WASHINGTON (AP) — Each time Donald Trump refers to a Georgia prosecutor ‘s colleague as her “lover,” he’s invoking a strikingly familiar turn of phrase.
After all, Trump as president repeatedly used the same word to mock two FBI officials, including an agent who helped lead the Russia election interference probe, after revelations that the pair had an extramarital relationship and had traded pejorative text messages about him.
Throughout years of scrutiny from prosecutors, culminating in 91 felony counts, Trump has repeatedly sought to deflect attention from himself by making the personal lives of investigators ripe for derision and ridicule. He’s jumped on allegations of affairs and leveled claims of bias against agents, prosecutors and judges. He’s also been quick to exploit the sometimes questionable decision-making, or occasional outright protocol breaches, by officials investigating him as a means to try to discredit entire inquiries.
The strategy underscores the extent to which Trump views his four criminal cases as battles to be won not just in a courtroom but in the court of public opinion, where attacks on officials — both for groundless reasons but also for actual judgment lapses and unforced errors — are capable of shaping perception of investigations and distracting from the underlying allegations of the probes.
“Prosecutors in the law enforcement apparatus generally are not built to respond to those types of attacks. The Department of Justice policy is: we do not try cases in the public domain. We don’t respond to every single thing that a defendant says,” said Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor who led the corruption case against ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
He added: “The entire conceptual framework that Trump has moved to is not one that DOJ or frankly state-level prosecutors, for the most part, are used to playing in.”
Trump has most recently seized on revelations of a romantic relationship between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and an outside lawyer, Nathan Wade, she hired to help manage the case.
Willis acknowledged the relationship in a court filing Friday but said there was no basis to dismiss the case or to remove her from the prosecution charging Trump and 18 others with plotting to subvert Georgia’s 2020 election. On Sunday, responding to the filing, Trump posted on Truth Social about Willis and her “lover” and alleged that they had “perpetrated a conspiracy” to enrich themselves and cheat and interfere in the 2024 race.
“This case is a Hoax, just like Russia, Russia, Russia (and all of the rest!), and everybody in America knows it,” he wrote.
Claims of an inappropriate relationship were first raised last month by a lawyer for a Trump co-defendant who said it created a conflict of interest. Even before Friday’s filing, Trump sensed an avenue to attack. “The Lovers knew that I did nothing wrong,” he wrote in a Jan. 19 post, adding that “the Lovebirds should face appropriate consequences.”
As president, Trump similarly exploited news that Peter Strzok, a lead agent in the investigation into whether the 2016 Trump campaign had coordinated with Russia, and FBI lawyer Lisa Page had sent each other negative text messages about Trump during the Russia probe and had an extramarital relationship.
One such text, referring to the prospect of a Trump victory, said: “We’ll stop it.” (Strzok, who was fired over the texts, later said he was referring to the will of the American voters and not to any step the FBI would take to interfere in the election).
The Justice Department inspector general called the texts troubling but also found no evidence that any investigative decisions were motivated by partisan bias. That didn’t stop Trump from accusing Strzok and Page of “treason,” or many of his supporters from agreeing with Trump that the entire investigation had been a “witch hunt.”
“Trump has shown the ability to affect public opinion in a way that may not get him out of the legal trouble he’s facing — it’s still going to be up to judges and juries — but it certainly seems to be enhancing his political viability, as unbelievable as that is,” said Greg Brower, a former assistant FBI director in the congressional affairs office.
Strzok has said he was the subject of more than 100 Trump tweets, telling The Associated Press in 2020 that “being subjected to outrageous attacks up to and including by the president himself, which are full of lies and mischaracterizations and just crude and cruel, is horrible.”
Other figures in the Russia probe provoked Trump’s ire, including Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy who compiled a dossier of salacious and unproven rumors about Trump. He also fumed at the FBI, which among other things was faulted for submitting flawed applications to surveil an ex-Trump aide.
In 2017, days after being fired by Trump as director of the FBI, James Comey sent a friend a memo documenting a private Oval Office conversation he’d had with the president that unnerved him. The goal, Comey later admitted, was to have the content shared with the media so that Trump’s actions could be exposed and because he thought it might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.
The Comey memo revealed that Trump had asked him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The act laid bare Trump’s determination to exert his will on the FBI and became part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s broader investigation into whether he had obstructed justice.
But to Trump and his supporters, the disclosure became an opening to attack Comey as a “leaker.” A Justice Department inspector general report concluded that Comey had violated FBI policy but said that, contrary to Trump’s claims, he had not illegally disclosed classified material.
Mueller himself had his personal life picked over, with Trump seeking his termination over perceived conflicts — Mueller years earlier had sought a membership refund from a Trump golf club in Virginia — that aides told the president were frivolous.
Former Justice Department prosecutor Christopher Mattei, who prosecuted former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland and more recently represented families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in a lawsuit against Infowars host Alex Jones, said he was concerned Trump “had poisoned a significant part of the population” to believe public officials routinely act out of personal bias.
“To the extent he’s been successful in suggesting to people that our public officials and leadership who have taken an oath to perform their duty really aren’t doing that — yeah, that’s concerning,” he said.
Eric Tucker, The Associated Press