Will Trump be willing to apologize to avoid jail time? (2024)


"If you refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for wrongdoing, you're sure to get a longer tougher sentence"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 11, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Will Trump be willing to apologize to avoid jail time? (1)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Turning Point PAC town hall at Dream City Church on June 06, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona.(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)




Donald Trump is utterly and totally predictable. He is aggressive, violent, hostile, antisocial, and impulsive with an unquenchable thirst for power in all its forms. His prime directive is to always attack. Donald Trump was taught this by his infamous mentor, the political fixer and attorney Roy Cohn. Trump’s personality and Cohn’s teachings were a perfect fit for each another.

It has served him remarkably well in politics. He won the presidency, took over the Republican Party, survived two impeachments, and is now tied with President Biden in the early 2024 polls despite attempting a coup and being convicted of a criminal felony.The latter "distinction" may actually help his popularity with his MAGA followers and other supporters.

When cornered or confronted, Donald Trump responds by lying, obfuscating, evading, and then becoming even more aggressive. To wit: After being convicted in his New York hush-money election interference trial, Donald Trump was not cowed or humbled. He instead escalated his threats of revenge and retribution against his perceived enemies. Trump’s revenge and retribution, per his repeated public statements and promises to be the country's first dictator, will almost certainly include imprisonment and executions for “treason.”

Trump will be sentenced in July for his crimes of paying hush-money payments as part of his election interference scheme. This week, Trump is scheduled for a pre-sentencing interview that will help to determine if Judge Merchan (who presided over his trial in New York) will put him in prison. Trump’s prime directive of ruthless aggression may backfire here, with him being sentenced to prison for his crimes and continued refusal to show any type of contrition.

Like Donald Trump, the American mainstream news media is also almost totally and utterly predictable. Even after eight years of experience with Trump and his assaults on democracy and norms, they continue to normalize him and the MAGA movement. This is functionally the same as surrender.

As a class, America’s elites have been trained by Trump’s constant attacks as well. They are now positioning themselves for maximum profit and opportunism (and survival) with the assumption that Donald Trump is going to defeat President Biden and become the country’s first dictator.

"Putting Donald Trump in jail will not make him more powerful, it will further diminish him."

David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and bestselling author who teaches at Syracuse University College of Law, although he is not a lawyer. He has written three books about Donald Trump, who Johnston has covered for 36 years. In this conversation, he reflects on the hush-money election interference trial and what it feels like to finally see Donald Trump held somewhat accountable for his decades-long crime spree. Johnston also puts Trump’s “guilty” verdict in a much larger context as reflecting the moral rot of today’s Republican Party and larger “conservative” movement – and American society more broadly.

Johnston also shares his thoughts about what Trump’s conviction will mean (or not) for the 2024 election and how the American mainstream news media remains most ill-equipped and negligent in how it is covering the corrupt ex-president and the existential threat to democracy embodied by his MAGA movement and the other neofascist forces.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length:

You have been reporting about Donald Trump for many years. How does it feel to finally see him convicted of a felony?

I’m not giddy or elated. This is a very sad day for America. And it's sadder because tens of millions of Americans think that Trump is their savior, their leader, their hero. I do feel some sense of relief. I wrote a piece at DCReport, the lede of which was, "Donald Trump is a felon. I've waited 36 years to write that." But I was surprised at the feeling I had when the verdicts came in, which was kind of flat.

This isn't over yet. We're a long way from it being over.

On Saturday, it was raining here in Chicago, and I felt compelled to walk down to Trump Tower. I sat outside of the building and just pondered how we arrived at such a point with him being tied with President Biden in the early polls and now being convicted of a felony.

Here's where we went wrong. There is not one word in our Constitution about wealth and riches. Our Constitution is about freedom and limits on power. The preamble makes it clear that the purpose of our Constitution is to see how far the human spirit can go if we set people free in a system of ordered liberty. But ever since Ronald Reagan came along and persuaded people to kill the New Deal, and tricked people into thinking that if their boss pays less in taxes, they'll get a pay raise and be better off, we have seen a moral collapse at the top in this country, led by the big accounting firms, the big law firms and big businesses controlled not by the owners, but by hired help. And at the same time, there's a growing lack of appreciation for this for two reasons. One is that very few Americans receive a moral education as they grow up and we no longer teach civics in a serious way. The second is that only about 10% of Americans are old enough to remember the last years of the New Deal.

The Age of Trump is much more than "just" a political crisis. It is a moral crisis. How do we locate Trump's conviction in this first criminal trial relative to the country's democracy crisis?

First of all, don't pay a lot of attention to the polls. The polls have systematic errors with the methodology, questions and how people even understand the questions they are being asked by the pollsters.

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As Mitt Romney has pointed out, there are a lot of Republicans who have no interest in democracy. They don't care. That tells me that they haven't thought through what happens when you don't have a democracy. Let's get right to the end point of that. If we fall into a dictatorship starting with Trump, down that road, inevitably, are firing squads. Whether they come soon or they come later is not the point. The firing squads will come. That is the very nature of dictatorships.

A fundamental moral education is essential to stopping a Trump dictatorship. There are a large number of people who call themselves Christians, but who do not believe in turning the other cheek and don't believe in sacrificing for the stranger. Instead, they preach hate and wish death upon people they don't like. The fake Christians also want to take away women's rights. The influence of the Christian right and these faux Christians is extraordinary in terms of its connection to how the moneyed classes are operating with near impunity in this country. Let's not forget that greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

What does the Republican Party's collective response to Trump's conviction further reveal about their moral character?

It indicates that they have no interest in the rule of law. Such a person has the childish wish that things be the way they want them to be no matter what. “I will scream and cry and kick if I don't get what I want.” Donald Trump was convicted by a jury that included a person who said that he essentially gets all his news from Trump’s Truth Social. Anyone who paid close attention to the hush-money trial – that’s very few people — knew that the prosecution proved every element of its case. Michael Cohen went to prison for the same facts in this case—and Cohen was prosecuted by Donald Trump's Justice Department. So it's kind of hard to argue that there's no case here as Trump, his Republican propagandists and other agents are doing so loudly.

What grade would you give the American mainstream news media for its coverage of Trump's hush-money election interference trial?

I will give two grades. For technical accuracy, I’ll give them an absolute "A." The grade for context, however, is C or C+.

Donald Trump is a master at exploiting the conventions of journalism. What is journalism? Overwhelmingly, it is an accurate recitation of what the official sources—such as the government, whether it's the president or the mayor, a company, or nonprofits—say. The news media is not nearly so good at putting things in context and presenting them correctly. Consider how long it tookThe New York Timesto use the word "lie" in relation to Donald Trump. Now the successor word is "false claims" or "falsity." The hush-money trial and verdict are going to continue to be covered. But too much of the coverage is simply allowing Trump supporters, with little or no challenge, to make their wildly untrue claims.

The conventions of journalism are not designed to deal with con artists. They're designed to deal with people who have sincere political views,regardlessof whether you like or dislike their views. But when you're dealing with a con artist, now you're dealing with someone whose every action and word is fraud. The small segment of journalists like me who do investigative reporting, we know how to deal with con artists. But the system within the newsroom doesn't really understand it. Every serious investigative reporter who's written pieces that sent people to prison will tell you that they had to struggle, even with the very best and editors who had experience with con artist stories, because they run high legal risks, and the risk that people will accuse you and your publication of pushing some agenda when you are just telling hidden facts.

Here is an obvious mainstream media failure: Trump's speech, which was more like an unhinged rant, the day after his conviction in New York. At the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin correctly called out the news media's failure to consistently warn and report about Trump's apparent, and at this point rather obvious, challenges with emotional and mental stability. Donald Trump's mind and personality are extremely dangerous. That needs to be discussed much more.

That was not a press conference but a performance. Trump does not sit down with journalists who are going to ask tough questions. Jen Rubin [a conservative columnist] is exactly right: There is this fundamental failing that amounts to malpractice. But the reason for it is news organizations, especially the big successful newspapers such asThe New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times,andThe Wall Street Journal,are very stodgy, rigid, Institutionally conservative organizations. The newspapers are really stuck in the conventions of journalism, which work very well when covering a normal politician, even if they're espousing the most outrageous views.

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A few news media critics have proposed some fixes. The biggest one I'm in favor of is instead of quoting Trump, and then showing why it's not true, which is the convention, report that the story is about to quote Trump and we will show you that what he said is false. Having focused the reader to expect a lie, you then quote him, and then you dissect the lie. That gives the reader or listener or viewer a totally different lens to grasp what Trump says. That is an application of George Lakoff's "truth sandwich" model.

Donald Trump is a coup plotter, a sexual assaulter as confirmed by a court of law, and now a convicted felon. How come that factual description is not consistently used by the news media when they discuss and write about Donald Trump?

You won't get that in any of the mainstream news organizations, except in commentary television. As good as the evening shows are at CNN and MSNBC, they are not news programs, but primarily commentary programs. The conventions of journalism don't allow you to take the approach that they do.The New York TimesorThe Washington PostorThe Philadelphia InquirerorThe Boston Globewould probably allow language such as "convicted felon." But even then, there is going to be resistance. The old conventions deem that you do not want to make it appear that you bias, even when you are just reporting facts. Facts are facts. If you're balanced about them, for example, if you say that "Donald Trump, a convicted felon, who insists that he has done nothing wrong" you have met all the rules. But you're not going to get that line in the newspaper or elsewhere very often, because it will be seen as tendentious — and if there's anything that scares editors and producers it's accusations not so much of being left or right but that a news story is tendentious.

Those are obsolete habits that are not suited for the existential challenge that this country — and the news media asan institution — is facing from aspiring dictator Trump and the larger neofascist movement. Will the news media ever change? They are rapidly running out of time.

I'm not hopeful about that. When there is a new development in the world, the institutions always lag behind.

Does Donald Trump want to go to jail? He is continuing to attack and bait Judge Merchan in such a way that it seems like he is daring him. Is Trump's bluster just a mask for his terror?

Donald Trump is terrified. He does not have the internal character to endure a jail sentence the way Nelson Mandela, whom he compared himself to the other day, did. Donald Trump is a bully. He is a hollow vessel. He is a miserable human being. Be very glad that you are not Donald Trump. He is a man who has never known joy, has never known contentment. He cannot laugh at himself. Trump believes that he can use the aura of power he has built around him — at least as seen by his acolytes and his cultist — into intimidating the system. Donald Trump is counting on the American people being afraid of him. Donald Trump only cares about money. Donald Trump is his money. That's why he can never fill the empty vessel he is because there's nothing there.

Will Trump be able to contain himself during his pre-sentencing interview? He needs to appear contrite and apologetic if he wants to avoid prison.

Donald Trump can bring his lawyers and they can certainly try to moderate what he says in the pre-sentencing interview. But the pre-sentencing report prepared by a probation officer will likely not contain anything new in terms of who Donald is or anything the judge doesn't know. What it will provide the probation officers with is opportunity to judge whether he can even fake contrition, and that's where Trump has an irresolvable problem. Roy Cohn taught him that if law enforcement comes after you then you attack them. They are corrupt. They are dishonest. You are as pure as the fresh fallen snow. Never, ever give an inch. You are perfect. Well, that's not going to work with the probation officer and Judge Merchan. But that approach will work with Trump cult followers and too many other members of the public.

I think the meeting with the pre-sentencing probation officer is an opportunity for Trump to manipulate, but it's also a high risk that he will just dig himself further. At the sentencing hearing, if the judge calls on Trump to speak, I think there'll be a real crisis for him. He will know that he can't apologize. Trump cannot say "I was wrong." All he can do is attack the judge, and that's an invitation to a longer sentence. That's how the system is supposed to work. If you refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for wrongdoing, you're sure to get a longer tougher sentence than somebody who says, "Yeah, I screwed up, and I recognize that now."

I will be surprised if Judge Merchan does not give Trump some time behind bars. That could be the absolute minimum of 30 days. More likely, it may be much longer up to the four-year maximum.

What of the concerns — and I am undecided here — that putting Donald Trump in prison will only make him more popular among his MAGA people, and perhaps even some independents and undecided voters as well?

Putting Donald Trump in jail will not make him more powerful, it will further diminish him. I'm not surprised that there was a brief surge in donations from people. I also believe that surge of money came from people who don't really understand what is really happening with Trump and his conviction. They are angry about things they don't understand. The polling data I have examined shows two things. Will you vote for Trump if he's convicted of a felony? Something on the order of one in six Republicans indicate they probably will not. Even larger numbers of independents say that. Trump cannot get back to the White House without independents and 90% or more of Republican support. Now keep in mind that if Donald Trump were to win the Electoral College, and he's in a New York state prison, he can be President of the United States. Let me reiterate: Donald Trump can be president from a jail cell. It's an absurdity. And hopefully at that point, enough members of the Senate would wake up to convict him upon impeachment by the House.

What I worry about are all of these Republicans—senators, congresspeople, many of them who are lawyers that know better. They are attacking the criminal justice system and encouraging violence. Supporting Donald Trump and his lies is an abomination. I hope that voters turn out en masse and they get rid of these Republicans. If you are unwilling to risk your reelection to show your fealty to this lifelong, immoral, criminal con artist then you don't deserve to hold a public office. If you're unwilling to stand up and say the truth that Donald Trump got a more than fair trial, and was convicted based on the evidence, then you don't belong in public life. What is going to be very revealing about the character of the American people is how many of these Republicans are voted out of office.

As an expert in the law, how do you assess Trump and his allies' attempts to get the Supreme Court to throw out the New York hush-money election interference conviction?

Trump would have to appeal to the New York Intermediary Court of Appeals, and then the state appeals court to get to the Supreme Court, he then has to show that there's some constitutional violation. I have a hard time seeing Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch, whose jurisprudence I don't like but who appear to be basically principled, going along with this. Alito and Thomas, they'll do anything.

They don't care. The Supreme Court should not even hear an argument from Trump on this matter. But it's possible the Supreme Court will issue a temporary restraining order preventing him from being imprisoned, if that's what Judge Merchan orders, until after the election. An imprisonment order would send a very strong signal and I think you would begin to see Trump's support slip away, not grow.

Here's the long-term thing to worry about. There are plenty of people right now today who will tell you that Adolf Hitler was right. A hundred years from now, we don't want anyAmericans, except absolute nutcases, a fraction of 1% of people, saying Trump was right. That's the real horrible danger here for American democracy and society. Trumpism can lead to the long-term corruption of this country and its values and principles.

If you called Donald Trump and he picked up the phone, what would you say to him?

Donald, if you are sentenced to prison, have you thought about what you're going to do? And if so, how are you going to spend your time in prison?

Read more

about this topic

  • David Cay Johnston: "Trump's bad behavior is going to cost him big in the hush-money trial"
  • "Trump will be under house arrest in the White House": Former DOJ prosecutor on what could come next
  • The press is the problem

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found atChaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast,The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed onTwitterandFacebook.

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