense attorney and former Justice Department prosecutor.

To be sure, Trump is hardly a stranger to courtroom dramas, having been deposed in numerous lawsuits throughout his decades-long business career, and he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive situations that seemed dire.

His lawyers did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

In the White House, Trump had faced a perilous investigation into whether he obstructed a Justice Department investigation into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign in 2016. In the end, he was protected at least in part by the power of the presidency, with special counsel Robert Mueller citing longstanding department policy prohibiting impeachment of a sitting president.

He was twice impeached by a Democratic-led House of Representatives – once over a phone call with the leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the second time after the riots on January 6, 2021 at the Capitol — but was acquitted by the Senate on both occasions thanks to political support from fellow Republicans.

It remains unclear whether any of the current investigations — the Mar-a-Lago one or investigations related to Jan. 6 or Georgia’s election meddling — will produce criminal charges. And the trial in New York is a civil case.

But there is no doubt that Trump no longer enjoys the legal shield of the presidency, even as he has repeatedly leaned on an expansive view of executive power to defend his retention of records that the government says are not his, regardless their classification.

In particular, the Justice Department and the federal appeals court have given little consideration to his claims that the records had been declassified. For all his claims on TV and social media, both have noted that Trump has not produced any formal information to support the idea that he even took steps to declassify the records.

The appeals court called the issue of declassification a “red herring” because even declassifying a record would not change its content or transform it from a government document to a personal one. And the statutes cited by the Ministry of Justice as the basis for its investigation do not explicitly mention classified information.

Trump’s lawyers have also stopped short of saying in court or in legal briefs that the records were declassified. They told Dearie they should not be forced to reveal their position on that issue now because it could be part of their defense in the event of an indictment.

Even some legal experts who have otherwise sided with Trump in his legal battles are skeptical of his claims.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University testified as a Republican witness said in the first impeachment trial in 2019 that he was struck by “the lack of a coherent and consistent position from the former president on the classified documents.”

“It’s not clear,” he added, “what Jedi-like lawyers were saying that you could declassify things with a thought, but the courts are unlikely to embrace that claim.”

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More on Donald Trump-related investigations: https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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