Former President Donald Trump is widely expected to be indicted at the behest of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in the matter of an alleged hush payment of $130,000 to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels. Bragg contends that the payment was a violation of campaign finance laws. Speculation has been rampant regarding the timing, the form the arrest might take, and even if an arrest is going to happen. Multiple sources assert that a further witness will be appearing before the grand jury today, Wednesday, March 22, that could impact Bragg’s ultimate decision. As Donald Rumsfeld – defense secretary under presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush – reminds us, there are “unknown unknowns,” many things that “we do not know we don’t know.” And yet Game Theory might provide a few subtle clues.
Credited with developing the basic principles of Game Theory, Hungarian-American polymath John von Neumann promoted the ideas behind zero-sum games and the Minimax Theorem. Von Neumann’s concepts allow us to figure out the probability of a strategy based on the benefits and motivations of the protagonists: essentially, discerning what Bragg’s best moves are when considering his goals.
The Trump Arrest Possibilities
There are a number of possibilities:
- Trump is arrested and released on his own recognizance.
- Trump is arrested and held for a preliminary hearing.
- Trump is not arrested.
Which option eventually occurs depends on several outside factors, and there are other possibilities; however, they would most likely result from protracted negotiations between the two main parties. So how do we apply game theory to the Trump arrest scenarios? First, it’s important to understand a couple of terms:
Zero-Sum Game: A two-person contest where one player’s gain is the equivalent of the opponent’s loss. Technically, in this encounter, it is only Bragg playing, but his win would come directly from a negative impact on Trump.
Minimax Theorem: Known as the Minimax Regret Principle, it specifically applies to a single player (in this case, the Manhattan DA). In this, the player should be trying to achieve the best outcome and minimize the “regret” factor.
So how to parse the three primary possibilities?
Trump Is Not Arrested
In the non-arrest scenario – essentially a no-charge situation – Bragg has no net gain. The media circus has already hit town, and expectations on the left are high. If this attempted prosecution is – as many suspect – a launchpad to a more significant office, no Trump arrest could expose the DA to accusations of ineffectiveness and of promising something he cannot deliver. This situation is made worse by his unwillingness to prosecute so many other crimes in his district.
Anti-Trump New Yorkers may forgive Bragg for not cleaning up the streets of violent crime if he were to bring down Trump, but without the perp walk, what can he demonstrate that he has done for the Big Apple residents? This path will almost certainly have a major “regret” factor for Bragg, so it remains highly unlikely.
Arrested and Released
Should Trump be arrested and then released on his own recognizance, Bragg could claim to be following procedure without extreme vindictiveness. Trump would likely have to report to the DA’s office and go through booking, have his mugshot taken, and provide a DNA sample. For Bragg, the arrest would be a personal political and career boon, especially if a coincidentally well-placed photographer happens to get a shot of the former president in handcuffs. However, if Bragg facilitates Trump’s arrest process and doesn’t try to delay his release the DA can claim to have fulfilled his promise of arrest without bolstering Trump’s claims of political persecution. If the man himself is not behind bars, protests demanding his release would prove a damp squib.
This tactic has a high benefit return for Bragg and a relatively low risk of “regret.” Whatever the final outcome of the case against Trump, the DA will have made his national name.
Arrested and Held – An Extreme Longshot
If Trump is arrested and kept in custody, this could potentially set off a series of events that would be huge in terms of “regret” for Bragg, if such an outcome were even possible. The problem is that such a move will be seen as purely political in nature.
Federal prosecutors in the US attorneys’ office for the Southern District of New York decided against charging Trump on this very issue back in 2019, despite former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen implicating the then-president directly as part of his plea agreement. Two years later, in 2021, the Federal Election Commission also jettisoned its case – as did the former occupant of Mr. Bragg’s very own office, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., a prominent Democrat who would likely have relished the prospect of prosecuting Mr. Trump personally.
When Hillary Clinton faced a similar charge for funding the notorious Steele Dossier as an election expense, she was not arrested. In fact, the whole matter was settled with a fine. In terms of optics, for Trump to be held behind bars while others – for greater crimes with significantly more evidence of guilt – have gone free would appear to justify the former president’s rhetoric about “witch hunts.” Absent a smoking gun of irrefutable proof, this is a super high-risk strategy that has enormous opportunity for “regret” on the part of the DA.
It’s All a Show
As Shakespeare’s Jaques observes in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” This is true for both Bragg and Trump, but if the Manhattan DA feels he is ready to take on the 45th president, he should remember that The Donald is a proven master of gamesmanship. Bragg plays this match at his own peril.
All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Liberty Nation.
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