Trump Election Charges Set Up Clash of Lies Versus Free Speech

Running through the indictment charging former President Donald J. Trump with conspiring to overturn the 2020 election was a consistent theme: He is an inveterate and knowing liar.

The indictment laid out how, in the two months after Election Day, Mr. Trump “spread lies” about widespread election fraud even though he “knew that they were false.”

Mr. Trump “deliberately disregarded the truth” and relentlessly disseminated them anyway at a “prolific” pace, the indictment continued, “to make his knowingly false claims appear legitimate, create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger, and erode public faith in the administration of the election.”

Of course, Mr. Trump has never been known for fealty to truth.

Throughout his careers in business and politics, he has sought to bend reality to his own needs, with lies ranging from relatively small ones, like claiming he was of Swedish and not German descent when trying to rent to Jewish tenants in New York City, to proclaiming that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

If you repeat something enough, he has told confidants over time, people will believe it.

By and large, this trait has served him well, helping him bluster and bluff his way through bankruptcies and then to the White House and through crises once he was there: personal scandals, two impeachments and a special counsel’s investigation when he was in office.

But now he is being held to account in a way he never has been before for what a new special counsel, Jack Smith, is asserting was a campaign of falsehoods that undermined the foundations of democracy.

Already, Mr. Trump’s lawyers and allies are setting out the early stages of a legal strategy to counter the accusations, saying that Mr. Trump’s First Amendment rights are under attack. They say Mr. Trump had every right to express views about election fraud that they say he believed, and still believes, to be true, and that the actions he took or proposed after the election were based on legal advice.

Jack Smith, the special counsel, announced an indictment of former President Donald J. Trump in Washington on Tuesday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The indictment and his initial response set up a showdown between those two opposing assertions of principle: that what prosecutors in this case called “pervasive and destabilizing lies” from the highest office in the land can be integral to criminal plans, and that political speech enjoys broad protections, especially when conveying what Mr. Trump’s allies say are sincerely held beliefs.

While a judge and jury will ultimately decide how much weight to give each, Mr. Trump and his allies were already on the offensive after the indictment.

“So the First Amendment protects President Trump in this way: After 2020, he saw all these irregularities, he got affidavits from around the country, sworn testimony, he saw the rules being changed in the middle of the election process — as a president, he’s entitled to speak on those issues,” Mr. Trump’s defense lawyer in the case, John Lauro, said on Wednesday in an interview on CBS.

“What the government would have to prove in this case, beyond a reasonable doubt, is that speech is not protected by the First Amendment, and they’ll never be able to do that,” he said.

Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 Republican in the House, said in a statement that Mr. Trump had “every right under the First Amendment to correctly raise concerns about election integrity in 2020.”

Representative Gary Palmer of Alabama, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, called the indictment a “criminalization of disinformation and misinformation, which raises serious concerns about the public’s right to speak openly in opposition to policies they oppose.”

Legal experts were skeptical about the strength of those claims as a defense. They pointed out that the indictment said on its second page that all Americans had the right to say what they wanted about the election — even if it was false. But, the indictment asserts, it is illegal to use those false claims to engage in criminal conduct, the experts said.

An individual’s free-speech rights essentially end as soon as those words become evidence of criminality, they said. In the case of the indictment against Mr. Trump, the prosecutors argue that Mr. Trump used his statements to persuade others to engage in criminal conduct with him, like signing fake slates of electors or pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to block or delay Electoral College certification of President Biden’s victory.

According to the indictment, Mr. Trump “knowingly” used “false claims of election fraud” to try to “convince the vice president to accept the defendant’s fraudulent electors, reject legitimate electoral votes or send legitimate electoral votes to state legislatures for review rather than counting them.”

The indictment goes on to say that when those efforts failed, Mr. Trump turned to using the crowd at the rally on the Ellipse “to pressure the vice president to fraudulently alter the election results.”

Samuel W. Buell, a professor of law at Duke University and a lead federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s prosecution of Enron, said that it “won’t work legally but it will have some appeal politically, which is why he is pushing it.”

“There is no First Amendment privilege to commit crimes just because you did it by speaking,” Mr. Buell said.

Referring to both public and private remarks, Mr. Buell said that “there is no First Amendment privilege for giving directions or suggestions to other people to engage in illegal acts.”

Referring to the fictional television mafia boss Tony Soprano, Mr. Buell added, “Tony Soprano can’t invoke the First Amendment for telling his crew he wants someone whacked.”

For decades, Mr. Trump’s penchant for falsehoods and exaggerations was well known in New York City. He was so distrusted by Mayor Ed Koch in the 1980s that one of the mayor’s deputies, Alair Townsend, famously quipped, “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.”

Mr. Trump spoke with journalists by phone while pretending to be a spokesman representing himself, in order to leak information about his business or his personal life. He claimed to have dated women who denied being involved with him. He claimed that he lived on the 66th through 68th floors of Trump Tower, which in fact has only 58 floors.

Reaching the presidency did not lead to a change in his habits. The Washington Post’s fact checker identified more than 30,000 false or misleading claims from him over his four years in office, a figure equivalent to 21 a day.

Mr. Trump has already tried to invoke the First Amendment in civil cases related to the attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In February 2022, a federal judge in Washington ruled that lawsuits related to whether he incited the crowd that stormed the Capitol could proceed, in part because the First Amendment did not protect the speech he gave on the Ellipse before the riot.

“Only in the most extraordinary circumstances could a court not recognize that the First Amendment protects a president’s speech,” Judge Amit P. Mehta of the Federal District Court in Washington ruled. “But the court believes this is that case. Even presidents cannot avoid liability for speech that falls outside the expansive reach of the First Amendment. The court finds that in this one-of-a-kind case the First Amendment does not shield the president from liability.”

The experts and defense lawyers who read the indictment against Mr. Trump said that claiming that he was relying on the advice of lawyers was likely to provide Mr. Trump with a stronger defense than if he invoked the First Amendment.

In the interview on CBS, Mr. Lauro leaned into that argument, saying that Mr. Trump had a “smoking gun of innocence” in a memo that the conservative legal scholar John Eastman wrote for him. The memo said Mr. Trump could ask Mr. Pence to pause the congressional certification of the election. Mr. Eastman was not a White House lawyer at the time.

“John Eastman, who is an eminent scholar, gave the president an option — several options,” Mr. Lauro said.

Alan Feuer contributed reporting.

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