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Politics

How Trump’s Deny-Everything Strategy Could Hurt him at Sentencing

WASHINGTON  — Donald Trump has had plenty to say since his hush money trial conviction last week.

He’s claimed the case was rigged, incorrectly linked President Joe Biden to the state prosecution, called the star witness against him a “sleazebag” and said the judge was a “devil” and “highly conflicted.”

What he hasn’t done is utter any variation of the words that might benefit him most come sentencing time next month: “I’m sorry.”

It’s a truism of the criminal justice system that defendants hoping for lenient treatment at their sentencing are expected to take responsibility for their actions, even express remorse. But that flies in the face of Trump’s longtime refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing, a tone that he often strikes to portray strength and present himself as a fighter under ceaseless attack. While the strategy may resonate with his most loyal political supporters, it failed during his New York criminal trial and could complicate his legal team’s efforts to avoid a tough sentence.

“The fact, I think, that he has no remorse – quite the opposite, he continues to deny his guilt – is going to hurt him at sentencing,” said Jeffrey Cohen, an associate professor at Boston College Law School and a former federal prosecutor in Massachusetts. “It’s one of the things that the judge can really point to that everybody is aware of — that he just denies this — and can use that as a strong basis for his sentence.”

Trump is set to be sentenced on July 11 by Judge Juan M. Merchan, who raised the specter of jail time during the trial after the former president racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating a gag order. He has been the target of Trump’s relentless ire.

The 34 felony counts of falsifying business records Trump was found guilty of are charges punishable by up to four years in prison. It’s not clear whether prosecutors intend to seek imprisonment — Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg dodged a question on that Thursday — or whether Merchan would sentence him behind bars even if that’s the recommendation.

As part of a broader, rambling broadside against the case, Trump has sought to downplay any concerns about his sentence, saying in a “Fox & Friends Weekend” interview that aired on Sunday that he was “OK” with the prospect of imprisonment or home confinement.

“I saw one of my lawyers the other day on television saying, ‘oh, no, you don’t want to do that’” to a former president. “I said, don’t, you know, beg for anything. It’s just the way it is.”

He will have the option to address the judge at his sentencing hearing though he is not required to do so, and some legal experts have said it would be inadvisable for him to speak. He did not testify in his own defense at the trial, something he later suggested had to do with concerns that prosecutors would try to catch him in a trivial falsehood.

“If he turns around and blames the court, attacks prosecutors, decries this as a witch hunt, lies — you should have no misgiving: There will be consequences and there should be consequences,” said Jeremy Saland, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

In addition, Trump’s constant attacks on the prosecutors, judge and court system and his aggressive trial strategy — outright denying claims of an extramarital affair by porn actor Stormy Daniels as well as involvement in the subsequent scheme to buy her silence — would make any change of tune at his sentencing seem disingenuous.

“I don’t see any real benefit of him speaking at sentencing because even if he did say something, he’s saying the exact opposite outside the courtroom and the judge is not unaware of that,” Cohen said.

To be sure, there are multiple other factors that could tilt against a prison sentence — Trump’s apparent lack of contrition notwithstanding. Merchan could conclude, for instance, that there’s a strong societal interest against having a former, and potentially future, president in jail.

“Sometimes as a judge and a prosecutor, you have to look at the proverbial scoreboard and say, ‘That’s enough.’ And that scoreboard here is a permanent brand that you’d see on the side of cattle of a big fat ‘F’ for felony,” Saland said.

“It is far worse than any scarlet letter could ever be,” he added. “And no matter what he says, no matter how he spins it, no matter if it’s a day in jail or not, he will always be a convicted felon. Period.”

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