Claims of rigged system by convict Trump and allies ‘threaten rule of law’

<span>Republican supporters of Donald Trump, including the House speaker, Mike Johnson, center, attend the ex-president’s hush-money trial in New York last month.</span><span>Photograph: Curtis Means/AP</span>
Republican supporters of Donald Trump, including the House speaker, Mike Johnson, center, attend the ex-president’s hush-money trial in New York last month.Photograph: Curtis Means/AP
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Donald Trump is posing new threats to prosecutors, judges and the rule of law in the US by ratcheting up vitriolic attacks on the American legal system, which many Republican allies and far-right media are loudly echoing, ex-prosecutors and historians said.

Fears are growing that Trump’s conspiratorial screeds on his Truth Social site and interviews on rightwing media falsely charging that his conviction in the New York hush-money case was “rigged” and a “scam”, are eroding trust in the US justice system and could precipitate violence, pre- or post-election.

Related: Trump to escalate blame on trial judge Juan Merchan if sentenced to prison

Ominously, Trump’s blistering attacks on the verdict have been quickly amplified by a large swath of his Republican allies in Congress including the House speaker, Mike Johnson, and Maga media stars, many of whom have recycled Trump’s false claims that the trial was politically driven by Democrats, and are mimicking Trump about seeking retribution.

The ex-president’s bogus charges that he is the victim of a political witch-hunt have singled out the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who brought the charges, Judge Juan Merchan who presided over the trial, and President Joe Biden.

“If they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone,” Trump warned the day after the verdict.

Trump has also talked about having Biden and his family investigated by a special prosecutor if he wins. In an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News on 6 June, he escalated his evidence-free charges. “Look, when this election is over, based on what they’ve done, I would have every right to go after them, and it’s easy, because it’s Joe Biden and you see all the criminality,” he said.

Experts see dangers in the GOP marching in lockstep with Trump’s incendiary claims.

“It’s hardly unusual for convicted politicians to say they’ve been charged for political reasons,” the Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky, who co authored How Democracies Die, told the Guardian.

“What’s different here and very important is that in healthy democracies most mainstream politicians distance themselves from such attacks. The GOP has gotten to the point where most Republican leaders are echoing Trump’s charges of a rigged justice system.”

Likewise, former justice department officials say Trump’s scalding attacks are ominous.

“The denigration of judges, jurors and prosecutors by Trump is certainly a threat to the rule of law,” Ty Cobb, a former justice department official and White House counsel in the Trump years, told the Guardian. “Trump has certainly taken this to a new and lamentable level.”

Cobb’s point was highlighted when Trump unleashed a tirade of invective on 30 May right after a 12-member jury reached a unanimous verdict that Trump was guilty of falsifying records to hide $130,000 in hush money to a porn star he allegedly had an affair with to avoid a campaign scandal in 2016.

Outside the Manhattan courthouse, Trump called the verdict “a rigged trial by a conflicted judge who was corrupt”.

Johnson, in a Fox & Friends appearance after Trump’s conviction, made the unusual suggestion that supreme court justices could be helpful in an appeal.

“I do believe the supreme court should step in, obviously,” Johnson said. “I think that the justices on the court – I know many of them personally – I think they’re deeply concerned about that as we are.”

Trump, who plans to appeal his conviction and maintains he is innocent, in an angry Truth Social post on 6 June called on the supreme court to annul his guilty verdict.

Ex-justice department officials, judges and historians are alarmed by the crescendo of false claims by Trump and his Maga allies denouncing the verdict and the legal system.

“The suggestion by Trump and his sycophants that the New York case is somehow attributable to Biden is absurd and would be laughable if not so demented and purposeful,” said Cobb. “The Biden administration had no involvement in the charging or presentation of the case and bears no responsibility for it whatsoever.

“Certainly the potential for violence is there,” Cobb added. “Crazies are incentivized. Many Trump loyalists are begging Trump lawyers or other Trump insiders to dox the jurors … Violence is a serious possibility.”

John Jones, the president of Dickinson collage and a former federal judge, said that “Trump’s rhetoric leading up to his sentencing [on 11 July] and after is going to have the propensity to cause unrest and potentially violence.

“Trump has taken the old axiom that Republicans are the law and order party and he’s turned it on its head, and seems to be doubling down.”

Similarly, Levitsky observed that “Half of US politicians are calling the justice system a sham,” and stressed that this reflected “Trump’s dominance of the GOP and its radicalization”.

Congressman Jamie Raskin said the Republican reaction to Trump’s conviction was “an utterly cultish and tribalistic response to the ordinary working of the rule of law. They keep describing the verdict as rigged and fraudulent but can’t explain any element of the process that was actually in error. This is just an attack on the jury system.

“This is not going to play well with the American people. Donald Trump exhibits spectacular disrespect for the rule of law. He openly teases and embraces political violence.” Raskin added that the overwhelming Republican reaction to Trump’s conviction revealed “they’re headed over the cliff with Donald Trump. Trump’s derangement has spread throughout the Republican camp.”

Raskin’s point is underlined by the large volume and character of the attacks on the verdict and the legal system by top Republican Trump allies such as Representative Jim Jordan, who heads the House judiciary committee. Jordan moved fast to bolster Trump, announcing he wanted to hear from Bragg and prosecutor Matthew Colangelo at a 13 June hearing on “the unprecedented political prosecution of President Trump”.

Not to be outdone, Johnson at a 4 June press conference unveiled a “three-pronged approach” to attack Biden’s justice department. Johnson proposed taking on the Department of Justice using congressional oversight, appropriations and legislation.

“All those things will be happening vigorously, because we have to do that,” Johnson said.

The GOP’s lockstep embrace of Trump’s conspiratorial charges was displayed when the Republican former governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, publicly urged people to “respect the verdict”, which immediately prompted top Republican National Committee officials to attack Hogan, who is running for a Senate seat.

Significantly, in congressional testimony before Jordan’s committee on 4 June where he faced heavy political fire, the attorney general, Merrick Garland, defended the justice department against “repeated attacks” from the GOP and noted there had been an “extraordinary” spike in threats against career civil servants.

Trump’s furious attacks on the legal system bode ill for the country and Trump, say experts

“In his rage to escape responsibility for his misconduct, Donald Trump is burning down the rule of law,” the former justice department prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig told the Guardian. “Whatever happens to Trump himself, America will be the worse for it.”

Raskin too fears Trump is sanctioning violence.

“Trump keeps saying it would be a breaking point for his followers if he’s jailed or put under house arrest. He’s telegraphing his desire for violence as a response to his potentially being jailed. These are threats against our society.”

Some ex-justice department officials foresee Trump’s nonstop attacks on the legal system boomeranging on him too.

“For Trump to continue bashing our criminal system and specific people within it, now that he has suffered 34 felony counts, is not going to play out well for him,” said Donald Ayer, a deputy attorney general during the George HW Bush presidency. “No one can reasonably think the jurors were biased or that the trial was unfair or lacking in evidence. “

Ayer added that: “It is starting to dawn on normal people who have voted for him in the past that Trump is simply a scofflaw who just attacks all rules claimed to govern his actions, even when there is no rational basis to do so.”