Why Johnson’s appearance at Manhattan courthouse stands out among Republicans backing up Trump

House Speaker Mike Johnson is not waiting for ex-President Donald Trump to be judged by a jury of his peers. He’s delivered his verdict already.

The top Republican in the legislative branch showed up Tuesday at the courthouse where the presumptive GOP presidential nominee is on trial, deploying his authority and the symbolic weight of his office against the justice system.

“The people are losing faith, right now, in this country, in our institutions,” the Louisiana Republican said outside the building where Trump is facing accusations of falsifying financial records to cover up a hush money payoff to a former adult film star before the 2016 election. (Trump has pleaded not guilty.) Johnson said Americans were “losing faith in our system of justice. And the reason for that is because they see it being abused as it is being done here in New York.”

As the trial reached its pivotal moment this week with the testimony of Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen, Trump has been gathering high-profile Republicans at the courthouse – some of whom are auditioning for his vice-presidential spot. On Monday, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, a possible VP contender, was there along with Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a famed former college football coach. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, also a possibility for the GOP ticket, showed up Tuesday and dismissed the proceedings as a “paperwork trial.”

It’s a testimony to Trump’s power in the party and command over its grassroots supporters that so many top GOP figures want to be seen supporting him despite his four criminal indictments. Even if this hush money case may be the weakest of them, and even if he’s acquitted, it’s resurfacing details of an alleged liaison with Stormy Daniels and airing testimony about his behavior that paints a grim character sketch. (Trump has denied the affair with Daniels.)

These Republicans’ desperation to move into the former president’s inner circle is also ironic since Cohen has offered a cautionary tale in describing how he turned himself into a bullying, lying clone of Trump to grab a piece of his power and reflected glory. His efforts ended – as with many of Trump’s associates – in shame and landed him on the wrong side of the law as he went to prison partly because of his role in the hush money cover-up.

But Johnson is not just some rising GOP lawmaker – although he may owe Trump his job after fighting off an attempt to unseat him in which the ex-president declined to play a role. The speaker’s appearance is different, given the constitutional heft of his office and the figurative connotations it evokes. “These are politically motivated trials, and they are a disgrace,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It is election interference,” he said, claiming the indictments show how “desperate” Trump’s opponents are, adopting the former president’s campaign trope that he’s a persecuted political victim.

There are legitimate questions about this case – some of which were being teased out in court as Johnson spoke Tuesday – including whether the alleged offense arises to the level of a felony. Cohen, a convicted felon, is, to put it mildly, a problematic witness. Some experts have questioned whether any other defendant besides Trump would face the same indictment at the hands of a prosecutor, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat. The theory that Trump’s actions amounted to a conspiracy to interfere in an election might be provable in court but may strike many voters as a stretch, especially during an election eight years later. And then there’s the deeper question of prosecutorial discretion – whether the gravity of the alleged offenses is sufficient to take the unprecedented and politically radioactive step of putting a former president on trial as he seeks the office again.

But Trump is hardly a victim. He is fully availing himself of the protections of the legal system he frequently lambasts. His appeals in other cases, for instance, mean this may be the only one of four trials he faces before the election. That means he’s unlikely to face justice for seeking to overturn one election before standing in the next one. And his charges in this case were not just dreamed up – they emerged from a grand jury that decided there was a case to answer. Trump is exercising his right to mount a defense and is considered innocent until proven guilty.

Johnson, however, claimed the trial was an attempt to destroy Trump’s 2024 campaign and prejudged the verdict in lashing out at a “sham” trial. He attacked the judge and his partial gag order imposed on Trump to protect the safety of witnesses and sought to discredit the testimony of Cohen. “There’s nothing that he presents here that should be given any weight at all by a jury and certainly not this judge,” Johnson said of the star witness. In seeking to discredit the case and a potential guilty verdict, Johnson is implicitly questioning whether courts should have the power to judge politicians – a position that, if adopted, would erode a legal system based on the principle that everyone, even ex-presidents, is equal under the law.

Johnson’s embrace of Trump is a sign that the presumptive GOP nominee’s transgressions – including his two impeachments, his attempt to destroy democracy to stay in office, his three other indictments, his vows to use a second term to weaponize presidential power against political enemies and to start mass deportations of undocumented migrants, as well as his embrace of rhetoric that echoes 1930s dictators – are no impediment to a party that craves a return to full power.

And the speaker’s willingness to put the symbolism of the legislative branch of government at the service of a strongman who again wants to head the executive branch shows there would be even fewer constitutional restraints on Trump than there were in his first term if Republicans triumph in November’s election.

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