How a humble civil servant could end up holding ‘extraordinary power’ over Donald Trump

The judge in Trump’s hush money trial is scheduled to sentence Trump on July 11 - but first the former president must report to the New York City Department of Probation

Alex Woodward
in New York
Monday 03 June 2024 22:06 BST
Trump says Americans could not ‘stand’ to see him in prison

Before he adjourned the first-ever criminal trial of an American president, New York Justice Juan Merchan instructed convicted felon Donald Trump to make an appointment with a probation officer to review his background, mental health and the 34-count guilty verdict against him.

Judge Merchan is scheduled to sentence Trump on July 11, but first the former president must report to the New York City Department of Probation for a crucial, mandatory interview with a civil servant.

A resulting report from that interview will help guide Judge Merchan on Trump’s potential jailtime, fines, probation, community service or other sentence after a jury unanimously found him guilty of falsifying business records on May 30.

In some of the final words spoken at the historic court hearing, the judge told Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche that “the clerk of the court will give you instructions on how to go about scheduling that probation interview and getting that probation report.”

The paperwork indicates that a defendant must “immediately” present to the probation office, though it does not appear that Trump did so after trudging out of the courtroom with his attorneys and entourage. Judge Merchan’s instructions suggest that he didn’t have to go straight from the courtroom, but it is unclear when, or if, the former president will participate.

The verdict sheet in Trump’s hush money trial
The verdict sheet in Trump’s hush money trial (AP)

The brief interview typically would take place on the 10th floor of the criminal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, and Trump must do it alone – he won’t be able to bring an attorney with him when he sits for an interview with a probation officer, a civil worker for the state.

The interview is a chance for Trump to make a good impression and the case for a lenient sentence, but the officer will likely have access to Trump’s mountain of statements attacking the judge, prosecutors, jurors, witnesses and the judicial system itself. What’s more, he has even repeated in social media statements and through his campaign that he would be totally fine with going to jail.

The officer could also probe Trump’s drug use and interview his family members and associates for the final report, which will include recommendations on Trump’s sentence.

Karen Agnifilo, former chief of the trial division and chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan, told The Independent that the experience will be a “humbling” one for the former president.

“He’s going to be dealing with a public servant. I don’t know that he’s used to that. He’s much more used to being catered to, and he’s going to have to comply with somebody,” she said. “The phrase ‘nobody is above the law’ comes to mind.”

The hardest thing he will have to answer is whether he feels responsible for his actions or shows any remorse, Agnifilo said.

And if he doesn’t schedule a meeting or show up for one, that will almost certainly anger the judge and be held against him when it comes time for his sentencing.

“He’s taunting the system, and he’s going to stretch the bounds of what everybody else has to go through, I think,” Agnifilo said. “He’s daring the judge.”

Donald Trump leaves a Manhattan courtroom after a jury convicted him on 34 counts of falsifying business records on May 30
Donald Trump leaves a Manhattan courtroom after a jury convicted him on 34 counts of falsifying business records on May 30 (via REUTERS)

After he was hit with $10,000 in fines and a warning from the judge that he could be thrown in jail for further violations of a gag order, Trump evaded scrutiny from prosecutors in the trial’s final weeks, while a parade of his so-called “surrogates” lashed out at witnesses and the judge’s daughter.

Following his conviction, Trump has labeled Michael Cohen, his former attorney and chief witness for the prosecution, a “scumbag.” The gag order remains in place, despite the trial’s adjournment.

“Mr Trump, it’s important to understand that the last thing I want to do is to put you in jail,” Judge Merchan told him last month. “You are the former president of the United States, and possibly the next president.”

Georgetown University Law Center professor Paul Butler said the judge and probation officer will likely take into consideration that Trump doesn’t have any prior convictions and is nearing 80 years old when they make sentencing recommendations.

On the other hand, his conduct in and out of court and his undermining of the case against him, will likely be used against him, Butler told reporters on Monday.

If Trump gets probation with no jailtime, it will be up to that Department of Probation civil servant to ensure that Trump adheres to the terms.

The former president, and presumed Republican presidential nominee, could end up needing permission from that officer to make plans to travel out of state or internationally; to change jobs; and to “submit a list of who you hang out with to make sure those people are law-abiding responsible citizens who aren’t going to get you in trouble,” Butler said.

That civil servant could end up holding “extraordinary power,” Butler added.

The Independent has requested comment from Trump’s attorneys and campaign.

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