Donald Trump

With the Trump Arraignment, Americans Are Seeing the Power of the Local Prosecutor

Alvin Bragg's case against Donald Trump has put the once-obscure position of district attorney into the national spotlight.


Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has written himself into the history books and future pub trivia questions by becoming the first prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against a former president. Whether his case against Donald Trump is successful or not, Americans nationwide are now seeing the power that local prosecutors wield, sometimes capriciously.

The Manhattan D.A.'s investigation took nearly five years, and both Bragg's predecessor and the Federal Election Commission declined to file charges on the same evidence. Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote in a recent breakdown of the case against Trump that Bragg is "relying on debatable facts, untested legal theories, and allegations that are tawdry but far from earthshaking." The New York Times somewhat more gently described the meanderings of Bragg's investigation as a "circuitous and sometimes uncertain road."

Political opponents of Trump may insist it's the destination, not the journey, that matters, but Republicans and conservative commentators have lambasted Bragg's decision to file charges as nakedly political abuse of prosecutorial discretion. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis called it the "weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda."

Bragg may be exercising disastrously bad judgment by pursuing a weak case against Trump. There is a fair amount of agreement he is. But he is well within the powers handed to him by Manhattan voters. Prosecutors have broad leeway and a wide spectrum of overlapping crimes at their disposal. They exercise discretion every day in which ones they charge, which ones they drop, and what sort of plea deals they offer.

The conservative criticisms of Bragg never fail to mention that his campaign was backed by financial contributions from liberal megadonor George Soros. Bragg is part of a wave of progressive district attorneys that have won elections in major cities across the country, many of their campaigns funded by super PACs aligned with Soros. 

Braggs' flaw isn't that he ran as a criminal justice reformer. It's that he makes bad decisions. Bragg actually has a history of overcharging some defendants, despite campaigning to end mass incarceration. Reason's Billy Binion reported on several cases where Bragg's office pursued charges against New Yorkers who were clearly defending themselves against attackers: In one case a bodega worker was charged with murder for fatally stabbing a man who assaulted him; in another, Bragg's office pursued murder charges for nearly a year against a domestic violence victim who stabbed her estranged husband, despite Bragg publicly calling the killing "self-defense" and campaigning on her innocence. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges in both cases, but not before there was considerable public attention.

In the criticism of "Soros prosecutors" in general, there also seems to be a misguided notion that the prosecutors they replaced were playing it straight down the middle—no political agenda, no funny business. It's a common error that mistakes the status quo for being apolitical.

It's political and discretionary when prosecutors pursue cases built on unconstitutional policing. It's political and discretionary when prosecutors decline to charge cops for conduct that would land any other person in prison for years. It's political and discretionary when prosecutors oppose DNA testing that could exonerate a wrongfully convicted person.

DeSantis condemned Bragg's decision to file charges against Trump as "un-American," but getting rung up on flimsy criminal charges by a politically minded district attorney is as American as a fighter jet flyover at an NFL game. It happens to innocent parents. It happens to teenagers who were coerced into false confessions. Hell, it happens to children.

We like to keep up appearances as a respectable country, though, so our justice system only railroads normal people, not presidents. When Trump says things like, "If they can do this to me, they can do this to you," remember that they've already been doing it to people like you.