Donald J. Trump has always wanted to be the biggest and the best at whatever he does, to hold the record for the largest inauguration crowd ever (it wasn’t), to boast the best economic numbers in U.S. history (they weren’t), to be an “extremely stable genius” (in case there’s any doubt, he isn’t).
Now, however, like an athlete running a race in which all his fellow competitors have been lapped, Trump really is in a place of no competition. With yesterday’s stunning set of federal indictments on conspiracy charges against him for his role in the events leading up to January 6, the former president now faces nearly 80 federal and state felony charges. He is charged with conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to obstruct official proceedings and conspiring to deprive people of their fundamental rights — notably, their right to vote and to have their vote counted. That latter is, essentially, the same part of the federal code that has been used, over the years, to take down the Ku Klux Klan, a particularly apropos twist given that Trump’s own noxious father, Fred Trump, was known to have been a KKK supporter in New York back in the 1920s and that one of Trump’s most infamous moments as president was to declare the tiki-torch-carrying, race-baiting fascists who rampaged through Charlottesville in 2017 “very fine people.”
It’s probable that, within a few days, Trump will add to this tally, with several more charges likely to be brought against him in Fulton County, Georgia, based around his efforts to convince Georgia’s secretary of state, on an infamous post-election phone call, to “find” enough votes to let Trump claim victory in a state that he had lost. These charges will, like those special counsel Jack Smith brought yesterday, speak to the vast damage Trump has inflicted — and is continuing to inflict — on the country’s democratic nervous system, its ability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power and its populace’s confidence in the democratic process itself.
No other former U.S. president has faced any criminal charges — let alone dozens of charges, at both the federal and state levels — after leaving office. Trump is, single-handedly, statistically altering the average number of indictments that all the 44 preceding presidents, over the course of nearly two and a half centuries, have faced. Before Trump that average was, well, zero. That doesn’t mean that all the preceding presidents were ethically and legally clean; few, for example, would go to the mat to defend Warren Harding or Richard Nixon’s ethics; and certainly many other presidents, from both political parties, have signed off on legally dubious activities. But it’s a historical fact that none were ever charged with criminal offenses.
After Trump’s multiple indictments, the average number of felonies each president has been charged with suddenly jumped to nearly two per president. Once the likely Georgia indictments are added into the mix, that number might climb to nearer three. And that doesn’t even include the civil charges Trump was found liable for in the E. Jean Carroll case, or the guilty verdicts against the Trump business empire in New York. Like a black hole swallowing up its environs, Trump is vastly altering the composition of not just his immediate neighborhood but the entire history of the country. He is, single-handedly, creating a mean-average of criminality for the U.S.’s leaders across the centuries.
These latest indictments, fewer in number but deeper in their implications, are far more serious than the previous ones. Trump’s legal travails in New York revolve around hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and resulting campaign finance violations. They are serious allegations, but when the history books are written they’ll likely be largely seen as a footnote, a particularly sordid example of a politician tripping over his own penis. The federal charges in Florida, involving Trump’s retention of top secret national security documents and his bandying about these secrets, seemingly to impress his visitors, are, again, extremely serious — which is why he has been charged dozens of times under the Espionage Act. Yet they are largely about obscurely classified papers. Whether those papers remain in top secret archives or in private hands — or even in Trump’s bathroom — large numbers of people are likely to say that, in practice, it doesn’t entirely matter, that it’s something of a manufactured storm in a teacup.
The indictments brought yesterday by special counsel Jack Smith’s office in Washington, D.C. are different. They go to the very heart of Trump’s attacks on democracy and speak to the core of the Trump cult, which the vast majority of senior politicians within the GOP have bought into and defended these past several years. They paint a devastating portrait of a figure so self-absorbed, so obsessed with his own power, that he simply tuned out the huge chorus of people warning him that his narrative was being spun out of lies and disinformation — that he was relying on misinformation manufactured by sycophants to soothe his bruised ego — and unleashed events that led to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. “The Defendant was notified repeatedly that his claims were untrue,” Smith’s indictment alleges. “Often by the people on whom he relied for candid advice on important matters, and who were best positioned to know the facts — and he deliberately disregarded the truth.”
This is Trump in a nutshell, a man who has always regarded the truth (and governance) as transactional and facts to be discarded or changed if they stood in the way of his goals. It’s so clearly in keeping with Trump’s debased character that those in the GOP — including at least some of his rivals for the presidential nomination, such as Ron DeSantis, who stepped up to defend him yesterday — made a point of saying that they hadn’t read the indictment. Instead, they chose to focus on the process of the prosecution, alleging a “weaponization” of the Justice Department. The “weaponization” language was also taken up by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, another presidential hopeful. Scott and DeSantis both have, apparently, made the calculation that pissing off Trump’s base by denouncing his actions is more trouble than it’s worth; that the gain to be had from attacking Trump as he so richly deserves is outweighed by the venomous attacks that will come their way in the wake of such actions. And so, they obfuscate, blaming the process while side-stepping the basic questions surrounding Trump’s actions. It is, obviously, easier to claim that Trump is the victim of a huge plot if one hasn’t actually bothered to read the details of the charges so carefully, and copiously, laid out against him.
But, even if the Trumpist GOP tries to throw up white noise to drown out these allegations, it’s hard to see how that sound barrier holds up over the coming months. This will be, quite clearly, the trial of the century. On trial is not just one psychically damaged man and his bloated ego, but a system of governance — on trial is the ability of the United States to uphold its democratic system and to hold to account those who grievously abuse power and manipulate mobs, all the way to the point of insurrection, solely for their self-interest. And, given the fact that a solid majority of Americans believe Trump’s actions leading up to and on January 6 were beyond the pale (either illegal or unethical), one has to consider that, as the date of the trial nears, significant numbers of moderate and independent voters may be so repelled by the evidence they see and read, and by the actions of Donald J. Trump and his die-hard supporters, that they ultimately recoil from his presidential candidacy.
As for candidate-cum-defendant Trump himself, he spent yesterday ranting, yet again, about a witch hunt and election interference, and his campaign claimed the prosecution was redolent of acts that occurred in Nazi Germany. That may make for good sound bites that he can use in fundraising appeals to his base; but it’s hardly the foundation of a sophisticated legal defense against charges that could see the ex-president imprisoned for the rest of his life.