The indictment of Donald J. Trump has been part of the ongoing national public imagination since the earliest days of the real estate mogul’s candidacy in 2015. And yet, now that it’s here, the territory seems somehow peculiarly dangerous, not least because of the scandalous abnegation of moral leadership from the House GOP.
Trump has been leaving hostages to fortune in his wake for decades: dubious business deals, documented links with unsavory mobsters, allegations of money laundering, refusing to pay workers he has contracted with, and so on and so on. As president, he was twice impeached. Post-presidency, he has been under continuous investigation for everything from hush money payments to Stormy Daniels to efforts to sabotage the 2020 election results, all the way up to the insurrection on January 6, 2021.
For the ex-president’s opponents, he is, quite simply, a walking legal malignancy — albeit one with a stunning ability to dodge legal bullets that would take most others down. For Trump’s supporters, in contrast, he is the victim of a meta-conspiracy, an innocent hounded across the years by political and legal opponents who still can’t wrap their head around the fact that tens of millions of Americans worship the man.
That Trump’s supporters are primed to jump to his defense and to denigrate any district attorney who would dare to prosecute him as being a radical and a Trump-hater, and a tool of the evergreen bugbear of the right, George Soros — even without knowing precisely what he is under indictment for, or what the evidence that led to the indictment consists of — is a given. That die-hard MAGA trolls would promise to wreak havoc and vengeance on behalf of their hero is about as surprising as the fact that Trump would take to Truth Social to proclaim that he is the most persecuted American politician in history, or that he would predict “death and destruction” were he to be indicted.
Yet, the extraordinary wagon-circling operation of the House GOP, from Speaker Kevin McCarthy on down — as well as would-be presidential contenders looking to shore up their support with the GOP base — is indicative of just how damaged both the GOP and the nation’s body-politic is in this strange post-but-not-post-Trump era.
For weeks now, House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Jordan has been demanding investigations into District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and into whether any federal dollars were spent by his office during the investigation into Trump’s actions around the payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels. It is an unprecedented congressional intervention into a state legal process.
Now, with the announcement that Trump is being indicted, Speaker McCarthy has also promised to hold Bragg to account for his “unprecedented abuse of power.”
Ted Cruz has jumped into the fray, calling the indictment a “weaponization of the justice system.”
Mike Pence — yes, the same Mike Pence whom Trump set a mob onto on January 6 — called the indictment a “political prosecution.”
And Ron DeSantis — the same DeSantis who is supposedly the leading rival to Trump’s presidential candidacy, and who has been subjected to relentless attacks from the former president since November — went so far as to say that Florida wouldn’t cooperate with a request from New York to extradite Trump if the ex-president decided not to surrender himself to face charges. Not only was that flagrantly unconstitutional, it also risked pitting one state against another, evoking nightmarish fears of civil war. Of course, such fears never came to pass: Trump reportedly “flew out of West Palm Beach on his jet emblazoned with his last name around 12:45 p.m. Eastern” today, headed to New York for his April 4 arraignment.
What makes this political theater — for that is what it is — so shameless is that none of these Republicans have seen the indictment. As of now, they have no idea of the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s arguments; they have no idea what witnesses told the grand jury; they have no idea what sort of paper trail Bragg’s office has. Their assertion that it is a political prosecution is absurdly illogical. Their logic breaks down to something like this: a) Trump is a successful GOP politician whom Democrats don’t like; b) Bragg is a DA who leans liberal; c) ergo any decision by Bragg to prosecute Trump must be political rather than a matter of sound jurisprudence; d) unless Trump is exonerated, the system will have shown itself to be controlled by the Deep State and “Soros-backed” elites.
Such a hermetically sealed argument allows for no circumstance in which it would be legitimate to prosecute Trump, and hence would be a realization of Trump’s oft-repeated argument that presidents (and now ex-presidents) are above the law.
Such arguments set the U.S. on a dangerous trajectory, and not just because they essentially promote presidents to absolute monarchs. It’s also dangerous for another reason: once a major party locks itself into the argument that it’s impossible for there to be a legitimate prosecution of an ex-president from their own ranks, then what Bragg has done is, by definition, illegitimate, and must be answered for in kind. The GOP is now saying that the Trump prosecution is dangerous because it sets a precedent for the routine prosecution of political opponents, including ex-presidents, by DAs who oppose their political ideology. But that’s entirely disingenuous. What it’s really saying, if you read between the lines is, “you better watch out, because, no matter the unique rationale for indicting Trump, to appease our base we’re going to come for Democratic leaders in short order.”
Already, last week, the New York Post was quoting sources saying conservatives would now seek out DAs to empanel grand juries with the object of prosecuting Biden, Pelosi, Schumer and others. In other words: cherry pick a DA and then go searching for a crime after-the-fact.
As with so many other issues in the Trump era, the GOP is projecting onto Bragg what it appears that they themselves are readying to do: inaugurating an era of endless political prosecutions, and in so doing further corroding the democracy that Trump has so effectively trashed these past eight years.
This prospect is entirely in keeping with Trumpism’s modus operandi. After all, the man who now claims he is being uniquely and unfairly persecuted is the same man who in the spring of 2016 began calling for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned, presided over rallies in which tens of thousands chanted for Hillary Clinton to be executed, and who in subsequent years used his presidential and post-presidential podium to call for James Comey to be hauled before the courts, for Adam Schiff to be prosecuted for treason, and, more recently, for some Clinton aides to be executed. It’s the same man who called for the summary execution of terrorists and of their families. It’s the same man who took out full page newspaper ads calling for the Central Park Five — teenagers falsely arrested for the group rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989 — to be executed, and then stood by his claims that they were guilty, even after a court voided their convictions and acquitted them.
Trump has spent years trashing the independence of the judicial system and trying to fast-track punishments for his real and perceived enemies. Now, however, that he’s in the dock, he and his supporters are far too quick to cry foul.
Let’s be absolutely clear here: a grand jury examined the evidence and heard from the witnesses that Bragg’s team presented to them, and after months of deliberations concluded there was indeed a “there” there. They looked at that evidence — which the GOP Trump-defenders, no matter their shrill denunciations of the process, have not yet seen — and concluded it merited indicting Trump. Come April 4, when Trump is formally arraigned and the indictment is unsealed, the whole world will know far more about the events that led to this prosecution. Until then, the GOP would do well to tone down the rhetoric and consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, their man isn’t quite as clean as they are pretending he is.
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