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Sen. Collins takes heat for echoing Trump’s claims of political prosecution

In World
June 09, 2024

Jun. 9—U.S. Sen. Susan Collins raised eyebrows and triggered a barrage of criticism last week when she echoed former President Donald Trump’s claim that he was the victim of political persecution after a jury found him guilty of 34 felony charges relating to hush money payments to a porn star.

Collins, a Republican who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, repeated Trump’s talking point that the New York City prosecutor who filed the charges campaigned for his job on “a promise” to prosecute Trump, even though that claim has been discredited by fact-checkers.

“It is fundamental to our American system of justice that the government prosecutes cases because of alleged criminal conduct regardless of who the defendant happens to be. In this case the opposite has happened,” she said in the statement. “The district attorney, who campaigned on a promise to prosecute Donald Trump, brought these charges precisely because of who the defendant was rather than because of any specified criminal conduct. The political underpinnings of this case further blur the lines between the judicial system and the electoral system, and this verdict likely will be the subject of a protracted appeals process.”

The response was widely criticized by Collins’ detractors and surprised political observers — and even some supporters and admirers — because it cast doubt on the independence of the country’s legal system, something Maine’s senior senator has been careful not to do in the past.

“I just felt one of the most dangerous things about (Trump) is his disrespect of the rule of law and relentless attacking of our justice system,” said Rollin Ives, a longtime supporter who served with Collins in Gov. John McKernan’s administration. “I felt that Susan’s response was actually consistent with that disrespect for the rule of law and the attacking of our justice system, and that, I think, is just hugely dangerous.”

Collins would not be interviewed last week to answer questions about her statement or Trump’s conviction and instead had a spokesperson respond to written questions, denying that Collins’ statement cast aspersions on the justice system.

Speaking to a group of reporters following an event Friday at the Maine Air National Guard headquarters in Bangor, Collins was asked about her statement for the first time publicly.

“I think my statement was crystal clear,” she said. “I did not in any way attack the jury. I’ve never done that. I have enormous respect for our judicial system, but the fact is, in this particular case, we had an elected prosecutor who chose to bring a novel case based on state laws where the statute of limitations has long since expired.” The statute of limitations, which had been extended in New York because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is expected to be raised as an issue in a Trump appeal.

Collins also repeated that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor, had boasted about investigating Trump numerous times before being elected DA and said he would hold Trump and his family accountable.

“That makes you question whether this particular case would have been brought against someone who’s name wasn’t Donald Trump,” she said. “To me, that weakens public confidence in our judiciary, and that’s the last thing we want to do.”

The senator further criticized “a certain newspaper in southern Maine” for trying to “distort what was said,” referring to a recent Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram editorial.

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Collins ended the press availability after that question, but shortly afterward approached a Press Herald reporter to scold him for asking the question at all, calling it “dirty.” She also continued to criticize the newspaper, again for the editorial and also for not covering the event that brought her to Bangor on Friday, a rare visit by the secretary of the U.S. Air Force.

Collins occupies a rare and at times delicate space in Republican politics. She is considered one of the last moderate members of her party in Congress, at least in comparison with most of her peers, and is the only remaining Republican member of Congress in New England.

She has been openly critical of Trump. She voted to convict him at his impeachment trial for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and she has said she does not support Trump’s reelection and won’t vote for him. But she has not been driven out of the party like other critics of the former president. And she has fallen in line with her party when her vote is needed, most notably in 2018 to cast a vote confirming Trump’s appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Collins’ previous criticisms have irked Republicans in Maine. After her impeachment vote, the party considered censuring Collins before ultimately deciding against it. In April, Collins was greeted with a smattering of boos and accusations of being a “traitor” at the party’s 2024 convention, which was dominated by Trump supporters.

All of which made it notable that Collins, who supported Nikki Haley’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination, would throw her support behind Trump’s attacks on the judicial system and his claims that Bragg campaigned on “a promise” to prosecute the former president.

“She’s certainly echoing the same BS argument that the Trump people make about the trial,” said Rick Wilson, a national Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, which aims to stop Trump’s MAGA, or Make America Great Again, movement. “It is an objectively false argument.”

In written responses to questions sent by email, Collins’ spokesperson Annie Clark denied that the senator criticized the judicial system.

“Sen. Collins never ‘cast aspersions’ on the judge, the jury, or the judicial system. She specifically criticized the decision of the DA — an elected politician — to bring these novel charges forward in this case,” Clark said. “Of course, our judicial system is strengthened when prosecutors apply the law evenly and are not motivated by political considerations.”

Like in Maine, district attorneys in New York and other states are elected officials, so the positions to some extent are inherently political, or at least easily criticized as being such.

Bragg never made a promise to prosecute Trump, according to fact-checkers at the Poynter Institute. During the 2021 campaign, Bragg talked about how he has not been afraid to prosecute Trump and his companies in the past, and that he would follow the evidence uncovered during the investigations, which began before he took office, to determine whether to prosecute.

When asked to provide evidence that Bragg campaigned on “a promise to prosecute” Trump, Clark pointed to statements consistent with the fact-checkers’ conclusions and did not identify any specific pledge to prosecute the former president.

One of Trump’s other three criminal cases — the election interference case in Georgia — is also being prosecuted by an elected district attorney, Fani Willis. When asked if Collins believes any of the other cases have “political underpinnings,” Clark said only that Collins has not commented on details of the other cases.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Maine’s Orono campus, said Collins’ response to the hush money case validates Trump’s central grievance: that he’s the victim of a political witch hunt led by a politically motivated district attorney.

“Here, she is throwing her weight behind one of the key Trump arguments: that this entire process was a sham,” Brewer said. “Although she doesn’t use the language, that’s essentially what she’s saying, and Trump supporters have been saying this all along.”

Collins’ initial reaction to the conviction reflects something of a shift for her.

Trump was indicted for the hush money payment back in April 2023. After he was indicted months later for allegedly interfering in the Georgia election, Collins was asked by local reporters in Brewer for her views on the increasing number of indictments targeting Trump. At that time, she did not describe the Manhattan case as being politically motivated.

In fact, she expressed confidence in the judicial system.

“Fortunately, this is something for our courts to decide,” Collins said last August. “We’re not going to be the prosecutors on the case. We’re not members of the jury. And we’re just going to have to see what happens, as these cases do come to trial, or get settled.”

James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, was also surprised by how far Collins went in her statement following the hush money verdict. Her criticism carries more weight than the words of Trump loyalists, he said, because of her relative independence and past criticisms of Trump and his actions.

Melcher expected that Collins would have defended the integrity of the court system.

“Usually, she’s very quick to talk about those moderating influences, and obviously, that’s something that didn’t appear,” Melcher said.

Collins seemed to go further than the few other Republican Trump critics in Congress, although they also expressed misgivings about the outcome. Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, who voted twice to convict Trump during his impeachment trials, focused his comments squarely on Bragg, saying he made a “political decision” to move forward with the trial rather than try to settle out of court. And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, who voted to convict Trump over Jan. 6, called the case a distraction from focusing on Biden’s record ahead of the 2024 election. Neither mentioned the judicial system.

Even a mild defense of the justice system can be perceived as a slight against Trump and can have devastating political consequences.

When Larry Hogan, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, urged people to “respect the verdict and the legal process,” he was swiftly condemned, with Trump adviser Chris LaCivita replying on the social platform X that “you just ended your campaign.”

Wilson, of the Lincoln Project, which opposed Collins’ 2020 reelection, said Maine’s senior senator seeks “self-preservation” in a party that is wholly devoted to Trump and to avoid any additional criticisms from Trump supporters, even if it means launching “profoundly corrosive and corrupt” attacks on the judicial system. But, he said, Collins will never be embraced by the movement because of her past criticisms.

“Like all Republicans who try to kiss Trump’s ass after they have rejected him once, they’re never getting back in the tent,” Wilson said. “That’s not how MAGA works. They always punish anyone who leaves the reservation. This keeps her off the most flaming-hot vitriol, but it doesn’t ever really give her anything beyond what she has now.”

Dozens of readers admonished Collins’ response in emails to the Press Herald, and a number of others wrote formal letters to the editor. Her responses seemed to deepen negative opinions already held by her opponents. A few readers said they could no longer support Collins.

S. John Watson, of Portland, is a lifelong Democrat who came to know Collins through his years of advocacy on long-term care issues. He was shocked by what he considered Collins’ hyperpartisan comments about the Trump verdict, saying Collins had always presented herself in meetings as a strong bipartisan advocate.

“I was just so shocked. I couldn’t believe it. It came across as a passionate contempt for the legal system,” said Watson, a retired chief financial officer for a nonprofit long-term care provider. “She jumped on the far right’s wacky bandwagon that popped up the minute that conviction was announced, which is understandable in this political environment, but I was not expecting that from her.”

Audrey and Joe Delafield, of Scarborough, said in a letter to the editor that they will no longer support Collins. They said “the evidence was abundantly clear” and that Bragg had a “duty to prosecute.”

“Sen. Collins seems no better than the other Republicans who are toadying up to Donald Trump,” they wrote. “We have thought that she was a fair and reasonable Republican (one of the very few, we might add) but we have been disabused of that hope. She has had our vote for years. No more.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this article.

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