Outline of Trump's profile against an orange background with the word "indictment"

Andrea Austria / Media Matters

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Myths & facts: Debunking five right-wing media narratives about Trump’s indictment and subsequent arraignment

  • Right-wing media jumped to former President Donald Trump's defense with a number of misleading and exaggerated claims after he was indicted this week on more than two dozen counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments during the 2016 presidential campaign.

    Trump was indicted on March 30 by a New York grand jury with sealed charges, making him the first current or former American president to face criminal charges. During his arraignment on April 4, charges were unsealed, and it was revealed that Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records for allegedly attempting to conceal hush money payments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. (He pleaded not guilty to all counts.) This is just one of many legal battles the former president is fighting; in addition to multiple defamation lawsuits, he is also under investigation for his role in undermining the 2020 election and for improperly handling classified government records.

    Following both Trump’s indictment and arraignment, right-wing media attempted to undermine the case’s legitimacy by pushing baseless or extremely exaggerated narratives about the presiding judge, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and the nature of the case itself. Here are just some of the bad-faith right-wing myths about Trump’s criminal case along with the respective facts.

  • Myth: The judge presiding over this case is a partisan hack and a Democratic operative

  • Ahead of and following Trump’s arraignment, right-wing personalities — including the former president and his family — launched irrelevant insults and attacks toward Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over his case. Right-wing figures have used Merchan’s daughter’s work history for Democratic political campaigns to claim that he is biased and should “recuse himself” — some even tweeted out her photo. Others claimed that Merchan is a “Democrat judge” because he previously donated to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.

  • Fact: Merchan has a reputation for being a fair, tough judge

  • As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote, it is “totally irrelevant" for Trump supporters to note that Merchan's daughter has worked for Democratic campaigns and this behavior is “obviously intended to intimidate.” On top of that, Merchan’s reputation within the legal profession is one of “fairness.” One colleague told NBC News that “he’s a serious jurist, smart and even tempered,” while another, who was previously critical of Bragg’s investigation, also said that Merchan is “known as a fair judge who does not lean heavily in one direction or the other. It’s a good place for President Trump to be.”

  • Myth: American democracy is over and the U.S. is now a “banana republic” because a former president has been indicted

  • Right-wing media and conservative politicians used Trump’s indictment and arraignment to push one of their familiar, misguided lines of attack: With Trump indicted, the United States is no longer a democracy but is instead now a “banana republic.” The Federalist broke the news about Trump’s indictment with the headline “America’s Banana Republic Era is Here: Manhattan Grand Jury Votes to Indict Trump.” Fox host Tucker Carlson, while claiming the indictment “is too great an assault on our system, much greater than anything we saw on January 6,” broadcast a chyron that read, “THIRD-WORLD BANANA REPUBLIC: Trump indicted after Manhattan DA Bragg’s witch hunt.” After the arraignment, right-wing commentator Benny Johnson tweeted: “This day will forever be remembered as the death of our Republic.”

  • Fact: Political leaders are held accountable in healthy democracies

  • As noted by The New Yorker, the term “banana republic” is typically used to refer to countries with “a ruthless, corrupt, or just plain loopy leader who relies on the military and destroys state institutions in an egomaniacal quest for prolonged power.” Right-wing media are seemingly employing this term to claim that American democracy is threatened (and transforming into a corrupt “Third-World” country) because Trump, a former president, is now being held accountable for potential crimes. But this argument is completely misguided. On top of the plethora of examples of wealthy democracies that have investigated, charged, or jailed their former leaders, many scholars and experts agree that democracies are strengthened when former leaders are held accountable for their actions.

    Ironically, one of the biggest threats to American democracy is Trump himself. Washington Post columnist Philip Bump wrote in his recent analysis of the V-Dem Institute's “liberal democracy index” that the “measure of liberal democracy in America … plunged sharply once Trump was elected in 2016, recovering slightly in recent years.” As Bump noted in closing his piece, Trump “was the autocratic leader of the Trump Organization and, save a bankruptcy or two, that worked out. Why not be the autocratic leader of the United States?”

  • Myth: George Soros is to blame for the indictment

  • Both before and after Trump’s indictment was made public, conservatives resorted to a longstanding, antisemitic conspiracy theory to suggest that billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros is to blame for this indictment. Right-wing media claimed that Bragg took “marching orders” as a “a Soros-funded DA” and falsely said that Bragg was “picked” by Soros. Media Matters also found that Fox News mentioned Soros’ name at least 41 times in less than 24 hours since news of Trump’s indictment broke.

  • Fact: Soros did not personally donate to Bragg’s campaign — and the two have reportedly never even spoken

  • In Soros’ own words: “I did not contribute to his campaign and I don’t know him.” Soros — both personally and through his organization — contributed to a political action committee that promotes progressive candidates who support criminal justice reforms, including Bragg. But Michael Vachon, Soros’ spokesperson, clarified that “none of those funds were earmarked for Alvin Bragg’s campaign.” Additionally, Bragg couldn’t have been “picked” by Soros, as the two have never even communicated, either online or in person. “George Soros and Alvin Bragg have never met in person or spoken by telephone, email, Zoom, etc.,” according to Vachon. “There has been no contact between the two.”

  • Myth: Trump’s charges distract from New York City’s crime rate, which is at “a record level”

  • Right-wing personalities have used Trump’s indictment to falsely claim that while Bragg has prioritized this “politically-motivated witch hunt,” New York City is unsafe and rampant with violent crime. Some conservative politicians, including Trump himself, have argued that crime in New York City is “at a record level.” 

  • Fact: Crime in Bragg’s jurisdiction is down to a fraction of its 1990s peak

  • Right-wing media’s argument isn’t factually accurate: The current crime rates across NYC are not at a “record level.” Crime in New York City, including violent crime, was at an all-time high in the 1990s and has decreased significantly since then. Overall crime, including most violent crime, in Bragg’s jurisdiction of Manhattan is down since 2022, the year he took office.

  • Myth: This indictment is purely partisan and a “political hit job”

  • Before the charges had been made public, right-wing media jumped to the conclusion that Trump’s indictment is a political stunt — ignoring the former president’s history of lawless behavior. Many right-wing figures expressed their outrage on Twitter, where Breitbart commentator Joel Pollak claimed that the indictment is a “fraud” and “an assault on democracy far worse than the Capitol riot.” On his Fox News show, Sean Hannity went so far as to call the indictment a “political hit job” by Bragg. Fox contributor Jonathan Turley similarly claimed on Special Report that “this indictment – if it is reportedly following the theory that we've been talking about – is political. It's a raw political prosecution.” The Federalist lamented that the U.S. has entered an era “in which local prosecutors will target partisan enemies, big and small, making a mockery of the criminal justice system in the process.” After the charges were made public, right-wing figures continued to defend Trump and refer to the indictment as a “farce.”

  • Fact: Trump’s charges for falsifying business records are the “bread and butter” of Manhattan's white-collar crimes

  • Bragg’s office has filed 117 felony counts for falsifying business records against 29 individuals and companies since he took charge in January 2022. Bragg himself has stated that these charges are the “bread and butter” of white-collar cases and not specific to Trump. In fact, after initially inheriting the case from the previous DA, Bragg expressed concern about its strength and slowed his office’s move toward an indictment. He convened a new grand jury after his successful conviction of Trump’s family company for tax fraud, which he stated was a “strong demarcation line” in going forward with the case. Right-wing media are also conveniently neglecting to mention that there is historical precedent for charging a presidential candidate over hush money payments: John Edwards, a Democrat who was charged with campaign finance violations after he was accused of hiding an affair during the 2008 campaign using money from donors that was not reported to the Federal Election Commission.