How Trump defenders try to play down charges against his associates

Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone was indicted last week for lying to Congress, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Many of the charges brought so far by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III against those close to President Trump — including Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen — involve similar charges of lying to investigators or to Congress. Trump’s supporters have been quick to dismiss such charges as mere “process crimes.” As a former federal prosecutor, I can tell you prosecutors don’t use the term “process crimes.” They just call them “crimes” and take them very seriously, because these crimes threaten the very foundations of the justice system.

Dismissal of such charges as process crimes plays down their importance. It suggests the misconduct was not really serious or substantive but just some kind of rules violation. Such cases are frequently attacked as unfair or unjustified. Critics claim that prosecutors set “perjury traps” so they can trick otherwise innocent defendants into making a mistake and then charge them. Or they claim prosecutors were on a witch hunt and charged process crimes because they couldn’t prove anything else.

This tactic is not new. For example, during the George W. Bush administration, another special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, investigated the leak of the identity of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame. I’ll never forget seeing a Republican United States senator saying she hoped that if there were indictments they would be for real crimes and not for a “technicality” such as perjury.