Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

Fifteen Minutes of Feminism is part of our On the Issues with Michele Goodwin platform. Here, we count 15 minutes in feminist terms! The show features robust commentary and interviews in a powerful, concentrated dose.

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Fifteen Minutes of Feminism—The Trump Indictments: Found Guilty! (with Moira Donegan)

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May 31, 2024

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Moira Donegan is a feminist writer and opinion columnist with the Guardian U.S., as well as a writer in residence for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

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In this episode, we continue our series: The Trump Indictments. On May 30, 2024, Donald Trump was found guilty on all 34 counts by a New York jury. In this episode, we unpack the criminal charges that Donald Trump engaged in illegal business, electoral and campaign activities. This week, we’re rejoined by Moira Donegan to discuss why the New York trial was about more than about “hush money” and how the case marks the first time a former president has stood trial for criminal prosecution and been convicted .

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Transcript:

Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, part of our On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. magazine platform. As you know, we report, rebel, and we tell it just like it is. And on Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, we count the minutes in our own feminist terms. We’ve been following the Trump indictments, and in this historic episode, we capture a moment. Donald Trump has been found guilty on 34 counts by a New York jury. Those are felony counts and so now, for the first time, we have a U.S. president who is a felon. An individual who is not able to vote in various states across the United States. What does this mean for that trial? What does it mean for the election? What does this mean for our nation?

I couldn’t be more pleased than to be joined by Moira Donegan, a columnist with The Guardian. Sit back and take a listen.

Moira, always a pleasure to be with you. I will let our audience know that we actually had another episode that was going to be dropping. We actually recorded on the eve of the verdict with the episode ready to run, and we’ve gotten the verdict in now. We know that the former president, Donald Trump, has been convicted on 34 felony counts in New York before a New York jury comprised of 12 individuals, everyday New Yorkers as part of that. Let me start off with this, the response right away from the former president was that this was a political witch hunt. That Joe Biden was behind this. What do you make of that?

Moira Donegan:

Yeah. Donald Trump and the sort of apparatus of rightwing media that surrounds him have been really pushing to delegitimize this trial for months. We’ve had six weeks of trial, and it has been framed really consistently before proceedings began in that Manhattan courtroom as a political fishing expedition motivated by the ideological loyalties of Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, and of the judge, Juan Merchan, and that has been a drumbeat that Donald Trump has been beating for a long time.

He came out of the courtroom and said that the trial was rigged. He has been posting on various social media platforms that his civil rights have been violated, and he smeared Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, as a Soros-backed DA in his words. So, you know, there’s Donald Trump trying to delegitimize the proceedings altogether.

00:03:12 Michele Goodwin:

And to catch our audience up on what this trial was actually about because there’s been a lot of noise that the former president didn’t know what he was being tried for. That he didn’t find out until closing arguments. Let’s actually place some facts on the table such that people aren’t confused about what this trial was all about. Can you tell our listeners what in fact this was a trial about? Because also people call it just the hush money trial. That this is really about a sexual affair, but that’s not why he was being prosecuted.

00:03:49 Moira Donegan:

Yeah. I think one reason why Donald Trump has been trying to delegitimize the proceedings for so long is because he expected to be convicted, right. So, this is a trial about an arrangement that Donald Trump and his campaign made with Stormy Daniels in 2016 but with AMI media, a sort of popular supermarket tabloid publishing company, even before that back in 2015.

So, at the outset of Donald Trump’s original presidential campaign, which he launched in 2015, he made a deal with AMI Media, led by David Pecker, to catch and kill negative stories, right. This was an arrangement in which the Trump campaign asked the tabloid publishers to find any negative stories about Donald Trump, to purchase the rights to those stories, and get NDAs signed by the people who had come forward with them and then bury them and make sure that they didn’t get published before the election.

Michele Goodwin:

To be clear, that’s actually not a criminal offense, per se, doing that. That isn’t it but that’s a critical part of what this case was about. So, tell us then about what actually placed him within the sphere of criminal prosecution.

Moira Donegan:

So, where the crime happened is what happened later. So about a year after the Trump campaign makes this arrangement with AMI Media, they get word in October 2016 that there’s a story out there from a woman named Stormy Daniels. Now, Stormy Daniels is a very successful, popular pornographic film actress. She’s been in that industry for many, many years, and she says that in 2006 she met Donald Trump at a celebrity golf tournament. That he invited her to his hotel room at that tournament in Lake Tahoe and said that she might be a contestant on his television show, The Celebrity Apprentice, and then they had sex.

Stormy Daniels came forward with this story in October 2016, sort of at the very heated final days of that very, very contentious 2016 presidential election, and her story came to the attention of the Trump campaign right around the time that the Access Hollywood tape came out.

Michele Goodwin:

That’s the grab them by the you know what. The grab them by the genitalia. That’s the I prey on women all the time Access Hollywood tape.

Moira Donegan:

Right. And so the presidential campaign had become newly focused on issues of Trump’s treatment of women, on his personal vulgarity and immoral private conduct. So, this, according to some people who testified at the trial like his former campaign aide Hope Hicks, caused a real panic within the campaign. The Trump campaign called in that favor from AMI. Said you guys told us that you were going to do this catch and kill thing. Please catch and kill this story. And indeed, they did. Stormy Daniels got $130,000 for that story in October 2016. I honestly think she was underpaid, but that’s what she took.

You know, the crime element, because as you said, Michele, paying somebody to shut up is actually not illegal. We can debate whether or not that’s a healthy state of affairs or what kind of patterns in our society those transactions facilitate, but it’s perfectly legal under the letter of the law. Having her sign an NDA in exchange for $130,000 was not illegal conduct. What was illegal was the coverup. This is what they always say: It’s not the underlying conduct that they get you. It’s the coverup. So, because Donald Trump did not want this story getting out because he didn’t want anybody to know that he had had this encounter with Stormy Daniels and he did not want that going public at the time of his first presidential campaign, not only did he pay her to cover it up, he also falsified the records of that payment.

Michele Goodwin:

By trying to make it where it would be very difficult to follow the trail, a trail that could lead to her.

Moira Donegan:

Exactly. She was actually paid out of the pocket of Michael Cohen, who was Trump’s fixer and lawyer at the time. Cohen was reimbursed by the Trump organization and those payments back to Cohen were marked as a legal retainer, right. They were not marked as reimbursement.

Michele Goodwin:

Which was not accurate. That was the point that the jury was deliberating over. What was this really about?

I want to just put something on the table here because if one follows only the line that’s actually taken up not only by Donald Trump but by much of the media, they’re really doing a really poor job with regard to two things. That, one, this was a jury. This was a New York jury that took this up. Donald Trump has said he deserves some other venue but Trump Towers are in New York City. He’s lived … this is actually a kind of pure space of his peers if people get that. But even more, there’s this sense in the media, and they’ve done a really poor job of covering it, that this is somehow isolated. So, I just want to point our listeners to a piece that came out last year in Just Security, and it’s a survey of past New York felony prosecutions for falsifying business records. It’s a 24-page survey that’s not just since 2015, this sort of idea that lying in the wait has been the prosecutor trying to go after Donald Trump. But as it turns out, we’re looking at decades upon decades going back nearly a century in New York of prosecuting for things just like this, including at a much lower amount.

So, in this piece that was published in March of 2023 by Steven Watt, Norman Eisen, and Evan Goodman, I’ll just point out a couple of these kinds of cases, for example, for our listeners.

We have in the People of the State of New York v. Maria Ramirez, convicted for returning unpurchased items to a store in exchange for store credit thus causing a false entry in a business record of an enterprise and using the store credit to purchase additional items one day.

The People of the State of New York v. Barbara Freeland in June 2013. Convicted of falsely claiming on a food stamps application that a young adult lived with her.

The People of the State of New York v. Christina Murry, a case in 2015.

Another case in 2014, the People v. Terrell Murry. In those two cases, we have a married couple convicted of house fire insurance claim attempting to recover cash value of various items of property that were ostensibly lost in a fire.

Then there are the ones that are the bigger ones, but I point out these kind of low ones, low dollar amount ones for those people who are like just going after Donald Trump. That this never happens. That they never in New York prosecute people for falsifying records, and it turns out they do this all the time.

Moira Donegan:

Yeah, it’s a very common charge because falsification of records is a crucial element of a lot of frauds, big and small, and not only do they frequently prosecute falsification of business records. It is also not uncommon for that charge to become a felony charge, as it did in Trump’s case. He was convicted of 34 felony counts today. When those falsifications of business records are conducted in furtherance of another crime—and the other crime that Donald Trump was seemed to be committing here when he was falsifying these records of payment reimbursement to Stormy Daniels was trying to influence the 2016 election. So, it is an election interference case.

You know, we who have been watching these four total criminal cases against Donald Trump, a lot of the attention has focused on the January 6 case and that election interference case in the 2020 election. Donald Trump’s attempts after November 2020 to overturn or reverse the outcome of the 2020 election through a series of legal maneuverings, a series of frauds, and ultimately violence at the capital on January 6. I think we think of that as a primary election interference case, right. But this Stormy Daniels hush money case was also an election interference case—a totally different election.

Michele Goodwin:

Exactly and a very good point. We’re talking about two different elections where there is election interference in one case alleged and then the other case where he’s now been convicted. Where a jury of his New York peers have found him guilty of tampering with, trying to interfere with the 2016 presidential election at a time in which, as you mentioned, there was intensifying heat, explanations he was having to make in the wake of the leaked audio and video associated with his statements about grabbing women, touching women, sexually violating women. And then also you made a point about the people who came forward to testify in this case. There were 22 people who came forward, including people who worked for his team that did not help him very much in terms of this case. Basically suggesting that, yes, nothing would have gone forward without his attention. He’s a person who’s very hands-on. Of course, we’ve all seen that with social media, right, when he gets ahold of Twitter, which is now X, and also the platform that he’s now working on.

00:14:48 Moira Donegan:

Yeah. This trial was very, very lopsided in favor of the prosecution. The defense really did not put together, as most criminal defenses would at least try to, a coherent theory, an alternate theory of the facts. There was no really cogent alternative explanation of what these payments were for and what was at stake in these payments to Michael Cohen. The defense tried to sort of poke holes in Michael Cohen’s story and attack his credibility. He was very vulnerable as a witness that way, but they also spent a lot of time on projects that seemed like maybe they were at the direction of the client, right. I’m thinking specifically of all the time that Donald Trump’s lawyers spent in this trial trying to assert that he never had sex with Stormy Daniels. That was not necessary to their burdens in the case. It wasn’t something they had to prove. It was something they spent time on because their client wanted them to spend time on it because their client was fighting not just for is innocence in the courtroom but really this alternative PR battle, as Trump always does. It’s really about his ego and his attempts to assert control over reality, right.

That I think really did derail the defense even more to have to manage this very demanding, overbearing client, who maybe didn’t have the strictest agenda or strictest idea of his own interests and needs in that courtroom.

Michele Goodwin:

What’s interesting about that is that here’s a person who’s had a life of messiness, business record of messiness, multiple bankruptcies, histories of settling cases where fraud has been alleged with regard to his universities, with regard to the casinos that he’s built. People have come forward and said they’ve never been paid though they’ve done so much work. It’s a littering of this.

You’ve already mentioned the one election, the 2016, and then you mentioned the 2020 election and here is a third that’s really messy. What do you make of that? Like each one, it’s kind of reflective of just a sort of poorness of character and also somebody who may get ahead but does so in a way that always leaves behind a trail of disaster.

Moira Donegan:

Yeah. You know, I could spend all day psychoanalyzing Donald Trump. I don’t think he always … I think he frequently but perhaps not always understands himself to be lying. He lies with what seems like a compulsiveness. So, he doesn’t seem entirely capable of telling the truth, although I think he also lies strategically and deliberately for self-interested reasons. This is a guy who has really been falling up for quite a long time. He really did seem, probably because of his just relentless shamelessness and because of his inability to be cowed, unwillingness to stop, and because of the sort of cult of personality around him in the well of minority but very intense popular support that he has in his fane base. He was somebody that a lot of institutions didn’t want to go after, and now we are.

Michele Goodwin:

Yes, well even in this case. Because this was a case where the prosecutor was slammed by others for even going after him for this, even though as I’ve shared, this is something that the office does. And it dates back decades and in fact Mr. Bragg mentioned in the press conference that he did shortly after the conviction that this was part of New York’s public integrity. That decades ago, in the 1930s, they began these kinds of prosecutions as a means of trying to clean up white-collar crime. Of course, we know that the Great American Depression was caused by white-collar crime, and so this idea of making sure that individuals are not able to be above the law, even if they happen to be wealthy. Clearly, the state goes after those who are not wealthy, such as the individuals who are on welfare.

Here’s something that I want to ask you, Moira, which is that to the extent that there are those that are saying this was a political witch hunt and that this political witch hunt has only benefitted Donald Trump, which it may or may not have, it strikes me as something that would have been political had the prosecutor, with the information in hand, not pursued this case, right. What’s your thought on that? Because one could make the claim that well prosecutors knew that this would only boost Trump’s reputation and so therefore they decided to hold back. Don’t do anything. No sense in giving him the opportunity to raise money and to cultivate his crowd even further.

Moira Donegan:

Yeah. You know, I think those people are thinking a little too hard. I think this is not going to redound to Donald Trump’s political benefit. He will do what he always does, which is say that he’s a victim and attempt to fundraise, right. His small dollar donors will … there will be more blood that he gets out of that stone, you know what I mean? But this is not good. This is not good for Donald Trump. I think that you’re right that there have been political concerns and questions about whether or not to prosecute Donald Trump for any one of his flagrant lawlessness. I think that overwhelmingly, those political concerns have redounded to his benefit and have resulted in decisions not to be as aggressive towards this defendant as those same prosecutors would be to others.    

Michele Goodwin:

Well, in fact that brings to mind, and we’re coming to the end of our Fifteen Minutes of Feminism part of our Trump indictment series, but I could spend loads of time with you and we never count the minutes in traditional terms. We say we count them in feminist terms. Yeah.

So, what’s up next? How should we be thinking about sentencing in this, each one of these counts? You know, these could be counts that get absolutely no jail time. On the other hand, these are counts that each one could hold up to four years. What’s your sense in terms of any predictions there?

Moira Donegan:

You know, prediction is the lowest form of journalism. I do not know what kind of tack Juan Merchan will take at the sentencing hearing on July 11. I do know that that sentencing hearing is just I think five days before the Republican National Convention. I think that there is no way that Donald Trump’s criminality does not become a centerpiece of the presidential campaign going into the summer.

Michele Goodwin:

They’re probably already planning for it in many ways. You touched on that at the beginning of this conversation that much of this seems as if perhaps part of the strategy was to think through, all right, if he’s convicted because there really is no alternative theory. They’ve got check records. They’ve got audio recordings and whatnot. In some ways, if you look at this based on what it was, the prosecutor brought a really strong case. If this were any other defendant other than Donald Trump and the political part went away, one might say there were elements of this that were pretty much rock solid. So, you’re right, maybe very hard to predict. Certainly a part of what’s going to be seen at the Republican National Convention that’s taking place in the potential swing state of Wisconsin. It’s taking place in Milwaukee. It’ll be very interesting to see what rolls out from there. How do you think that … what’s going to be the political discourse that goes forward for Democrats, do you think?

Moira Donegan:

I hope that they really try and make the case to voters that this guy is a crook. He is a felon. He has been proven to be a liar and a manipulator of facts and money now in a court of law. You know, this is no longer something that is evidenced only by our collective long intimacy with Donald Trump and by the characterizations of the people who don’t like Donald Trump. It is something that has now been proven in a court of law, right. That does give greater weight to Donald Trump’s malfeasance of character.

I also hope that Democrats take some heart at the expressions of real jubilation and relief that we’re seeing on the streets today. People are happy and vindicated that the institution of this criminal court decided to take Donald Trump’s crime seriously and not to excuse him because he’s Donald Trump and to try and hold him accountable. I hope others of our institutions will follow.

This might be a little bit of a side issue, but I wanted to mention the courage of these jurors, who by all accounts took their job very seriously. They were not swayed by the theatrics in the courtroom or outside of it, which Donald Trump did his best to make this a very chaotic proceeding. And they seemed to have been conducting themselves with a lot of seriousness and awareness of the historical gravity of their position. And they also voted according to the facts and according to the law at great personal risk, right.

These are not people who signed up to be politicians. These are ordinary, anonymous, regular people who now, because of the nature of Trump’s fan base and his cult of personality, will be at risk of violence and harassment, and they did the right thing anyway. They voted according to the facts, according to the law, and according to their conscience in the face of that risk. I think that is a real testament to faith in the levers of this democratic system.

Michele Goodwin:

We come to this part of the show. We’re always asked about a silver lining, but I do want to a take a moment to acknowledge what you’ve just shared. So, we’ve talked about the Republican strategy. It’s victimization, raise money on this. The Dems that perhaps this is a matter of democracy in its finest or at least the judicial process at its finest, but this point that you underscore about the jurors and carrying out this enormous responsibility.

This is the first time that an American president has been criminally convicted. It’s an enormous responsibility in the wake of a kind of bullying atmosphere—one in which there’s been significant demeaning of individuals. Where there has been a flurry of chaos. And somehow they were able to do their job, seemingly even in a way that perhaps seemed dispassionate based on how individuals were in the courtroom described the jurors as seemingly not moved at particular times by arguments being made that might have seemed favorable to the prosecution. So, point well taken, and I completely agree that those jurors are to be commended for the role they did.

Silver lining. How does one make a silver lining out of this?

Moira Donegan:

The silver lining is that people were willing to hold power to account. I don’t think you have to work that hard or at least I don’t have to reach that hard to find a silver lining in this story. You know, it is shameful that any of these events happened. It is sad that somebody so unworthy of power achieved so much of it. But this is a rare, inspiring moment where institutions that have not seemed particularly strong lately showed a degree of strength. I think that’s a silver lining.

Michele Goodwin:

Moira Donegan, it’s always a pleasure to be with you. I thank you for our back-to-back conversations about this. It’s always a pleasure to be in your company and to listen to you. Thank you so much.

Moira Donegan:

Thank you, Michele. It was a delight to be here.

cvMichele Goodwin:

This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. On the Issues and our suite of podcasts at Ms. Magazine and Ms. Studios are part of a Dream Team production. Michele Goodwin is our executive producer. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, Allison Whelan, and Emerson Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Natalie Holland, and music by Chris J. Lee.

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