There’s One Big Obstacle to Convicting Trump: South Florida

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The decision to prosecute Donald Trump in South Florida appears to be centered around keeping the case airtight and avoiding a potential retrial—but it’s also one that could cost the Department of Justice a conviction at all.

For starters, the court district’s supposedly “random” assignment wheel placed the case in front of Judge Aileen M. Cannon, a Trump appointee who previously tried to derail this very investigation.

And at the tail end, prosecutors will inevitably face a stark reality when seeking 12 impartial judges at a trial: Florida’s increasingly right-wing politics. Florida’s embrace of MAGA politics—as well as its acceptance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new brand of far-right authoritarianism—could be a real problem for prosecutors trying to get an unanimous guilty verdict.

The traditional view of Florida as a so-called “purple” toss-up state is now a distant memory, as best evidenced by the scathing letter Miami’s former major wrote when stepping down as the state’s Democratic party leader last year, after Republicans completely eviscerated their opponents in the polls. The moderate battleground politics of Florida have been replaced by deep-red passion.

Damning Indictment Shows Trump Knew—and Hid Docs in a Shower

In court—where the Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith will try to prove that Trump illegally kept classified documents and engaged in a coverup—that means politics will be impossible to avoid, an especially daunting task in a forum where a single Trump-loyal juror can cause a mystery.

“Maybe there are better places in the country that former President Trump loves more, but there can’t be many,” said Roland Sanchez-Medina, one of the state’s top lawyers and past president of the Cuban American Bar Association. “The adoration in South Florida, and in particular Miami-Dade County, is something unique—something I’ve never witnessed with any other president. The adoration is, as the younger generation would say, extra.”

“Browward and Dade [counties] used to be the bastion of Democrats, but that has changed profoundly,” Sanchez-Medina continued. “If his supporters see him shoot somebody here, they’ll still support him. The evidence better be solid. If it is purely circumstantial, it will be very difficult to expect a jury not to go in favor of Trump.”

Americans who live far from the Sunshine State often have a misunderstanding of the Spanish-speaking community there, with some expectations that South Florida will somehow abide by traditional notions of the “liberal Hispanic vote.” But that bears little semblance to the reality there, where politics keep shifting rightward. The growing and entrenched Cuban-American community that now stretches more than 200 miles from Key West to West Palm Beach has always been Republican-aligned—especially given its origins as a class of communist-fleeing political refugees. But Trump’s fever dreams about encroaching socialism have hit a nerve, allowing him to sweep that demographic—and reach nearly 50 percent of the 2020 vote in what was once a solidly blue southeast corner of the state.

In an alarming turn, the Proud Boys—the violent MAGA thugs who played a central role in the attack on the US Capitol after Trump infamously told them to “stand back and standby”—have infiltrated the Miami-Dade Republican Party, according to The New York Times.

Smith and his team of prosecutors likely have a year to prepare for a trial where they aim to convince a dozen jurors that Trump abused his oath to protect the nation he once led—spilling state secrets to appease his own ego, and lying about having classified records to save his own skin. As it currently stands, it’ll be up to a panel of South Floridians to decide whether Trump committed any of the 37 crimes listed in the indictment unsealed on Friday.

But there’s a lingering question to the Trump case: Why Florida?

Although Trump hoarded the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach County, he initially took them from the White House in the nation’s capital. In a case with a potential crime spanning court jurisdictions, prosecutors often choose to launch a case in the district closest to its capable law enforcement resources—or where judges are well-versed in the material.

In a case involving Top Secret records and other national secrets, the natural home might seem like the seat of the nation’s government in Washington, DC, which is indeed where Smith initially empaneled a grand jury to subpoena Trump for documents. But legal scholars, like those at Just Security, have recently speculated that one reason Smith chose to file the case in Florida was because of a pending Supreme Court case that could take a much more stringent view about how prosecutors decide where to file a case. The cost of getting that element wrong could make the case disappear in a puff of smoke and prevent the feds from giving it a second shot.

Former state prosecutors in South Florida told The Daily Beast that the feds have their work cut out for them in this historic case, because they also face an uphill cultural battle: locals have a deep-seeded distrust of the government and a shockingly complacent tolerance of public corruption—a toxic mix that could put Trump on the path to victory.

The Incredible Mystery of How Trump Got Judge Cannon in the Mar-a-Lago Case

Adriana Alcalde spent two years as a public corruption prosecutor in Broward County, where she learned just how tolerant South Floridians can be with misbehaving politicians like Trump—and how reluctant they can be to support law enforcement crackdowns.

“It’s going to be a very difficult case, because of where it is. There are a lot of trust issues with the government. And that’s what the defense is going to be: making this a political case,” Alcalde said.

A self-described Hialeah girl, referencing the one city in the region where local city meetings are regularly held in Spanish, Alcalde pointed out how his hometown’s longtime major was taken down on extortion and racketeering charges in the 1990s—but still managed to make a political comeback and return to office . Today, the city hall bears his name: the Raúl L. Martínez Government Center.

And it happens all the time. Just last week, Joe Carollo, a Miami city commissioner who was found liable in federal court for abusing his power to harass businesses in Little Havana and ordered to pay a whopping $63.5 million in damages, remained unapologetic when he returned to his day job and attended his first commission meeting since the trial.

“The culture down there is: As long as I’m doing OK and he was doing good for the city, he was a good mayor,” Alcalde said.

Given her experience with judges there, Alcade expects that the same logic will apply to Trump.

“They like to look at results. And they think Trump did a good job with the economy, and the lies he’s been spewing won’t matter. Some hardcore Trump people will think this is the government being the corrupt one, not him,” she said.

That tolerance for fraud is also seen in everyday life in South Florida, which has become a hub of low-level criminality over the decades. Although Miami is no longer the cocaine-infused murder capital of the country that it was in 1984, it is a place where shopping plazas hawk fake “Obamacare” services, hit-and-runs are the norm as few drivers care to carry auto insurance , and the suburban landscape was ground zero for the real estate crisis during the 2007 recession.

Sanchez-Medina chalks it up to a permissive culture that newcomers take with them from Latin America—something that takes generations to shake off.

“We were No. 1 in mortgage fraud, No. 1 in health-care fraud, and recently we had the trial with Joe Carollo. Corruption in our politicians just means it’s Wednesday,” he said. “A lot of us come from countries where it’s normal. In South Florida, we’re a little bit different. Political corruption just doesn’t shock the conscience the way it would in Maine or Vermont. Elsewhere, things would be outrageous.”

But the power in this case will ultimately rest with the judge overseeing the trial, which at this point appears to be a US District Judge Aileen Cannon. Trump-loyal to the point that legal scholars have begun to balk at her nonsense judicial orders, Cannon has already shown himself willing to write embarrassing opinions as long as they benefit the president who put her on the bench. When Trump challenged the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago last August, Cannon inserted himself in the matter to slow down the investigation by appointing a secondary judge in New York City to screen the DOJ’s review of documents—grinding the gears to a halt until an appellate court eventually forced her to eject herself from the case.

Is Bringing the Trump Documents Case in Florida a Mistake?

If Cannon leads over this criminal case to the very end, she will play an instrumental role in jury selection. Unlike state courts, where prosecutors and defense lawyers are intimately involved in a long and drawn-out process, federal courts give judges a lot more leeway and ultimate say in deciding who serves on the jury, according to Kathleen Bogenschutz, who spent years as a prosecutor there in Broward County.

“It’s significantly faster than state jury selection and less in-depth. You never really find out what you’d find out in a state jury selection,” Bogenschutz said.

And that makes it all the more likely that one of Trump’s many MAGA acolytes in his friendly home turf ends up deciding whether their beloved president is committed a crime.

“I often joke with people that everything you’ve heard about Florida is true,” Bogenschutz said. “Florida is America’s Australia: a large criminal population and most things can kill you.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast’s biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast’s unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.