The central question hanging over Trump’s legal cases: From the Politics Desk

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, senior legal correspondent Laura Jarrett explores the key question that has lingered over Donald Trump’s legal proceedings this week. Plus, with the Ukraine aid package now passed, “Meet the Press” moderator Kristen Welker looks ahead to the next big fight facing Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

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The central question hanging over Trump’s legal cases

By Laura Jarrett

In the midst of a high-stakes argument at the Supreme Court this week, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked the lawyer for former President Donald Trump a piercing question: “If there’s no threat of criminal prosecution, what prevents the president from just doing whatever he wants?”

It’s a question that lingers over not only Trump’s criminal case in Washington — where a grand jury indicted him for attempting to overturn the 2020 election — but also in New York, where prosecutors are asking a judge to hold him in criminal contempt, because they argue he’s attacking potential trial witnesses.

Trump is under a court-imposed gag order that directs him not to comment on anyone who might testify at the trial, but he continues to post about witnesses online and hold forth in the hallways of the courthouse railing against his former fixer turned state’s witness.

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So what’s a judge to do when faced with a defendant who also happens to be the presumptive GOP nominee for president? If the judge imposes a fine, as prosecutors have urged him to do, will the defendant stop? And if not, then what? In court this week the prosecution argued that Trump appears to be “angling” for incarceration — presumably to gain martyrdom status with his political base.

None of this is normal. And the judges overseeing Trump’s cases right now appear to feel the weight of the unusual circumstances they find themselves in.

Judge Juan Merchan in New York and Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., have both remarked at various points that, for the purposes of their cases, Trump should be treated like any other defendant. But he’s not any other defendant. And if he wins his immunity argument in the Supreme Court, shielding him from prosecution, then he truly enjoys rare status.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, at oral argument Thursday in the election interference case, mused that everyone agrees “no man is above the law.” But the country’s legal system is being tested in an unprecedented way right now, and we’ll see if he’s correct.

Trump trial, Day 8: Longtime Trump assistant and bank executive each take the stand

By Adam Reiss, Gary Grumbach, Jillian Frankel and Dareh Gregorian

The prosecution moved onto its second witness in its case against Trump after former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker finished his testimony, which included attempts by defense attorneys to muddy his remarks about a joint scheme to benefit Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Pecker’s dramatic testimony was followed by two other witnesses, including Rhona Graff, Trump’s longtime assistant and gatekeeper, who said she was testifying pursuant to a subpoena.

Graff said she worked for the Trump Organization for 34 years and was responsible for maintaining Trump’s list of contacts and his calendar. People on the contacts list — which prosecutors have a copy of — included former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels, Graff acknowledged. Both women have alleged that they had sexual relations with Trump in 2006 and received money to keep quiet about their claims during his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump has denied their claims.

The listing for McDougal included multiple phone numbers and addresses. The contact information for Daniels just said “Stormy” and included a cellphone number, Graff confirmed after their listings were shown in court.

Asked by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger if she’d ever seen Daniels in a reception area at Trump Tower, Graff said she had a “vague recollection” of that. Asked if she knew that Daniels was an adult film actress, Graff said, “Yes, I did.”

The final witness on Friday was Gary Farro, a bank executive who helped former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen set up the shell company he used to pay Daniels. Prosecutors are using his testimony to authenticate documents related to the transaction. His testimony will continue when the trial resumes on Tuesday morning.

Read a full recap of Day 8 of the Trump trial here →

Mitch McConnell’s next big fight

By Kristen Welker

Mitch McConnell has waged plenty of political battles in his decades as a senator — on campaign finance, against Barack Obama’s judicial picks, and, most recently, in support of aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

But the Kentucky Republican, who is stepping down as Senate GOP leader at the end of the year, sees an even bigger fight ahead for himself: the battle against isolationism inside his own party.

He teased it in this exchange with me for an interview that will air on “Meet the Press” this Sunday, when discussing his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after Congress approved more aid.

McConnell: Well, he was grateful, because he knew that the big challenge was in my party. And I think he — it was nice of him to mention that we had a bigger vote than we did a couple months ago. I think there’s a growing feeling in the Republican conference in the Senate that the isolationist path is not a good idea.

And McConnell went into more detail later in the interview, telling me that, after he steps down as leader, he plans to spend his time fighting back against isolationism within the GOP.

The challenge for McConnell: The Republican nominee for president has espoused an “America First” foreign policy, which many GOP lawmakers have embraced.

Case in point: More House Republicans voted against additional aid to Ukraine than voted for it. And these are relatively newer members of Congress — of the 112 House Republicans who voted against Ukraine aid, more than 70 were elected after 2016. And in the Senate, 10 of the 15 Republicans who opposed the aid package were elected after 2016.

McConnell could be fighting an uphill battle, with Republican critics of funding Ukraine, like Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, suggesting this is the last aid package that will pass Congress.

I asked McConnell about this and much more in our interview Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

That’s all from The Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at

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