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Preserving the Rule of Law: Successful law enforcement has a domino effect

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Need evidence that successful law enforcement actions in cases involving the rule of law can have a domino effect?

Exhibit A: On Sept. 3, we learned that former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had recently coughed up texts and emails that he had previously failed to produce to the National Archives. “It could be a coincidence,” an unnamed source told CNN, “but within a week of the Aug. 8 search on Mar-a-Lago, much more started coming in.”

The court-approved search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence occurred after Trump had failed to comply voluntarily with multiple government requests to return all documents, including classified ones. The search warrant listed three criminal statutes that Trump may have violated. Anyone paying attention could see that Trump had put himself in danger of being prosecuted.

Meadows was apparently paying attention.

Exhibit B: No Jan. 6 participant whom the DOJ has charged has gone to trial since May 2. That’s likely the domino effect of a jury’s guilty verdict against Thomas Webster — a Marine Corps veteran and former NYC policeman — that day and two other similar verdicts in the weeks before.

The jury took less than four hours to convict Webster, as did the juries that rendered guilty verdicts against Gary Reffitt and Dustin Byron Thompson.

Since then, no one else involved in Jan. 6 has tested their luck with a jury. That doesn’t mean there won’t be future trials, but it suggests that swift justice in a courtroom has an impact on others. They learn the lesson: When the evidence is strong against you, juries don’t waste a lot of time convicting you. So you might as well get the benefit of a guilty plea.

Exhibit C: And if others had any doubt, Webster’s and Reffitt’s sentencings likely dispelled it. On Aug. 2, Reffitt was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. At the time, that was the longest term of imprisonment any judge had meted out for being part of the insurrection. Then, on Sept. 1, Webster received a 10-year sentence. (Thompson, the other insurrectionist who went to trial, remains to be sentenced.)

While every accused person has a right to a trial, our judicial system deploys carrots and sticks. It encourages those against whom the evidence of guilt is compelling to acknowledge their wrongdoing, and it penalizes those who don’t.

So do not expect to see many future trials of the Reffitt and Webster variety. Effective law enforcement by good investigators, prosecutors, judges and juries has a compounding effect.

Finally, here’s Exhibit D: Smart law enforcement actions can domino into unsmart defendant reactions.

After the FBI released the photo of top secret documents placed on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago office carpet, Trump posted a response on social media: “The FBI took them out of cartons and spread them around on the carpet, making it look like a big ‘find’ for them,” he asserted. “They dropped them, not me — Very deceiving.”

Trump was again playing his “aggrieved martyr” card to his base — but in the process, he added to prosecutors’ portfolio against him. His own words confirm that he held sensitive national security documents at Mar-a-Lago — in “cartons,” in his desk and elsewhere.

Take note: What a subject of investigation doesn’t say when he talks can be as important as what he does say. Prosecutors will note the absence of any assertion that the FBI “planted” the evidence, as Trump had previously suggested. So there goes that defense if Trump tries to make it at a future trial.

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Trump may not understand that when a Justice Department he doesn’t control is breathing down his neck, he’s in a different world from the one he’s known. It’s not smart to play the same old cards. The ones that worked on social media won’t have the same effect in a courtroom.

Political narratives are not what count with the FBI, with prosecutors and judges or with juries. What matters is how the facts fit into the criminal code. And what you say in public “can and will be used against you.”

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.