Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Michael Kruse: Trump’s Grand Finale

January 23, 2024
Notes
Transcript
As a longtime legal combatant, probably no one else on earth is more prepared to leverage four prosecutions than Donald Trump—he’s made an art form of attacking the courts, our justice system, and the rule of law for 50-plus years. Politico’s Michael Kruse joins Charlie Sykes.

show notes:

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2024/01/12/donald-trump-indictments-legal-system-00135151
https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2024/01/22/new-hampshire-primary-voter-00136850 

This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:08

    Welcome to the Bulwark contest. I’m Charlie Sykes. Happy New Hampshire primary day for those of you who celebrate. I I I don’t wanna have any spoilers here because, you know, New Hampshire is notorious for upending predictions for being unpredictable, but I think it’s pretty clear that We are sometime either today or very shortly to learn something that we’ve already known, which is that the party of Ronald Reagan is dead, demised, departed, and no more This is Nikki Haley’s last stand. Of course, you know, you’re up for another, you know, forty eight hours of punditizing about the importance of all of this.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:41

    I wanna take a little bit of a step back today because there is an absolute mind bender of a story that I wanted to talk about, and we are joined by the author of that piece Michael Cruz senior staff writer at Politico and Political magazine Now this story, Michael, first of all, welcome to the podcast.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:02

    Thanks, Charlie. Good to be with you again.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:04

    This is the story with the headline. This to him is the grand finale. Donald Trump’s fifty year mission to discredit the justice system. So, I mean, this is mainly about Trump, but you also did a couple of, interviews with voters. Up in New Hampshire.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:18

    But this piece and and I really hope that people set aside some time to read it because you start off with something that I think most people are familiar with what happened in room three hundred of the New York County courthouse in Manhattan in November where Donald Trump strutted, dominated, took over the proceedings. The judge was left to say, you know, can anyone control him and nobody could control him. But As you point out, remember to just read a little bit of what you wrote here, because every sentence is kinda like a hammer blow. The prosecutor says at one point, are you done? And Trump says, done?
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:53

    As you write, he was nowhere close to done. Trump’s testimony, if anything, was but a case. In fact, he said many of the same things in the same courtroom last Thursday. This country you write has never seen and therefore is utterly unprepared for what it is about to endure in the wrenching weeks and months ahead. Active challenges based on post civil war constitutional amendments to bar insurrectionists from the ballot existentially important questions about presidential immunity, almost certain to be decided by a Supreme Court, the citizenry, has seldom trusted less.
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:25

    And a candidate running for the White House while facing four separate criminal indictments, alleging ninety one felonies, among them course, charges that he tried to overturn an election he lost and overthrow the democracy he swore to defend. And while many found Trump’s conduct in court in New York shocking, It is in fact for Trump not shocking at all. For Trump, it is less an aberration than an extension, an escalation a culmination. Trump has never been in precisely this position, and the level of the threat that he faces is in arguably new. But it’s just as true too that nobody has been preparing for this as long as he has himself.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:07

    So, Michael, you go through this long long history of Donald Trump’s manipulation of the justice system, his weaponization of the justice system, and how Trump over many decades has taught himself how to use and abuse the legal system for his own advantage. You’re right. He has spent most of his adult life molding it into an arena in which he could stake claims and hunt leverage. It has not been for him a place of last resort, so much as a place of constant quarrel. Conflict in courts is not for him.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:44

    The cost of doing business, it is how he does business. So this is the revelation is that We think, you know, boy, Donald Trump. This must be tough. Donald Trump is in the dock, but talk to me about Donald Trump’s attitude toward court And what you learned in your research about the way he handles these things?
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:04

    I mean, so first of all, as I say also in the piece, he’s never been in precisely this situation. Like, the level of peril he faces is something new. But the way he’s responding to it and the tactics he’s using to attack it, to address it, to try to get past it. To try to get past November are not new at all. And it’s important, I think, for the people of this country to understand that there are many ways to see Donald Trump, of course.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:40

    But perhaps right now, one of the most important ways is to acknowledge that he is and has been for more than fifty years a legal commitment who’s learned over the course of those years and decades and has been quite effective at this. When folks sort of wonder out loud and have been wondering for months, for years, really, why doesn’t accountability happen? Why doesn’t the legal system catch up to him. And the answer is in those fifty years, is in the lessons he’s learned And also, just the the reality that he is, as I say, in the text of the story, more prepared to deal with this sprawling, multi jurisdiction situation, then maybe literally anybody on planet Earth. Because of how he is interacted with the legal system as a defendant, as a plaintiff, on offense, on defense, as a businessman, as a citizen for fifty plus years.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:47

    You have a lot about Roy Cohen, legendary lawyer that Donald Trump admired so much, you know, one of the sleaziest characters in American history, as you point out, one of the sleaziest characters in legal history But really, very much a mentor for Donald Trump, and I love the way you describe it that when he faced his first legal problem, he went out and he hired Roy then he looked for his own Roy Con, and then he write, and then he became Roy Con. So talk to me about that, that trajectory.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:16

    You cannot understand Donald Trump without understanding Bulwark out and without understanding their relationship. First time I wrote about Roy Cohen in the context of Donald Trump was in the spring of twenty sixteen. So by now, I sort of found myself thinking, well, this is just a this is just a fact of the matter that people understand about Donald Trump. But this story, the reporting of this story The reception of this story reminded me that actually, even very well informed peoples, I don’t think it totally understood and internalized just how important this is to understand Donald Trump. Roy Con in late nineteen seventy three, was in some sense sort of at the peak of his perverse powers.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:02

    He had been brought into court. He had been charged four times four indictments, he had been acquitted three times missed trial, the other time, but nonetheless never convicted. And so by this time, by the early to mid seventies, Not only was he this notorious former aid and attorney to Senator Joseph McCarthy
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:25

    where he became famous back in the fifties as a red baiter. So the this is his second or third chapter.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:30

    Famous an infamous in the fifties. And for most people, that would be sort of saying that you’d go back and you’d have some private practice, but you’d basically go into more or less life. Right?
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:38

    Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:38

    He he turned it into a strength, an asset, he turned the infamy into power, which is now a familiar trump trait as well. But by the time he gets to this point, October of nineteen seventy three when the federal government, when the DOJ charges Donald Trump and his father with racist, rental practices, Roy Cohen had had added even to that into me as a a sheen of invincibility, like, of an ability to get out of things, to get away with stuff. And so this was among the many reasons he was so attractive to a young twenty seven year old Donald Trump at the time. And as I say in the piece, that years long effort to fight back, and in all, for all intents and purposes, get out of the DOJ race case of nineteen seventy three, was foundational tutorial in how to fight back against the legal system and to use that them to work within it, not just fight against it. And also, Roy Kohn one zero one is what that was for Donald Trump.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:46

    And so on the list of Raycon one zero one, deny counter attack, delay in some ways, that might be the most important thing, especially right now in the current context. And all along the way, undermine the system. Because if a larger portion of, at that time, newspaper readers, have questions about the the propriety of the prosecution. Well, then you’re winning a little bit in the court a public opinion. And so Donald Trump without understanding where I cone and without understanding that first marriage of Donald Trump and Raycomb in the early to mid seventies.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:25

    And in fact, like, in well, into the late seventies because they stretched it out show very long. To the point here, the federal government basically said, just threw up its hands and said, we’ll take what we can get and move on because this is a
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:38

    consent decree.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:39

    Get a dissent decree, which is, you know, legally and officially a loss for the Trump.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:44

    Right. Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:44

    It didn’t register as such, and certainly they didn’t treat it as such. And that’s not how they talked about it. And still talk about it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:50

    Well, this is the other thing you point out is the way that he spins defeats into victories, you know, even when he loses, he turns into victory, but let’s just stay with Roy Cohen for a moment because This is, you know, I think just sort of fundamental to understand, you know, as you, you know, pointed out that Cohen was in post World War two America, particular sort of poisonous force, you know, decades before he encountered Donald Trump, but also the kind of lawyer that he was, he had this reputation as a legal executioner for celebrities, executives, mob bosses. He didn’t pay his bills. He didn’t pay his taxes. He was shameless and remorseless and famous among lawyers for winning cases by delays, evasions, and lies. He was indicted four times for bribery conspiracy extortion blackmail for stock Swindley and obstruction of justice and filing force reports, never once convicted.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:38

    He was known as a scoundrel of bully and as politically incorrect as they come as you point out, Trump loved this guy. Trump loved this guy, modeled himself on this guy, and keeps talking about this guy to this day.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:52

    Elemental to understanding Donald Trump as understanding that Royco didn’t think the rules applied to him. The rules were and are for suckers. They are to be manipulated. What are the loopholes that can be manipulated, identified, and taken advantage of. This is the way Roy Cohen approached not only his law practice, but life itself.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:17

    There was sort of no separation between Warwick Cohen’s life, his work, and just sort of the the story he he spun. And so all of this, it’s it goes even beyond sort of legal maneuverings under standing how to take advantage of courts and judges and undermine them itself. It is it is a way of being that Roy Cohen was, and he imparted that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:41

    Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:41

    The young impressionable and savvy Donald Trump, he was paying attention He was before he became Roy Cone. He was Roy Cone’s finest and most attentive pupils.
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:55

    Well, I mean, again, they you you go back to this playbook. And I was an overused term, but, you know, you go back to this nineteen seventy three DOJ lawsuit, you know, about about racism, and all of the stuff that we’re we’re seeing now, you know, Raycon accusing prosecutors of Gestapo like tactics using undercover agents, stormtroopers, you know, claiming everything was a smear campaign, all of this stuff. So the attack attack attack no matter what the merits were, that evidence did not matter. As you point out, one one attorney told you that Trump learned attack attack, attack, no matter what the merits are, fuck the merits, attack, attack, attack, That was Roy Cohen’s methodology. That was adopted by Donald Trump.
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:33

    So no one should be surprised to see those tactics in every one of the cases that is pending against Donald Trump. So tell me why you started with the scene in judge and Gordon’s courtroom. Because I think some people thought this is, you know, this is out of control, Donald Trump. This is Donald Trump, you know, strutting and and having tantrums But you saw him as this was the Donald Trump that, you know, who was fifty years in the making in that courtroom. Why did you start with that particular episode?
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:03

    Some of the commentary and the mainstream commentary in the aftermath of that hearing that day in early November in New York I thought was off base and naive. You can’t do that in a courtroom. This is not a winning posture in a courtroom. And I thought you’re still not understanding this. This is not something he’s doing for legal reasons per se.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:34

    When the judge said, this is not a political rally, this is a quorum, I thought to myself. You’re right. I guess, technically, but this is very obviously a different location But a version of any rally or set of remarks that you see him deliver anywhere. The last however many nights in New Hampshire, the next however many nights in the bad end, South Carolina and so on and so forth. This is serving a purpose.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:06

    And he might be losing niggly in some respects. He’s already lost that case. The only question when he is testifying in the way that he was, what is the punishment in that particular civil fraud trial? He’s already lost, quote unquote, legally, but he is At least in my estimation, potentially, maybe even probably winning politically because the coverage of that event and again, that’s not even televised. I mean, that is coming out in terms of because of coverage because of things that people who are in the courtroom like me are writing about it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:38

    That’s how it’s coming out that delivers the message that he not only wants to deliver right now. He needs to deliver right now, but is a an extension of a message he’s been delivering ever since that first case in nineteen seventy three, if enough people simply do not trust that system. Agree with what he’s saying about the judge and the prosecutor and the attorney general and the case, then mission accomplished for Donald Trump because How do you beat this array of legal actions in peril you get to November without having been convicted and you are reelected because people believe you and not believe the system, and he is in a sense nothing if not prepared to make that case. Casey’s making on a daily basis, of course.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:25

    So tell me about some of these other, trials that he’s had in the past. The lawsuit with Tim O’Brien, you know, who’s been on on this podcast. You you’ve had other class action suits. I love the stories about, his suits around Mara Laga, how how he basically brings people to heel. He’s been in court with, you know, tenants associations.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:43

    So pick out one of those cases that you think is also part of the development of the Trump legal persona. As we’re tracing him from nineteen seventy three in Roy Kohn to where we are right now.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:57

    So, I mean, any of these
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:58

    any of them. Yeah. Chapters
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:00

    that I outlined in the piece are, like, it’s worth discussing, but I guess I’d go to the eighties because that is foundational too in a slightly different way than the seventies. For starters, he’s on offense. This is no longer playing defense and learning from Roy Con and kind of a almost embryonic stage of the development of Donald Trump’s role as a legal combatant. He now is taking it to people on offense using court rooms and court proceedings to try to get what he wants. And so the signal ongoing legal squabble in the nineteen eighties.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:36

    And even this has been a little bit underwritten about is not necessarily known or remembered by even people who have been paying lots of attention to opposites who came down the escalator. Right? He buys one hundred Central Park South, a fifteen story apartment building, rent controlled tenants, great location, obviously. He wants to turn it into a much fancier, much more high priced condominium. He needs those people out he needs the rent control tenants out.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:01

    So he goes about various legal ways to try to get them out. They fight back a higher very capable tenants, right, to attorneys, a stalemate ensues to the point where Donald Trump now at a at a time where Trump Tower is just going up. He’s on the cover of GQ for the first time. There’s, like, very early famous Donald Trump. He just bought the USFL Generals, like, this is this is the context in which he is operating.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:28

    And he files suit, a racketeering suit, a Rico suit against the attorneys for the tenant to try to intimidate those attorney into just saying, you know, this is not worth it. And lesser attorneys come in and the tenants are more vulnerable and he gets what he wants. So what happens is the attorneys have to hire an attorney, even then a very well established high powered attorney named Marty London in New York. And just legally beat the pants off Donald Trump. There is no the judges sort of fast track dismissals.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:04

    You know, there is no appeal to the point where Trump has to pay seven hundred thousand dollars of legal fees in return. Like, he he he in some sense is punished by the judges for even having brought a suit, not only does he lose the suit. He loses the suit and then some. Right? But, you know, it was so low, it’s been so frivolous.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:22

    And yet, you know, fast forward a few years. And, obviously, the eighties, the financial market boomed, the real estate market boomed, And this property, he still has stymied, though he was, is now worth a lot more. And eventually, those tenants move out and hundreds of torque style. It becomes building that still is called trump.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:41

    He spins that as a win, too.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:43

    And he spins that as a win by the early nineties He’s spinning that as a win. You know, well, they did me a favor by holding me up. So now this building is
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:50

    for Jesus.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:51

    And so, I mean, in some sense, he’s not wrong. I mean, in an outright legal defeat. I mean, a humiliating smackdown of illegal defeat, but somehow he’s able to spin it to himself and also spin it to the public as, you know, a sign of some sort of business acumen rather than a frivolous legal action brought great sanctions
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:13

    Very much on brand.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:14

    Yeah.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:16

    Okay. I’m gonna pull the lens back in a moment because you talk about the fifty year campaign to discredit the whole justice system. But One more question, though, because, you know, we’re talking about the lawyers, you know, his familiarity with the legal system, I mean, wanting to be aggressive. How then do we reconcile someone whose image is in his role model is Roycomb? With the fact that right now he’s in court with somebody of the legal level of Alina Haba, who I think it’s safe to say is not one of the giants of legal profession.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:49

    Yep.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:49

    How does that fit into this scenario? Because he’s had good lawyers in the past. Yeah. A lot of those good lawyers are he’s shedding those lawyers, and now he’s got Alina Haba.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:59

    Increasing as we’ve seen over the years, it’s become harder and harder for him to get the best attorneys. Let me play off the notion that he is his own Roy Con. He thinks and has thought for a long time that he’s his own best advocate.
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:14

    Mhmm.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:14

    And so, we’re speculating here a little bit, but Elena Habba is not so much there for expertise or experience, she’s there to be a more camera facing outside in the court steps, attack dog, and his inside the courtroom, frankly, Donald Trump is more equipped to do what he needs to do, to get the message across that he wants to get across. He had trouble finding another Roy Kone because there was an only ever has been one Roy Kone. There is no other Roy Kone. Right.
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:44

    Well, also lawyers like to get paid. Right? I mean, sort of
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:47

    If there’s like to get paid, I mean, throw that into the mix, for why a lot of the best attorneys have found reasons to not represent him increasingly over the last however many years, you know, that’s a well earned reputation, you know, for decades that he not only steps contractors but also steps his own attorneys.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:04

    Your whole piece takes the step back and says, this is a fifty year mission to credit the justice system. And that’s one of the stakes in twenty twenty four. His goal is not just to win these cases or escape these cases. It is to credit the system. And you quote Paul Rosenswag, who was a senior counsel during the investigation of Bill Clinton.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:26

    He was, he System deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. I think we know his name. He says, look, this year’s election is not just a referendum on Donald Trump. This election, he told you, is a referendum on the rule of law. And it’s interesting as I was reading your piece, and I think, you know, there’s kind of this template that, you know, democracies on the ballot, policies on the ballot.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:45

    But as you read, you know, what Donald Trump is doing and what how this year is going to play out, it is. I think in some ways more accurate to say, that this year is going to be the referendum on the justice system and on the rule of law and whether or not that rule of law’s credibility will be irreparably damn
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:05

    Yeah. These two things are connect. You know, many would argue that if a certain portion of the population no longer trust system, which is to say, in all material way, no longer abides by decisions of the system, you’re that much closer to chaos. The center does a hold without that kind of baseline shared reality, when a judge or a jury says a thing, it means what it means, and we abide by the consequence is if Donald Trump manages to skirt accountability that a jury decides is necessary and justified, then almost by definition rule of law, at the very least, is damaged, if not, mortally wounded. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:59

    And so I think the scariest part of this idea that this election is a referendum on the rule of law is is a notion that I heard repeatedly in the reporting of the story that to some extent this referendum is done. We’ve already made this decision. There has been enough damage inflicted over the last however many years, even if He’s not reelected even if he is convicted. We still will have a long road to repair that shared faith that we need to have for the sustenance of democracy in this country or any?
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:37

    Yeah. I think there’s gonna be a long tail on all of this sort of brings us to, you know, where we’re at in terms of the politics. So your article was published before the, the Iowa caucuses, and you talked to, people in Iowa about all of this. And you were able to find, you know, the degree of damage, I think, for the justice system. So talk to me about how this is actually playing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:59

    You know, you’re talking about, you know, people have this intensely strong belief in Donald Trump, even from a prison You had people tell you they would vote for Donald Trump even if he was a convicted felon and in a prison cell. These were not other Republican candidates for president. These were actual voters. Right? Because, I mean, they’ve already said, you know, raised their hand here in Milwaukee, right, that they would still support him.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:19

    But how does this work? What has Donald Trump done to his own electorate?
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:23

    There was unanimity in what I heard from voters in Iowa. I went on purpose to his rally in a place called Waterloo and made it my business to talk to as many people as I could about this very thing. Basically, will you trust the system if the system says he’s guilty and can’t be elected president or shouldn’t be elected president? And What I found was to a person trust in the justice system and the system overall. Our shared governance the all time low, we trust.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:00

    I’m not extrapolating from what people said. Like, is literally what they said, we trust trump. We don’t trust the system. And so I don’t know how that works going forward regardless of what happens in November. If a significant chunk of the electorate Thinks that way, we are in a bad way.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:22

    No matter what happens in the coming weeks, months, years. You need those people to be at least somewhat back in the fold, if that’s quite the right way to put it. And On the one hand, it totally unsurprising to me. You know, we’ve been watching this for however many years. And now you know, I’ve been to however many trump rallies.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:44

    I’ve talked to many, many voters. I find it fascinating. I find it very useful and helpful In addition, is there a obligatory given my job, but this is on the one end wasn’t totally shocking to me. On the other, it’s very jarring. And dispiriting, and it can’t be.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:00

    I mean, I, like, I don’t wanna be too sort of hard and fast or sound hyperbolic, but, like, this can’t be If we are going to continue to be the country we’ve been for nearly two hundred and fifty years, you can’t have this number of people who this way, you cannot. It is incompatible with the continuation with the sustenance of Democratic governance.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:22

    As I was thinking through this, you know, there’s always the attempt to find some large systemic or cultural or sociological explanation for things. And there has been a decline in you know, in the credibility of elites and everything. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion. It’s, you know, so much of this is the singular damage done by Donald Trump. And you write about this.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:43

    You know, the these people who do not trust the system, they trust Trump, and that’s because Trump’s told them told them to for fifty years. He started doing this in the seventies teeming with Cohen accusing the government of Gislapo like tactics and smears. He kept doing it in the eighties, always playing the victim of Central Park South, claiming people were out to get in using the courts to do it. Trump told the Times is not going to get harassed. And then, you know, one case after another, And you talked to judge Ludig about this, judge Michael Ludig, who has been an icon of conservative jurisprudence And he told you it is of surpassing importance what happens, but that still doesn’t change the fact that he’s already laid waste to our democracy and to our elections and to the rule of law.
  • Speaker 1
    0:27:25

    And he’s already laid waste to it. So in in some ways, I mean, that’s the real jarring thing, isn’t it, Michael? Is that we keep thinking, well, you know, we will get the outcome sometime later, but the damage is all around us.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:38

    Yeah. Judge league was particularly pointed and to be even more pessimist than many others, but assessment certainly isn’t out of line with what I heard from many, many people in the court supporting this story. I think it’s important just to understand and to remember that, you know, Donald Trump, the damage he has done. Yes. But he also exists in a continuing trust in institutions a wide variety of reasons isn’t going down also for fifty years or more.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:03

    Right? And so all sorts of explanations for that. But I I do think, like, Donald Trump in a person is singularly effective at undermining the trust that people have in these systems because he doesn’t have the trust in these systems, or he sees that not having trust and stoking lack of trust in the systems is is a very useful way to achieve what he wants, whether that was in business, whether it’s in politics, all of the above. And so here we are, and I think what judge Ludig was saying is that even if in his perspective sort of best case scenario and judge Ludig’s perspective, best case scenario is obviously He’s convicted and he loses. Like, both those things happen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:43

    He’s convicted somewhere somehow and he loses reelection. Maybe by a margin that cannot be messed with in the way that he’s messed twenty twenty, obviously, that for judge Ludick, I think I mean, put words in his mouth in his best case scenario based on our conversations. Even then, for him, there is a massive amount of repair work to be done to our democracy that may or may not be doable in due time because of the level of damage that has been building over time but certainly exacerbated in his mind by one person by the forward present while trying.
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:19

    Let’s shift to, the piece that you published, just a couple of days ago. About voters in New Hampshire. Let’s talk about Ted Johnson. I was re reading, DM thread And somebody that you and I both both know said that reading your profile of Ted Johnson sucked his soul out of his body. It was so depressing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:38

    So Tell me about Ted Johnson and why he thinks our system needs to be broken and Donald Trump is the man to do it. Who’s Ted Johnson?
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:47

    Ted Johnson is a fifty eight year old retired soldier, an unaffiliated voter. Using the army for twenty two years retired as a lieutenant colonel. He works in IT. He’s a senior project manager for an IT company.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:00

    And he’s very angry.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:01

    I know Ted because I was at a Nikki Haley town hall back in September in New Hampshire. Cut up and asked a question. It asked Nikki Haley how can she help bring us back together as a country? And I stopped working conversations with Ted in those conversations, I learned that part of the reason he asked that question that he’s been estranged from his brother is older brother, Fred, Fred Johnson, who lives in Kentucky, also a retired soldier in the estrangement, not lots of reasons for family fights, family separations, but that rift was widened by the rise of Trump. Ted is very pro trump.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:45

    Fred, very anti trump. This has not helped with their relationship. And so I worked Fred and Ted into that Nikki Haley piece back in September, maybe it ran in October. I’ve kept in touch with both Ted and Fred periodically ever since, and that is how I ended up spending three and a half hours with Ted the other day in New Hampshire when I was up there doing some reporting heading into the primary. And I wanted to spend time with Ted because he had sent me a text not too long ago saying he had decided not to go with Nikki Haley, but to go with Trump and not just go back to Trump, but go back to trump with like, a real purpose and with a sense of vengeance even.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:26

    To me, so he’s going from wanting to pull us together to no. I wanna pull us apart. I wanna blow things up.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:32

    Literally, in September, he got up and said, how do we pull this back together? And literally, the other day to me, he said, I want him to pull it apart. And so how do you and four and a half months make that journey. The premise of the piece for me, the premise of just the curiosity, I didn’t know it was gonna turn into quite what it was, but I wanted to know maybe in that journey, in that experience, in that evolution that you see in Ted Johnson over the last four months, we can better understand not only the dynamics of the New Hampshire primary, but frankly the dynamics of the current American political moment, this this perilous moment, which we find ourselves. And so I think Ted Johnson, like, yes, he is but one voter, but I think he’s incredibly important to try to understand
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:14

    Okay. So how did it happen? How did he go from bringing us together to I am so pissed. I am so angry that I wanna tear it all apart. Is the right word radicalized or what embittered him?
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:27

    What angered him so much?
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:28

    Let me answer it that way. I mean, he started to lose interest in Nikki Haley. Partly coaxed on by his content, his media diet, Fox News, and other sources of that sort. He also has a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. He’s not He’s not just sort of in that right wing silo.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:44

    But I think, suddenly, the attack lines from those media outlets and sometimes from Trump and the Trump campaign too on Nikki Haley over the course of the last few months, they were effective.
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:57

    She’s a corporate. She’s a swamp creature. Business as usual.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:00

    Yeah. Business as usual. She’s a swamp creature, two interventionists with Ukraine, etcetera, etcetera, corporatist, all these things that sort of sound familiar. If you listen to Donald Trump, if you listen to Fox News, etcetera, etcetera. But beyond that, I think even maybe more to the point, I think Ted is far, far from alone on this front.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:20

    The indictments bothered him a lot, and we can argue about sort of the distance and whether or not this should be the case, but it is the case. And I’ve talked to many people over the course of the last couple months in Trump settings This made them angry that they are going after him. The more he was indicted, the more he’s in court, And the more he’s saying what he’s saying in court, the more they are rallying to or back to him, to defend him. They feel somehow that, you know, the persecution of him, and that’s certainly the way they see this is is is a persecution of them.
  • Speaker 1
    0:33:59

    Talk to me about what he thinks happened on January sixth. I mean, how does he process January sixth?
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:05

    Well, it’s interesting that changed over time. At first, and this is in the piece. First, you thought January six was bad. This isn’t good. But over time, though, it became his opinion that this was a setup that the Democratic Party, that Nancy Pelosi, that the various, federal bureaucracies were somehow involved in setting this up, staging this, making it seem worse than it after stages to undermine Donald Trump.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:34

    And so I think Ted is very representative for better or for worse in this regard. This is how he came to see it with some help. In his informational sphere. It was no longer an attack on democracy and the sanctity of an election. It was a peaceful protest in the people’s house.
  • Speaker 1
    0:34:56

    And who beat up the cops? Who committed the act? I’m always fascinated by these guys how they process that because we actually have pictures. You can see them with your eyes. Does he think that was antifa?
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:08

    Does he think that it was a false fly? What does he think
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:11

    Dark forces, dark anti trump forces, dark, swamp like forces are
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:16

    some fall.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:17

    There aren’t specific answers because there aren’t specific answers. This. Right? I mean, but this sense this is set up.
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:23

    So he also thinks and this is interesting because, he thinks that Trump is a pig and a womanizer. But he thinks, but he’s a leader. And if he gets in there, he’s gonna do stuff. What’s the main stuff he wants this pig and womanizer to do that he really, really likes.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:41

    Well, this stuff now for Ted Johnson is break the system. The system needs to be broken because the system doesn’t look after average guys like him.
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:49

    What does that mean for him though? What is the system that he wants broken that will do something for guys like him?
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:56

    Well, if the system is out for elitist, the system is out, people who aren’t him, then the system is in his mind by definition, not for him, and not for people like him. I mean, keep in mind I don’t write that story at all to be judgmental of Ted Johnson. I want to under I want people to understand.
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:15

    I’m trying yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:16

    Ted Johnson is and always has been in my interactions with him in engaging conversationalists. Like, become an interesting guy. I mean, we spent three and a half hours together the other day. And, you know, two people talking because I wanna I wanna understand how he thinks and why and what he wants.
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:33

    Do you think you do, though? I mean, I’m I’m trying to imagine that looking the guy in the eyes, he’s intelligent, he’s experiencing a thing. And I’d be going, what is going on in there What is the process? Do you think you decoded it or is it still mysterious to you?
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:48

    I mean, I guess, to that question, I would just point people to read the story. Like, I wanna I wanna It’s not my role to sort of I don’t think to, like, extrapolate kind of a judgmental takeaway from my interactions with Ted Johnson. It is to present Ted Johnson. I think currently and actually represent his views and how he’s come to his views and what that and therefore, what that means for us as a country, as an electorate. And so You know, I I I leave that to others, but I I think Ted Johnson and for that matter, Ted and Fred, I’ve been in touch with Fred too, certainly going into the story.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:22

    And since the story ran, I think you could tell without getting too sort of off on a detour, I think you could tell the story of the United States America over the last hundred years through the story of the jobtons of centralia. And maybe I will. It’s a
  • Speaker 1
    0:37:35

    hell of a race,
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:35

    but, I this is I think it’s incredibly important for us to try to understand if possible without our particular biases and judgment, a guy like Ted Johnson because there are many Ted Johnson’s.
  • Speaker 1
    0:37:46

    Back to the beginning of our conversation about your piece, this is to him as the grand finale. Donald Trump’s fifty year mission to discredit the justice system. As you point out, the thing that really stuck with me was the fact that, you know, we are not prepared for this. Nothing has prepared the country for what’s about to happen. And here it is.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:04

    I mean, we’re getting on the roller coaster right now. Steaks could not be higher. And Donald Trump may be prepared, but as you point out, he’s never faced this kind of legal danger. So, you know, he’s managed to skirt everything or turn defeats into victories What if what happens if Donald Trump actually confronts a court and a jury that convicts him of felonies. Does he have anything in his playbook for that?
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:36

    Is he prepared for being a convicted felon?
  • Speaker 2
    0:38:40

    It’s a hard thing to answer. All I can say is pass this prologue. I have, for better or for worse, mind his history, for the last going on a decade. Right? And there are some great trump truths.
  • Speaker 2
    0:38:56

    You know, sometimes I put it like, trample, trumpled. You know, Trump does a handful of things. He responds to certain situations in certain ways. And One of those things, one of those great trump troops is he cannot lose. As we’ve seen, he cannot ever.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:12

    And so if he loses, in a court of law if he is convicted in a DC federal case. There will be some version of what we’ve seen many times a concerted effort to make it something other than a loss. What form will that take? TVD, if that’s where we get, he has supporters. He has a swath of the country to used in ways that I think might be this by now familiar combination of shocking and not shocking at all I mean, it’s hard to say, and it’s it’s like borderline irresponsible to go too far sort of in this speculative way.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:56

    But I think, you know, what he’s done in past. And that’s what he does in situations like the one you’re describing. And we could get to a place you know, to speculative as I say, but we could get to a place where he is convicted, but he’s not yet at sentence. I mean, there’s lots of if stands or butts even between here and there.
  • Speaker 1
    0:40:15

    If the key thing is that he can never lose, he can never be defeated. I mean, that’s the fundamental template. Which we have to see everything through that lens.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:25

    You will never concede defeat or conviction. We’ll never. We’ll never. Mean, this is not that I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here being too speculative, like, because he has never.
  • Speaker 1
    0:40:35

    No. Not at all.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:36

    What that exactly mean If and when that happens, I I don’t know. We will see if we get to that point. It gets fair to say that whatever happens, whatever happens. It will be incredibly destabilizing. I don’t think the country to I mean, you and I understand this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:53

    The listeners of your podcast probably understand this. But I don’t think many people, like, even otherwise educated, engaged people coast to coast totally yet understand what we’re about to do. Potentially starting tomorrow. Right? Like, we’re already into it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:41:14

    But if in effect the primary process is over, the general election starts tomorrow, and the general election is not going to look like any general election we have ever remotely experienced in this country. It is going to run through Almost certainly, this courtroom and that courtroom, it’s going to run through courts up to the Supreme Court. Yes. There will be sort of standard issue set pieces that we’ve come to see as wallpaper in presidential election years. Sure.
  • Speaker 2
    0:41:47

    But, like, if that is almost not even the primary campaign trail, and it’s hard to follow even for Somebody like me, it is hard and harder to follow that and understand it and grapple with the stakes than it is to say, there’s another press conference, you know, the the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee and now we do the conventions and all these things that to feel rote,
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:12

    let’s cover it as if it is vaguely normal.
  • Speaker 2
    0:42:14

    Like, not only is this not normal. It is utterly unprecedented. Like, we’ve never done it this way obviously, and that is going to be incredibly complicated and destabilizing in the best of circumstances. And that might start in earnest tomorrow.
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:31

    Yeah. No. I think that’s true. Michael Cruz is senior staff writer at a political and political magazine his piece. This to him is the grand finale Donald Trump’s fifty year mission to discredit the justice system, an absolute must read.
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:43

    Michael, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and talking to us about this. Appreciate it very much.
  • Speaker 2
    0:42:48

    Link you as always, Charlie.
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:50

    And thank you all for listening to today’s Bulwark podcast. I’m Charlie Sykes. We will be back tomorrow, and we’ll do this all over again. Secret Podcast is produced by Katie Cooper, and engineered and edited by Jason Brown.
Want to listen without ads? Join Bulwark+ for an exclusive ad-free version of The Bulwark Podcast! Learn more here. Already a Bulwark+ member? Access the premium version here.