In 2011, Tristan Snell joined the New York State Attorney General’s office and was deflated by his crummy workspace. He’d interviewed on a high floor with a panoramic Manhattan view, but now the lawyer was given a third-floor office bereft of sunlight, with a stained carpet, old computer, and smell of fried onions from the restaurant below. On his second day, his bureau chief handed him an assignment for a case of dubious prospects: call people who claimed to have been ripped off by Trump University.
Snell became absorbed in the stories of the complainants, who sometimes had to be convinced the caller was from the Attorney General’s office, not a Trump plant. They expressed anger, pain, mortification; some cried. Perhaps Snell’s seedy office aided his empathy for people whose dreams of better lives had been exploited by a celebrity businessman promising to share secrets of success, and who’d paid tens of thousands of dollars for boilerplate seminars that bore little resemblance to what was promised, and for photos of themselves with a life-sized cardboard cutout of the “university” owner.
The case eventually led to a settlement with $25 million in restitution for the victims. Snell’s new book, Taking Down Trump: 12 Rules for Prosecuting Donald Trump by Someone Who Did It Successfully, draws on that litigation to formulate lessons for holding the ex-President accountable in his legal issues more broadly and for overcoming Donald Trump’s well-honed techniques for throwing legal processes off the rails through influence-peddling, intimidation, delays, dishonesty, distraction, and bamboozlement.
Snell’s rules, briefly stated, are (1) “Get total buy-in from the top leadership”; (2) Freeze Trump out and never let him co-opt”; (3) “Tilt the political incentives in favor of intervention”; (4) “Trump will stonewall you—but fight back”; (5) “Former vendors are potential allies”; (6) “Play the long game”; (7) “Trump is incapable of being quiet”; (8) “Get Trump under oath”; (9) “‘It has to be perfect’”; (10) “Focus on the signal, not the noise”; (11) “Trump will lash out—ignore it”; (12) “Stick to your guns.”
The rules seem generally sensible, with some more obvious than others. The first three are about leadership. Rule number one refers to the importance of commitment by officials of any prosecutorial office undertaking a case against Trump; the related second rule’s that any effort by Trump to buy off the prosecutor with campaign contributions and such must be resisted; the third’s that you have to play to the public, as well as the judge and jury, to prevent political pressure from undermining a prosecution.
The next five rules have to do with investigation. Rule number four is that Trump will hide evidence, so tracking down others who have access to the evidence is crucial. The related fifth rule notes that Trump’s vendors and partners, who often have been screwed over by him, can become valuable assets to prosecutors. Rule number six is that Trump uses delay to circumvent justice, so prosecutors need to select charges and timing carefully to avoid getting tripped up by statutes of limitation.
Rule seven, noting Trump’s tendency toward garrulous boastfulness, advises prosecutors to scour his statements for self-inculpating material. In the Trump University case, Trump recorded an introductory video played at seminars in which he lied that he’d “handpicked” the instructors; such assertions demonstrated his awareness that the school’s activities were fraudulent. Upcoming trials may hinge on recordings of Trump making self-incriminating statements, as with the one of him brandishing a classified Pentagon document to guests at his Bedminster club; or his phone call demanding Georgia election officials “find” the specific number of votes that, if changed, would win him the state.
The recent $83.3 million judgment against Trump in E. Jean Carroll’s second defamation lawsuit also underscores the risks he takes through talkativeness, in that he continued to defame her after losing the first case. The eighth rule focuses on the importance of getting Trump under oath, so that he can make further statements establishing his culpability. “All the faults and pathologies Trump exhibits generally are just as true even when he’s sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Snell writes. Trump’s statement in a deposition that Carroll wasn’t his “type” was undermined when he was shown a photo of Carroll that he thought was one of Marla Maples, his ex-wife.
Snell’s remaining rules, labeled “Going Public,” aim to help those clashing with Trump in the courtroom deal with the broader political and media arena around such contests. The ninth rule, “It has to be perfect,” from the words of one of Snell’s colleagues at the Attorney General’s office during the Trump University case, presses for unusually high standards in making a case against a high-profile opponent. Rule 10 advises Trump’s opponents to ignore a lot of nonsense that will emerge from his camp, since he churns through numerous lawyers and often gets them on the cheap, so. The next rule is that Trump will publicly attack his opponents and their lawyers; Snell sees that as an indicator Trump’s losing a case, though he also advises targets that public vitriol from Trump could inspire violence.
Snell’s last rule includes recognition that Trump will settle a case rather than lose outright, as exemplified by the agreement to pay $25 million in the Trump University case. He advises not to settle for too little, though he also acknowledges we’re in “uncharted territory” on any plea bargain possibility between Trump and prosecutors in a criminal case where prison time’s at stake. In an epilogue, Snell points out further novel issues, such as that Trump seeks to use his presidential candidacy “like it’s some sort of magical cape that could make him immune from conviction (and indeed he’s aiming to convince at least a handful of jurors that this should be the case, which could lead to mistrials, allowing him to delay, delay, delay even further).”
Snell adds: “And of course, if Trump were to return to the White House, he would likely find ways to slow or stop at least the federal cases against him, or he could attempt to pardon himself—presenting a dire threat to the continued existence of the rule of law in America.” Taking Down Trump doesn’t offer a strategy for opposing a self-pardoning President. I hope somebody’s preparing for that contingency.
—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber