By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Many Republicans in the U.S. Congress have responded to Donald Trump’s looming Tuesday arraignment by characterizing the criminal justice system as corrupt, in accusations that parallel their earlier broadsides against the nation’s elections after the former president’s 2020 defeat.
Trump and his allies in the House of Representatives and Senate have used rhetoric that echoed his false claims of widespread election fraud in the build-up to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
Critics warn that the present partisan rhetoric could shake public trust in courts by undermining the institutional legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
“Trump’s indictment is the culmination of 6 years of the Democrats weaponizing law enforcement to target and persecute their political enemies. Dictatorships operate like this – the US is supposed to be different,” tweeted Senator Ted Cruz, a hardline Republican who voted to overturn 2020 election results.
Trump says he is innocent of the expected New York charges – which revolve around hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign. Details of the charges are as yet unclear.
He says the investigation and three other probes involving his attempts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House are all politically motivated.
Most Democrats have warned against challenging the legitimacy of the institutions of government in defense of Trump, who routinely pushed up against the guard rails of democracy during his four years in the White House and was twice impeached by Congress.
“Political leaders ought to stand up for the American system of government,” said Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who also served on the congressional investigation of the Jan. 6 attack.
“Undercutting the system of government is a serious matter and a threat to our future,” she said in an interview.
Trump has been unrestrained in his rhetoric in recent weeks, calling for protests and warning of potential “death & destruction” if he were to be charged.
He used fiery language hours before his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, in a bid to overturn his election defeat. Five people including a police officer died during or shortly after that riot and more than 140 police officers were injured. The Capitol suffered millions of dollars in damage.
FOCUS ON BRAGG
Most Republicans have trained their invective on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, accusing the prosecutor of mounting a politically motivated investigation aimed at preventing Trump from being re-elected to the White House in 2024.
After Trump on March 18 announced that he expected to be arrested in days, the Republican-controlled House launched its own probe of Bragg’s grand jury investigation, seeking documents and testimony. They have called Bragg’s move “an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority” and said the indictment followed years of the office searching for any basis on which to bring charges.
Democrats questioned whether Congress has the authority to investigate a state-level investigation, particularly one conducted under secretive grand jury rules.
Bragg, a Democrat, on Friday warned Republican Representatives Jim Jordan, James Comer and Bryan Steil, who are leading the probe, against attacking the criminal justice system.
“You and many of your colleagues have chosen to collaborate with Mr. Trump’s efforts to vilify and denigrate the integrity of elected state prosecutors and trial judges,” the Manhattan prosecutor wrote.
House Republicans continued to push back. Firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene said she planned to protest against Trump’s court appearance on Tuesday, while Brian Mast went further and told CNN he would not accept the outcome of a jury trial, saying “I don’t have a trust that a jury will make a fair assessment of this.”
Not all Republicans were so quick to cast doubt on the courts.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson issued a statement that called for patience and underscored the legal principle that Trump, as a defendant, should be presumed innocent.
“We need to wait on the facts and for our American system of justice to work like it does for thousands of Americans every day,” said Hutchinson, who is considering his own 2024 White House run.
Historians including Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer said Republican statements about Bragg and the criminal justice system follow a long-established partisan line.
“The party has invested a great deal in attacking the legitimacy of institutions, which is why Trump fit well into the party and continues to be popular,” Zelizer said in an email.
Nicole Hemmer, director of the Rogers Center for the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University, warned that Republican attacks on the U.S. criminal justice system could ultimately have dire consequences for courts and juries.
“This is the end-game of the ‘deep state’ rhetoric that Donald Trump has deployed since 2016 to sow those seeds of distrust in institutions of accountability,” Hemmer said.
“We haven’t yet seen a cataclysmic moment in this rejection of the courts. But we are starting to see the steps toward it, as we saw the steps toward Jan. 6 coming from a long way off.”
(Reporting by David Morgan; additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O’Brien)