Trump Turns to a Familiar Playbook in Effort to Undermine Documents Inquiry

As prosecutors entered what seemed to be the final stages of their investigation into former President Donald J. Trump’s handling of classified documents, Mr. Trump launched a pre-emptive strike against a possible indictment, posting a pair of messages on his social media platform early Thursday morning that sought to delegitimize the inquiry.

Mr. Trump accused a top federal prosecutor in the documents investigation of seeking to “bribe & intimidate” a lawyer representing one of the witnesses in the case. He claimed that the prosecutor had offered the lawyer an “important ‘judgeship’ in the Biden administration” if his client “‘flips’ on President Trump.”

The attacks by Mr. Trump on Truth Social were drawn from a playbook that he has used time and again to undermine inquiries into his conduct. His efforts to tar both investigations and investigators started well before he was president and continued throughout his term in office, perhaps most prominently during the inquiry into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian officials in 2016.

The posts from Mr. Trump on Thursday had their roots in an effort by his legal team to gather allegations about potential misconduct by prosecutors in the documents case.

Some weeks ago, as Mr. Trump’s aides and lawyers became increasingly worried that an indictment might be looming, they began assembling a list of complaints about alleged misconduct by prosecutors in the office of the special counsel Jack Smith, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The list of grievances was then placed in the draft of a letter written to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland intended to alert Mr. Garland to the lawyers’ concerns about how Mr. Smith’s team has handled the documents case, the people said.

An abbreviated version of the letter, which also requested a formal meeting with Mr. Garland, was sent to the Justice Department late last month. It resulted in a meeting this week between three of Mr. Trump’s lawyers and Mr. Smith and other prosecutors, not including the attorney general.

Mr. Trump’s accusations about the offer of a judgeship resembled an allegation that was discovered as his lawyers were collecting complaints about the prosecution team, the people familiar with the matter said.

They said that allegation was that during a meeting with a defense lawyer representing a potential witness against Mr. Trump, a top prosecutor in the documents case brought up — in an unusual and perhaps inappropriate manner — an application that the lawyer had submitted to become a municipal judge in Washington.

Mr. Trump’s legal team believed the prosecutor’s comment may have been a veiled threat designed to pressure the lawyer into getting his client to become a cooperating witness, the people said.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mr. Smith, declined to comment.

At a news conference on Thursday with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, President Biden was asked how he could convince the public that the Justice Department was fair in the wake of Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks. He responded, “I have never once, not one single time, suggested to the Justice Department what they should do or not do relative to bringing a charge or not bringing a charge.”

Throughout his life, Mr. Trump has treated every challenge to him like an ongoing negotiation. His impulse is to go directly to the person he considers the top official of an organization to lodge his complaints. That was the case when the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed in 2017; Mr. Trump’s advisers had to stop him from trying to reach out directly to Mr. Mueller to argue his case.

By broadcasting his complaints on social media rather than making them in court papers to a judge, Mr. Trump avoided the normal method of lodging accusations about prosecutorial misconduct — a method that, of course, also puts a burden of veracity and accuracy on the accuser.

Should an indictment be filed, he could choose to include his complaints in a motion to dismiss the case. In theory, he could also file a motion before any charges are filed using the complaints to attack the process of investigating him with the grand jury.

Since his days as a New York real estate developer decades ago, Mr. Trump has sought to undermine people examining his or his company’s behavior. His company was sued in 1973 by the Justice Department, alleging racially discriminatory housing practices. Mr. Trump’s lawyer, the brutal fixer Roy M. Cohn, claimed in court filings in a countersuit that the government had engaged in “Gestapo-like tactics” and called investigators “storm troopers.”

A few years later, Mr. Trump was investigated by the federal prosecutor in Brooklyn for a possible fraud charge connected to his acquisition of a parcel of land. Mr. Trump met with investigators without a lawyer present. The case was eventually dropped, but Mr. Trump went on to complain to people about what he went through.

Decades later, when Eric Schneiderman, then the New York attorney general, investigated Mr. Trump’s for-profit university, Trump University, Mr. Trump filed a complaint with state ethics officials claiming that Mr. Schneiderman had sought to raise money from him previously and claimed the investigation was retribution for not doing more to contribute.

Even before Mr. Trump was indicted in a Manhattan state court earlier this year over a hush-money payment to a porn star, he had already spent months denigrating the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, as a puppet of Mr. Trump’s political enemies. He repeatedly referred to Mr. Bragg, Manhattan’s first Black prosecutor, as “racist.” And he is currently seeking to have the judge in the case, acting Justice Juan M. Merchan, recused, claiming the judge has conflicts because a relative of his has worked with Democrats.

After Mr. Trump took office as president, he and his allies turned their ire several times on law enforcement officials involved in investigations that came close to him.

In 2018, for example, after federal agents searched the office of Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer at the time, for evidence of campaign finance violations, Rudolph W. Giuliani, another lawyer close to Mr. Trump, opened an attack against the F.B.I.

Mr. Giuliani declared the F.B.I.’s office in New York — with which he had once worked closely as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan — had behaved like “storm troopers” in conducting the raid, the same language Mr. Cohn had used years earlier.

But how Mr. Trump approaches the special counsel Jack Smith’s investigations is likely to track most closely with how he sought to combat the Mueller investigation.

Mr. Trump repeatedly attacked the F.B.I. and prosecutors working for Mr. Mueller, calling the Russia investigation a witch hunt. Mr. Trump and his allies tried to destroy the legitimacy of the inquiry by conflating problems that internal Justice Department investigators later uncovered and distorting facts used by John Durham, another special prosecutor who scrutinized the Russia investigation, in his own inquiry.

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