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Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump speaks Feb. 20, 2024, during a Fox News town hall in Greenville, S.C., with moderator Laura Ingraham. (AP) Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump speaks Feb. 20, 2024, during a Fox News town hall in Greenville, S.C., with moderator Laura Ingraham. (AP)

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump speaks Feb. 20, 2024, during a Fox News town hall in Greenville, S.C., with moderator Laura Ingraham. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 22, 2024
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 22, 2024

Fact-check: Trump calls his fraud case ‘a form of Navalny.’ That distorts the cases.

If Your Time is short

  • A judge ordered former President Donald Trump to pay a fine after finding he committed fraud related to his real estate valuations.

  • In 2017, Alexei A. Navalny was barred from running for president after a Russian court convicted him of fraud, charges that were condemned by the European Union, European Parliament and Amnesty International.

  • Navalny was poisoned, led protests against an authoritarian regime and returned to his country knowing he was a target and landed in prison. He died Feb. 16 in an Arctic prison.

  • Our mission: Help you be an informed participant in democracy. Learn more.

Former President Donald Trump compared his civil fraud fine with the punishment of Russian opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny, who died Feb. 16 in a Russian prison.

In a Feb. 20 Fox News town hall, host Laura Ingraham asked how Trump will put up the money for the almost half-billion-dollar fine. 

"It is a form of Navalny, it is a form of communism or fascism," Trump replied.  

Earlier in the show, Trump also called Navalny’s death a "very sad situation" and described him as "brave." Then he pivoted to his legal cases, describing himself as a similar target of political persecution.

"It's a horrible thing. It's happening in our country, too," said Trump. "I'm the leading candidate. I never heard of being indicted before. I got indicted four times. I have eight or nine trials. All because of the fact that I’m — and you know, this all because of the fact that I'm in politics."

Trump made similar comments days earlier, on his Truth Social platform, comparing his legal woes with what happened to Navalny and likening President Joe Biden to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country," he said on Truth Social Feb. 19, describing "unfair courtroom decisions."  

A few other Republicans have made similar points, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Rep.Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., and conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza.

We considered not rating Trump’s statement comparing his civil case with Navalny’s situation; we recognize that in speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole

But after examining the foundation of Trump’s comparison between his legal troubles and the prosecution of a Putin dissident under an authoritarian regime, and after speaking to six experts in Russian history, politics and the U.S. legal system, we determined there were enough factual elements at play to rate his statement on the Truth-O-Meter.

We emailed Trump’s spokespeople to ask for his evidence and got no reply by our deadline.

The evidence comes down to this: Navalny led protests against an authoritarian regime and returned to his country knowing he was a target and landed in prison. Trump was found by a judge to have inflated his real estate assets and has the legal right to appeal.

"If Biden’s staff oversaw an effort to poison Trump on a campaign trip, and then when he recovered arranged for him to be sent to a prison camp in northern Alaska, and then when he died told (his wife) Melania she would be arrested if she tried to enter the U.S., his complaint might be more convincing," said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Navalny lacked due process protections afforded to Trump

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage Feb. 20, 2021, in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow. (AP)

Navalny, 47, was an attorney, an anti-corruption activist and a critic of Putin’s. In 2011, he led thousands of Russians in protesting falsified elections. In 2017, he was barred from running for president after a Russian court convicted him of fraud, charges that were condemned by the European Union, European Parliament and Amnesty International.

In 2020, while flying, Navalny became ill and was taken to Germany for treatment; the German government said he was poisoned by a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union. Months after he was poisoned, he flew back to Russia, where he was arrested and was sentenced to two years in prison after authorities said he repeatedly violated parole. Amnesty International designated him a "prisoner of conscience," stating "has not been imprisoned for any recognizable crime, but for demanding the right to equal participation in public life for himself and his supporters, and for demanding a government that is free from corruption."

In 2023, Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the charge of "extremism." Human Rights Watch called it "totally unfounded" and said that "the Russian authorities have abandoned any pretense of justice in dealing with dissenters."

On Feb. 16, Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service said Navalny died. The next day, a spokesperson for him confirmed his death. Observers believe Navalny died as a result of his incarceration although the specific reasons are not yet known.

Meanwhile, after a trial, Judge Arthur Engoron ruled Feb. 16 that Trump had inflated the value of many of his real estate assets to "make more money." One example: The judge found that Trump had claimed the Trump Tower penthouse was three times the size.

Trump and his companies and others involved in his business empire owe about $450 million including interest. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed the case.

Some differences between Trump’s civil case and the cases against Navalny, according to experts we interviewed: 

  • Trump has not been barred from political office and is running for the U.S. presidency, on track to win the Republican nomination. Navalny was barred from running. Several cases have been filed seeking to remove Trump from the ballot as a result of his actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump has had due process to fight those efforts, and the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Feb. 8.

  • Trump has not been poisoned or imprisoned, although he faces charges that carry potential prison time. His penalty in the civil case involves paying money and he is banned from serving as an officer or director of a New York corporation for three years.

    Featured Fact-check

  • Trump has been allowed access to a full legal defense team to challenge the judge’s motions, bring forward expert testimony and file an appeal.

  • The "extremism" charge on which Navalny was convicted doesn’t exist in the United States.  

  • Internationally, the U.S. justice system has checks and balances and has rules that require it operate independently from the executive branch. Putin has power and control over Russia’s justice system.

Navalny was not afforded the due process protections that Trump has had in the New York fraud case.

"Navalny was repeatedly poisoned and then imprisoned for exposing corruption," said Harley Balzer, an expert on Russian and Soviet social history at Georgetown University. "He had documents, interviews with insiders and photos to prove his allegations. He even had a tape of a conversation with one of the people who ordered one of the poisonings. None of the evidence used in the trials where Navalny was convicted was substantive."

Navalny in 2020 released the phone call he said he made to a security operative. The man in the recording said he was involved in cleaning up Navalny’s clothes "so that there wouldn’t be any traces."

Engoron found that Trump committed fraud. The four criminal cases against Trump remain pending trial: two pertain to election interference, while one relates to his possession of classified documents post-presidency and the other case alleges he paid off a porn star.

"He has remained a free man with the right to full access to counsel, the right to travel across the country and campaign for political office, and has remained protected by his Secret Service detail," said Erik Herron, a political scientist specializing in Russia at West Virginia University. 

"These are rights that were not extended to Navalny."

The United States has an independent judiciary to rule on the cases and a jury to ensure impartiality whereas Navalny was prosecuted in a country without the rule of law or independent courts, said Ric Simmons, Ohio State University law professor.

"Trump has also stated that the criminal cases against him are politically motivated — as the case against Navalny was — but given the procedural protections in this country (which do not exist in Russia), political prosecutions are very rare," Simmons said. "There will be no way of convicting Trump of any of these crimes unless the prosecutors can prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt using admissible evidence that is found to be credible by an impartial jury, regardless of the political motivations of any of the prosecutors."

University of Chicago political science professor Scott Gehlbach said that given the conditions under which Navalny died, lacking due process and enduring isolation and torture for what he called "trumped-up charges," Trump’s citation of his civil fraud case "is an insult to Alexei Navalny, to his family, and to the millions of Russians who mourn his passing." 

Putin has used the courts to target his critics and arrest political dissidents. Authorities have introduced restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Torture of prisoners is common. In 2022, Navalny was placed in a punishment cell multiple times in degrading conditions for "violations" of prison rules, such as "wearing the wrong clothes," according to Amnesty International.

"In a communist or fascist regime the top political leadership tells the judge what verdict it wants," Sestanovich said.

In the U.S. system, the judges are independent and the proceedings are public, Balzer said.

Kathryn Hendley, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Wall Street Journal of Russia’s system "when they really care about something they have no trouble using the law as a blunt instrument," she said, forbidding criticism of the war or public gatherings. "The Russian criminal justice system is incredibly sticky — once you are in, it's very, very hard to get out."

Even if Trump’s fraud fine stands, or if he is convicted in any of the criminal cases, his case bears no legal similarities to Navalny’s.

"Trump may end up poorer, or subjected to probation or a short prison sentence — but he won’t be sent to the Arctic and killed," said Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas law professor.

Our ruling

Trump said the fine in his New York fraud case "is a form of Navalny, it is a form of communism or fascism."

Although Trump is embroiled in numerous legal battles, his civil case involved a fine, not imprisonment, not poisoning, not subjugation to a legal system dominated by an authoritarian regime.

Trump is free to express outrage about the fine and a New York judge’s ruling against him. He is free to speak against the government. He is free to hire lawyers. He is free to appeal his cases. He is free to travel the country while he campaigns for president.

Navalny was blocked from running for public office. He was poisoned by a chemical weapon that the German government said was developed by the Soviet Union. He was convicted in Russia and sentenced to prison largely on the charge of "extremism" which does not exist in the United States. Numerous human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the cases against Navalny were unjust and that Russia was crushing dissent. Navalny died in prison under conditions that have not been fully explained.

Trump has been given due process in the fraud case and has the legal right to appeal. The federal government has not tried to kill Trump, who is running for president of the United States.

We rate this statement Pants on Fire!

RELATED: Fact-check: Trump’s baseless claim that Biden directed the New York civil fraud investigation

RELATED: Lie of the Year 2022: Putin’s lies to wage war and conceal horror in Ukraine

PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this fact-check.

Our Sources

The Ingraham Angle on Fox News, Transcript of interview with former President Donald Trump, Feb. 20, 2024

White House, On-the-Record Press Gaggle by White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby, Feb. 20, 2024

New York Times, Who was Aleksei Navalny? Feb. 16, 2024

Truth Social, Donald Trump post, Feb. 18, 2024

Truth Social, Donald Trump post, Feb. 19, 2024

Truth Social, Donald Trump post, Feb. 19, 2024

AP, Donald Trump again compares his criminal indictments to imprisonment and death of Putin’s top rival

CNN, Trump co-opts Navalny’s legacy as a smokescreen for his own legal morass, Feb. 21, 2024

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, X, Feb. 16, 2024 

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, X post, Feb. 16, 2024

Dinesh D’Souza, X post, Feb. 16, 2024

CBS, Trump's claim of political prosecution is not a legal defense, Aug. 3, 2023

Politico, Trump goes on offensive after indictment, pledging to investigate Biden, June 13, 2023

CBS, Trump suggests he or another Republican president could use Justice Department to indict opponents, Nov. 10, 2023

Amnesty International, Russia, 2022

Amnesty International, Russia: Prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny, Kremlin’s most vocal opponent, dies in custody, Feb. 16, 2024

Amnesty International, Russian authorities lock up opposition leaders for organising a peaceful rally, 2017

Human Rights Foundation, Show Trials and Political Persecution: Judiciary in Putin’s Russia, Aug. 11, 2023

AP, Protests, poisoning and prison: The life and death of Alexei Navalny, Feb. 16, 2024

Wall Street Journal, How Russia Has Used Its Legal System as a Political Weapon, 2023

European Parliament, European Parliament resolution of 6 April 2017 on Russia, the arrest of Alexei Navalny and other protestors,  April 6, 2017

Human Rights Watch, Russia: Grim New Sentence for Alexey Navalny, Aug. 4, 2023

Politico, Trump: Putin’s compliments are a ‘great honor’ Dec. 17, 2015

CNN, The 40 wildest lines from Donald Trump’s interview with Clay Travis, Feb. 23, 2022

The Hill, GOP senators push back hard on Trump’s praise of Putin, March 1, 2022

PolitiFact, Ahead of face-to-face meeting, Biden and Putin remain far apart on the facts, June 14, 2021 

PolitiFact, U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on removing Donald Trump from ballot. Here’s what to know. Feb. 8, 2024

Email interview, Harley Balzer, emeritus professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and former director of the University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Feb. 21, 2024

Email interview, Stephen R. Sestanovich, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, Feb. 21, 2024

Email interview, Scott Gehlbach, professor in the department of Political Science and Harris School of Public Policy, Director, PhD Program in Political Economy at the University of Chicago, Feb. 21, 2024

Email interview with Ric Simmons, Ohio State University law professor, Feb. 21, 2024

Email interview with Erik S. Herron, political scientist specializing in Russia at West Virginia University, Feb. 21, 2024

Email interview with Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas law professor, Feb. 21, 2024

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