After Judge’s Rebuke, Rick Perry Digs In

Conservatives took to social media after yesterday's ruling to express support for the governor.
Conservatives took to social media after yesterday's ruling to express support for the governor.

Rick Perry, of course, is no longer governor, so the get-together he and his legal team arranged today took place not in his old official digs, but in a meeting room at the Omni Hotel in Austin. The raised speaking platform his team had assembled for the press conference put Perry’s head close to the Lone Star Room’s drab ceiling. American and Texan flags had been placed to the side of the podium, to give the ex-governor an official kind of flair, for the benefit of the national press corps that will elevate Perry—or not—to the rank of Presidential Contender as the year goes on. There were, truth be told, not that many of them in the seats.

Yesterday, Perry lost an early bid to get the felony indictments against him tossed by Judge Bert Richardson, a Republican, who is presiding over the case. The indictments were roundly dismissed by national observers when they dropped, but now seem likely to stick around for quite a while. It was widely perceived as a setback for his legal team—but Perry and his lawyers David Botford and Tony Buzbee sounded upbeat.

“Yesterday’s ruling didn’t change the fundamental argument that I’ve made from day one,” Perry said, “that a governor has a constitutional right to exercise line-item veto authority in Texas.”

He was the victim of persecution. “Under our constitution everyone has the right to speak their mind freely, without political interference or legal prosecution,” Perry said. Special prosecutor Michael McCrum’s case “directly assaults the United States Constitution.”

The indictments, in case you’ve lost track, relate to Perry’s bid to dethrone a local elected official, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who had publicly disgraced herself during a drunk driving episode.

The key thing: Lehmberg had control over a major state ethics watchdog, the Public Integrity Unit. Perry alternately cajoled Lehmberg, offering to let her take another job instead, and threatened her office. Perry ultimately cut state funding for the PIU, which interrupted corruption investigations into state government misdealings.

The judge seemed to treat McCrum’s arguments fairly skeptically, but nonetheless held that the case needed to proceed, at least for now. But Perry’s lawyers can appeal, which means that an actual trial might not start until next year. And it’s an important year for Perry—he’s hoping against hope that with Oopsghazi in his rear-view mirror, he can prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong.

Tony Buzbee,  a member of Perry's legal team, reads a statement.
Tony Buzbee, a member of Perry’s legal team, reads a statement.

So, the next months will bring a lot of bluster and bluff from his legal team. The louder they are in attempting to discredit their enemy, McCrum, the better the headlines are for their client, and the more Republicans will rally to his cause.

Perry spoke for just two minutes, and his lawyers spoke for just a few minutes more. They would move swiftly, they said. They would be dropping daisy cutters on McCrumb. “Understand: We’re not going to let any grass grow under our feet,” said Buzbee, causing Perry and Botford to smile at each other and bob their heads. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Fortunately for Perry, the national press has never been that interested in Perry’s case or his history of shady dealings in state government, and they seem unlikely to get more interested now even though the case looks a little more durable now than it did last week.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did that thing with the bridge, the most consequential thing to come of it was that the national media starting paying attention to other skeletons in Christie’s closet. But that hasn’t happened here—national reporters on the 2016 beat aren’t overly curious about Perry’s past, and the context of the PIU veto.

Maybe that’s because the presidential race is still young, and maybe it’s partly because reporters don’t want to waste time on a guy they figure won’t last through the South Carolina primary. Maybe it’s because the flight time from Washington, D.C. and New York City to Austin is so long.

At any rate, coverage of Perry confirms that most #2016 stories tell us extremely little about the quality and character of the emerging presidential candidates, and instead centers mostly on how they choose to position themselves, and their brief interactions with each other, which can be fascinating in its own way, but is more or less all noise. All of us in the media do it, partly because it’s easy.

Today’s press conference was an exercise in messaging. One reporter asked Perry: “Will this affect your run for the White House?”

Perry took the mic and answered energetically, without denying the premise. “No, we’re gonna continue on. As a matter of fact, we’re just back from South Carolina. Where we had great crowds and great enthusiasm. We spent two days in Iowa, again, an opportunity to talk to people. What I hear overwhelmingly from folks out there is great support for standing up for the Constitution. Americans are looking for a leader who’s not afraid to stand up. Not be intimidated.”

In other words, Perry wants to be both persecuted and a champion. Perry will stand up to Putin, and he’ll stand up to McCrum. Can he spin this into a winning narrative? Last night, the GOP’s leading lights, including many of his future presidential campaign rivals like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Rand Paul, lined up behind the ex-guv on social media: They told the world they’d #StandWithRick.

It might have warmed the governor’s heart, but he should be careful. Yesterday’s ruling means Perry’s case might go on for quite a while: That expression of solidarity, from Paul to Cruz to Walker, already has an edge of pity.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 4:17 pm CST