Trump’s indictment accidentally overshadowed a major MAGA development in Michigan

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Trump’s indictment accidentally overshadowed a major MAGA development in Michigan

Tuesday’s indictment of former President Donald Trump for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election overshadowed the announcement of a related indictment that same day in Michigan. Both cases are incredibly important, and Michigan case’s under-the-radar significance should not be overlooked. 

Both cases are incredibly important, but the Michigan case’s under-the-radar significance should not be overlooked.

A grand jury there charged Matthew DePerno, the November 2022 Republican candidate for state attorney general, with four criminal charges: undue possession of and willfully damaging a voting machine, both five-year felonies, and conspiracy to commit undue possession of a voting machine and false pretenses. In September 2021, Trump endorsed DePerno for attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement position.

The grand jury in Michigan also charged Daire Rendon, a former Republican state representative, with “conspiracy to unlawfully possess a voting machine and using false pretenses … in unlawfully acquiring one of the machines.”

(Both DePerno and Rendon are of course innocent until proven guilty. DePerno’s attorney told the Detroit News his client “categorically denies any wrongdoing and firmly asserts that these charges are unfounded and lack merit.”)

But this prosecution has implications far beyond Michigan, for three primary reasons. 

First, DePerno and Rendon, both vocal 2020 “election deniers,” are alleged to have illegally obtained a voting machine in a wildly ill-advised attempt to prove election fraud that, despite Trump and his allies’ pronouncements, did not exist. A nation that holds secure elections cannot allow self-deputized vigilantes improperly seizing possession of voting machines under false pretenses. 

Second, Trump’s false claims about fraud would not have had the “destabilizing” effect alleged by Jack Smith this week without the complicity of a MAGA network of Republicans around the country. 

Third, and closely related to that point, the facts alleged in the Michigan indictment — which prosecutors would not have included unless they could prove them — demonstrate the depth of America’s current Trumpian infection. Clearly, this is truly a national problem. And Trumpism will outlive Trump unless the law holds its violators accountable. 

Accountability is the foundation of the rule of law, in principle and in practice. Michigan’s special prosecutor has just affirmed that principle.

Federal prosecutors can’t do everything, as Michigan’s attorney general understands.

Federal prosecutors can’t do everything, as Michigan’s attorney general understands. And make no mistake, culpable state and local officials must also be held to account. Otherwise they could distort elections in 2024 and the future — no matter how Trump’s presidential campaign fares. Indeed, Michigan is also looking into how and why voting machines were handed over to private individuals for “testing.” A Michigan judge has already ruled that it is illegal for unauthorized individuals to take possession of voting machines, whether clerks gave them the machines or not.

So far, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has taken an impressively proactive approach. On July 18, a grand jury under her oversight indicted 16 fake electors in the state. That fraudulent elector scheme, as well as the plot to seize voting machines, are two strands of the larger conspiracy.

Five days earlier, on July 13, Arizona’s Attorney General Kris Mayes announced a parallel investigation in her state. And Georgia’s fake electors appear to be in Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ sights as well. The grand jury Willis oversees is in the final stages of a probe considering criminal charges in connection with the 2020 election. 

As for the election machine branch of the Trump campaign operation, recall that Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, reportedly “co-conspirator No. 1” in Tuesday’s federal indictment, peddled wild claims of votes being switched from Trump to Biden by Dominion Voting Systems machines, as well as by Smartmatic, another voting machine manufacturer. Onetime Trump apologist and Attorney General William P. Barr called those claims “idiotic.” 

Fox News has already settled its case against Dominion, to the tune of $787 million, for defaming the company.

It’s also important to emphasize how apolitical the Matthew DePerno prosecution is. Nessel has been very careful to avoid the perception of partisan bias, going as far as to disqualify herself from overseeing the grand jury investigation because she had been DePerno’s opponent in the 2020 election. 

The investigation into DePerno and Rendon was ultimately led by special prosecutor D.J. Hilson. He is ordinarily the Muskegan County prosecutor and was appointed special prosecutor by the state’s independent prosecuting attorneys coordinating council. 

And the grand jury made its own determination to indict based on facts. Hilson announced Tuesday that his office “made no recommendations as to whether an indictment should be issued or not.”  

These 23 citizens considered all of the evidence and seemed to have come to decision that reaffirms how accountability, our elections and our freedom are bound together. Whether at the state or federal level, that kind of citizen commitment to the rule of law represents our democracy’s best hope.

Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, the former chief assistant city attorney in San Francisco and currently counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

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