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Trump's hush money trial shows the feedback loop between MAGA media and VP hopefuls

Sen. J.D. Vance, Rep. Elise Stefanik, and other VP options sound just like Steve Bannon

Over the course of former President Donald Trump’s roughly six-week hush-money trial in New York City, MAGA media figures and top GOP vice presidential contenders have used similar rhetoric to undermine the case and criticize the jury’s guilty verdict. 

On May 30, a New York jury found Trump guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records related to payments made to buy the silence of adult film actor and director Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, in the run-up to the 2016 election. The former president has been indicted in three other criminal cases, none of which are expected to go to trial before the general election in November.

MAGA media figures, such as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, have attempted to discredit the trial by attacking people involved (or supposedly involved) in the case, including Judge Juan Merchan, who is overseeing the trial; the prosecutors who brought the charges, including District Attorney Alvin Bragg; and President Joe Biden, whom they accuse of orchestrating the entire case. 

Following the jury’s verdict, Bannon and others called for retribution, in the form of either congressional subpoenas or investigations carried out by Republican state attorneys general or district attorneys. During the trial, they claimed that common courtroom procedures — such as the gag order Merchan put on Trump — were wild abuses of power. They denied that any crime took place, and they made the baseless accusation that the entire case is an example of election interference. 

Several figures Trump is reportedly considering to serve as his running mate have made similar claims, highlighting the porousness of the boundaries between MAGA media and GOP politicians looking to secure one of the most powerful positions in the country. 

The mimicry goes both ways, with MAGA figures and national politicians in a feedback loop, rather than a unidirectional conveyor belt. What follows is not a food chain, but a glimpse into the murky waters they inhabit together.

  • Claim 1: President Joe Biden or his top officials orchestrated the case and must be investigated

  • Right-wing media figures and Trump’s vice presidential hopefuls alike have argued that a future Department of Justice should investigate the Manhattan district attorney and baselessly accused President Joe Biden or his top officials of directing the hush money investigation. As early as April, right-wing figures were falsely claiming that lead prosecutor Matthew Colangelo was acting as an agent of the Biden administration due to his prior employment at the Justice Department.

  • MAGA media takes

    • Steve Bannon, on the morning after Trump was found guilty, demanded that Republicans in the House of Representatives “have immediately a vote on Merrick Garland,” and said, “The subpoenas should fly.” Bannon added: “The Judiciary Committee should announce for legislative purposes a vast investigation of this.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/31/24]

    • Article III Project founder Mike Davis, who was a guest on Bannon’s show, demanded that House Republicans “issue subpoenas for this corrupt Manhattan DA’s office — ask for their communications with the Biden Justice Department.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/31/24]

    • “We must go on offense,” Bannon said the same morning. He added: “I beg of you, where is Jim Jordan? Where is Comer? And where is Polly Pockets Johnson? Where are the subpoenas? Where is an investigation?” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/31/24

    • Bannon reacted to the verdict by telling Jeff Clark, a former Trump administration lawyer reported to have participated in Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, that he “may be the attorney general [in a future Trump administration] and have to clean this up.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/30/24; Media Matters, 8/2/23]

    • Jeff Clark later said on War Room: “We need some brave district attorneys in the United States to step forward and to take aggressive action.” He added that those district attorneys “should partner with some conservative legal organizations” if they don’t have adequate resources on their own. [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/31/24]

    • Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk responded to the guilty verdict by saying: “This case was engineered for years from the very top of the Democrat apparatus to bring down Trump using a rigged law in a rigged courtroom with a rigged jury.” [Rumble, Thoughtcrime: The Trump Verdict Special, 5/30/24]

  • Potential vice presidents’ takes

    • Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) claimed during an appearance on Breitbart News Saturday that the Biden administration and other Democrats “cooked up these prosecutions to try to pin Donald Trump as a convicted felon.” [Breitbart, 6/1/24]

    • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) posted a video of a reporter asking Biden about Trump’s claim that Biden is responsible for Trump’s criminal case, commenting: “Our current President is a demented man propped up by wicked & deranged people willing to destroy our country to remain in power. It’s time to fight [fire emoji] with [fire emoji]” [Twitter/X, 5/31/24]

    • Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) responded to the so-called Weaponization Committee’s request that Alvin Bragg and Michael Colangelo appear before Congress by posting on X (formerly Twitter), “I will be working with Chairman Jim Jordan and my House Republican colleagues to hold Joe Biden’s corrupt political henchmen accountable at this important hearing.” In January 2023, the House of Representatives voted to create the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, which has primarily served as a clearinghouse for right-wing conspiracy theories. [Twitter/X, 5/31/24; Politico, 2/24/23]

    • Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) promoted an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press in a post on X, writing that Colangelo was “placed on” the Trump case after serving in the DOJ and that it “stinks to high heaven.”  “Colangelo was the #3 in Biden's DOJ,” he wrote. “In an unprecedented move, he left that prestigious position to become a NYC prosecutor & was placed on the case to go after Biden's top political rival.” He added: “This stinks to high heaven. This is ELECTION INTERFERENCE. Americans are REJECTING this.” [Twitter/X, 6/1/24]

  • Claim 2: DA Bragg, Judge Merchan, and Merchan’s daughter are all corrupt partisans

  • Right-wing media figures and vice presidential hopefuls have used similar language to hurl attacks and innuendo at District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his prosecutorial team. They have also gone after Judge Juan Merchan and his daughter.

  • MAGA media takes

    • Charlie Kirk said immediately after the verdict was announced that Bragg “ran on a nakedly political election promise: I will use political power to go after the opposition.” He continued: “If his name was not Trump, he would not have been in trial. They still can't tell you what the crime was. The jury went 34 for 34 across the board in a rigged trial in ZIP code justice. Alvin Bragg did the ditch-digging work of the Biden reelection campaign.” [Rumble, Thoughtcrime: The Trump Verdict Special, 5/30/24]

    • Andrew Giuliani, who was purportedly covering the trial as a correspondent for Bannon’s War Room, went after Merchan’s daughter, claiming that “the judge’s daughter has profited to the tune of $90 million,” seemingly referring to fundraising she has conducted for Democratic politicians. Giuliani was apparently referencing an article from the New York Post, which reported that Merchan’s daughter’s firm had sent out fundraising letters for Democratic clients that referenced the trial. [MeidasTouch Network, 5/3/24; New York Post, 3/30/24]

    • Mike Davis posted on X: “Because Loren Merchan is raising millions from her father's unprecedented trial. Judge Juan Merchan knows he must deliver a guilty verdict against Trump. Or his daughter Loren Merchan's political and fundraising career for Biden Democrats is over.” [Twitter/X, 5/28/24]

    • Anti-Muslim political activist Laura Loomer in April lobbed attacks at Merchan’s daughter as well. Her rhetoric eventually ended up on far-right cable networks. [Media Matters, 4/3/24, 5/30/24]

  • Potential vice presidents’ takes

    • J.D. Vance, during an appearance on Breitbart News Saturday, identified Merchan, his daughter, and Bragg, insisting their involvement was “not exactly an objective administration of justice.” Vance said: “You have the judge donating to Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. You have the financial interests of his daughter. You have the prosecutor funded by George Soros who ran on getting Donald Trump right —  not exactly an objective administration of justice.” [Breitbart, 6/1/24]

    • Vance pushed a similar line on Fox News, asking why “a judge whose family has gotten rich off of Democratic party fundraising” is “allowed to preside over this thing in the first place.” He continued: “We need to be subpoenaing Judge Merchan and his daughter. We need to understand what are the connections between big Democratic money and this sham prosecution. Did George Soros ever talk to Alvin Bragg about using his power to go after Donald Trump? We need to get to the bottom of it, and when we find wrongdoing, we need to be willing to actually punish it.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 5/31/24]

    • Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said in a video posted to X: “I can’t believe the hoax, this shame, this absolute injustice justice system.” He continued: “DA Bragg and the judge should be ashamed of themselves. This isn’t just ridiculous, this actually erodes the confidence that Americans have in the justice system.” [Twitter/X, 5/30/24]

    • Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), during an interview on NBC News’ Meet the Press, said: “A jury can only act within the constraints that a judge puts on it, and this case was rigged from the very beginning.” He added: “You had Alvin Bragg, who campaigned on getting Donald Trump. You had the judge, who's a literal Biden donor, and at every turn he ruled in favor of the prosecution.” [NBC News, Meet the Press, 6/2/24]

  • Claim 3: The case was really about targeting Trump voters

  • Trump has repeatedly claimed, “If they can do it to me, they can do it to you,” suggesting that his enemies are going after the former president as a way to target his voters. Over the course of the hush money trial, MAGA media and vice presidential hopeful Sen. Tim Scott adopted this line as well.

  • MAGA media take

    • Bannon said after the verdict was announced: “It's not President Trump they're trying to destroy — they're trying to destroy you.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/30/24]

  • Potential vice president’s take

    • Sen. Tim Scott posted on X: “President Trump would rather it be him than you, the American people. This trial was rigged, but he's standing firm for you and me to save our country!” [Twitter/X, 5/31/24]

  • Claim 4: The gag order was unconstitutional

  • Merchan imposed a gag order on Trump which the former president repeatedly violated by making disparaging comments about Merchan’s daughter, jurors, and witnesses in the case. On May 6, Merchan ruled that Trump had violated the order for the 10th time and threatened him with jail time if he refused to comply.

  • MAGA media take

    • Steve Bannon called the gag order “totally unconstitutional” and said the case was “all to smear President Trump.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/10/24

    • The Gateway Pundit published a blog post headlined “Gag Order Against President Trump Is The Textbook Case Of An Unconstitutional Prior Restraint On His First Amendment Rights.” [The Gateway Pundit, 4/22/24]

  • Potential vice president’s take

    • Sen. J.D. Vance on May 29 posted a letter he’d written to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to investigate Merchan on the grounds that the “unconstitutional gag order violates President Trump's First Amendment rights and is clearly illegal.” [Twitter/X, 5/29/24]

  • MAGA media amplification of Vance

    • Far-right pundit Jack Posobiec quote-tweeted Vance, adding, “Yes” [Twitter/X, 5/29/24]

    • Donald Trump Jr. reposted Vance’s post, commenting “This!!!!!” [Twitter/X, 5/29/24]

  • Claim 5: There was no crime committed

  • For the charges that Bragg brought against Trump to rise to the level of a felony, the acts must have been in furtherance of another crime, and prosecutors say that crime was attempting to fraudulently alter the outcome of the 2016 election. Some right-wing commentators said Trump hadn’t committed any crime.

  • MAGA media take

    • Bannon claimed on May 8, “There's no crime that we've actually talked about four weeks into the trial.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 5/8/24]

    • Donald Trump Jr. wrote on X: “THERE IS NO CRIME AND NEVER WAS!!!” He was responding to a post from former Federal Election Commission Chair Brad Smith saying “Judge Merchan has so restricted my testimony that defense has decided not to call me.” Trump Jr. wrote: “This is a really big deal in my father’s show trial in NYC. Read it all and understand the level of bias on display and why they wouldn’t let an expert witness testify to the law. IT’S BECAUSE THERE IS NO CRIME AND NEVER WAS!!!” [Twitter/X, 5/21/24]

  • Potential vice presidents’ takes

    • Sen. J.D. Vance on CNN: “If you look at the underlying argument of the case, they can't even identify what it is that Donald Trump did.” “They said he committed a paperwork violation in the service of a crime, but they won't even specify the crime that he allegedly committed." [CNN, 5/12/24]

    • Vance later wrote on X that “there’s no crime.” His post read: “Seems like there’s a lot of confusion from the jury. Probably has something to do with the fact that there’s no crime, the prosecution’s case is a joke, and the judge seems unable to follow the law.” [Twitter/X, 5/29/24]

    • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum suggested on Fox News that “this was a judge and a prosecution trying to find a crime.” “I’m sure there was some fear of Americans during this scam trial that, you know, this was a judge and a prosecution trying to find a crime,” he said. “I mean, they never really identified — but we saw it all come true today with the jury instructions, where the jury instructions actually were: Go see if you can find, you know, one of these crimes. We didn’t prove it, but you guys go off and see if you can find one. Most juries are trying to figure if someone’s guilty or innocent. This is like go find a crime. So this is all unprecedented. … This thing is political lawfare.” [Fox News, Special Report, 5/29/24

    • Burgum was back at it one day later: “The jury instructions were, go try to figure out if there was a crime here.” [Fox Business, Varney & Co., 5/30/24]

  • Claim 6: The trial is an attempt to interfere with the presidential election

  • Trump and his supporters have long claimed that various actions they don’t like or that they think might hurt his chances count as election interference, including the prosecutions he faces, his two impeachments while in office, and the investigation into ties between his 2016 campaign and Russia. The hush money case is no different.

  • MAGA media’s take

    • Mike Davis promoted an appearance he made on right-wing cable network Newsmax, commenting on X: “The American people are waking up to the fact that Alvin Bragg Matthew Colangelo’s witch hunt against President Trump is a dog of a case.” He added: “This is obviously a political hit against Trump, as well as blatant election interference and unconstitutional.” [Twitter/X, 5/20/24]

    • Donald Trump Jr. wrote on X: “If there was ever any doubt that this was a political persecution, the fact that the Biden campaign would hold a rally outside of the courthouse during closing arguments tells you everything you needed to know.” He added: “Election interference!!!” [Twitter/X, 5/28/24]

    • Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka posted a video from his own show in which he said: “They can’t stop him unless they put him in jail.” He added: “The maintenance of power against your right to choose him as your president once more.” [Twitter/X, 5/28/24; Salem Media Group, America First with Sebastian Gorka, 5/28/24]

  • Potential vice presidents’ takes

    • Rep. Elise Stefanik wrote on X that “Far Left Democrats have made a mockery of our justice system by weaponizing it against Joe Biden’s top political opponent” and that “The illegal election interference must END!” [Twitter/X, 5/30/24]

    • Rep. Byron Donalds promoted an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, writing that the case “stinks to high heaven” and is “ELECTION INTERFERENCE.” “Colangelo was the #3 in Biden's DOJ,” he wrote. “In an unprecedented move, he left that prestigious position to become a NYC prosecutor & was placed on the case to go after Biden's top political rival. This stinks to high heaven. This is ELECTION INTERFERENCE. Americans are REJECTING this.” [Twitter/X, 6/1/24]