A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
While a lot of us have been diverted by weather events (Ian) and world events (Russia) there were multiple developments on multiple fronts where it concerns former President Donald Trump this week.
Trump rode out the storm in Mar-a-Lago, which enabled him to delay testimony in a class action fraud lawsuit.
The January 6 committee postponed its planned public hearing due to the storm, but it did interview Ginni Thomas, conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
A judge Trump appointed in Florida shielded him from the special master he requested and she approved, which means he does not have to justify in court some of his wild claims about the FBI.
I talked to Katelyn Polantz, CNN’s senior crime and justice reporter, who keeps track of all of this, to get read in on the developments. We conducted this conversation by direct message.
WHAT MATTERS: What’s the thing this week that most caught your attention and why?
POLANTZ: What all of these developments have in common is how timing really is everything.
This week, there was a clear need to shift from the daily grind of investigations and legal battles to focus on the devastation of the hurricane in Florida. But things are really getting down to the wire on some political fronts.
In the deposition situation, that lawsuit had a deadline of Friday to get Trump under oath, months after he had agreed to do the deposition. It was scheduled for the very last day it was possible, but the hurricane and his insistence on staying in Florida really threw a wrench in that. The new deadline for his deposition now is end of October, which further delays the work being done in that case, which is a class action against his promotions of scam businesses.
The House too is not being helped by delay. The January 6 committee has an expiration date tied to the end of this Congress in January. As the congressional election draws near, there’s not much more time for public hearings before people vote. That said, the committee is obviously continuing its work and still promises to release a final report before the end of the year. It’s not clear if they will be able to muster the same political impact as their series of hearings over the summer.
As for the Mar-a-Lago investigation – perhaps the most high-stakes legal situation Trump faces – Judge Aileen Cannon has given the Trump team an extra gift, in that prosecutors won’t be getting clarity on the issues Trump has with what was seized, or the ability to use the non-classified documents in their investigation until after the November election.
The name of the game right now on every front for Trump is delay, delay, delay. Though there’s still a question of whether he can hold off all the investigations bearing down around him in a way that runs out the clock.
WHAT MATTERS: You wrote an interesting story last week, along with Evan Perez and Zachary Cohen, about Trump’s “secret” court fight to block information from a federal grand jury. I feel like that is another theme of these inquiries. There is the publicly known information, the reported details, and then the secret things lurking below the water. What else can we assume we don’t know about?
POLANTZ: There are always parts of investigations, or even entire investigative avenues, we don’t know about. That’s just the nature of how investigations, especially those being done by the Justice Department, work. We can’t assume much more than what we’ve reported, because this fight, like many others, didn’t bubble out of nowhere. It is another step in a painstaking effort from the federal grand jury in DC to gather information from top advisers to Trump in the White House and then-Vice President Mike Pence. We know it regards Trump’s assertions of privilege, and it could impact a very important set of witnesses, and whether they and others can be compelled to share interactions that have so far been kept secret from all investigations. We also know that, because of how Trump tends to push the courts into uncharted legal territory, we may be in for tracking rounds of appeals – even if the past precedent indicates that even sitting presidents lose these types of battles in criminal probes. But how the outcomes will settle, and when, remains a major question.
WHAT MATTERS: The DOJ is not the only government entity with an investigation that could touch Trump. What’s going on with the Fulton County DA’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election in that state?
POLANTZ: That grand jury is still at work! They’re bringing in witnesses like Boris Epshteyn this week. Like most grand jury investigations, their work could result in charges against one or many people – several allies of Trump have received target letters. But where the investigation is exactly, and how it is functioning at the local level is a question that may be answered better by others than me.
POLANTZ: There is an intriguing situation with all these simultaneous investigation I want to mention –
WHAT MATTERS: Go on…
POLANTZ: At the end of the day, will the Big Kahuna of January 6 investigations, the one being done by the Justice Department out of Washington, get answers no other investigators have been able to get? With so many investigations simultaneously, this is a very complex game.
Take for instance, Jeffrey Clark, the ex-DOJ official whose phone was seized by federal investigators as part of their investigation into conspiracy and obstructive acts. He has not been charged with any crime.
He is facing an attorney discipline case in DC that resulted from months of investigation and was pursued by the House Select Committee. In both of those situations, he took the Fifth and didn’t answer questions. Will the DOJ, which has tools to immunize witnesses and force them to answer questions, be able to get someone like him to talk? Will they even want to try to get him to talk? Lots of people close to Trump are taking the Fifth, based on what we know of their non-answers to the House Select Committee.
WHAT MATTERS: That’s an interesting side drama – Trump’s legal team. There was a report this week about one of his newer lawyers, Chris Kise, being sidelined. What, if anything, do we know about the size of his legal team, how they are being paid, and how they are dividing up these many, many, many different cases?
POLANTZ: Zach, you are asking the most complex questions today! From what we know, there are many attorneys working with Trump, and no central person coordinating all his efforts and keeping tabs on all investigative subjects who are close to and aligned with him. Payments to various lawyers have popped up consistently on Trump’s political committee expenditure reports.
The lawyer who was sidelined – who was brought in to take charge in Florida with the Mar-a-Lago situation and was on track to have a $3 million retainer fee – wasn’t even on the Trump team’s latest filing in the public court record. There are three lawyers still listed. One of whom, Evan Corcoran, is on a separate team of three lawyers who went to court on the January 6 privilege fight, alongside yet another two attorneys. Others that we know of are in the background, including Ephsteyn. I’m not even getting to the various legal teams Trump uses to respond to his myriad ongoing civil suits. That would be a tome. Of course, it’s not unusual for a person with a lot of legal entanglements to need a lot of lawyers.
That said, lawyers don’t come cheap! On top of all these attorneys, Trump is on the hook for special master costs in the Mar-a-Lago document review. The special master selected, a working judge, isn’t taking payment, but a retired judge he’s brought on to help him will be billing $500 an hour. And in the legal world, that’s a bargain.
WHAT MATTERS: I think that’s a good place to leave it today. Keep up the good work!
POLANTZ: You as well!