In the year since a right-wing mob attacked the Capitol, Donald Trump has persistently attempted to present himself as the victim of wide-ranging conspiracies intended to deprive him of his hold on power. He has also, just as persistently, worked to increase his iron grip on the GOP, triggering primary challenges against any politician from the party who dares to cross him, or even to question his more outlandish claims.
Partly, this is likely about Trump positioning himself for a possible presidential run redux in 2024. Partly, however, it’s about securing the narrative so as to insulate himself from the legal consequences of his dubious business and tax-filing practices over the decades — and from the political consequences that ought to follow from those legal vulnerabilities. A year after Trump reluctantly ceded the White House, there is a growing possibility that he will be indicted for a range of suspected felonies, be it for creative tax filings in New York, for intimidating elections officials in Georgia, or for inciting an insurrection against the lawful government of the United States on the day that Congress was attempting to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
It would have been pretty much impossible to imagine, in the pre-Trump era, that a politician facing as many simultaneous legal investigations as is Trump could remain a viable candidate in the eyes of tens of millions of voters — or even tens of thousands of voters. However, in the polity that Trump and his allies have so devastatingly degraded, so long as those investigations can be portrayed as being part of some deep state “witch hunt” or “hoax,” they become, paradoxically, sources of strength for him. Moreover, resisting those investigations — refusing to abide by subpoenas, ordering subordinates to thumb their noses at investigators — has generated wellsprings of grievance for Trump and his acolytes. In that sense, Trump’s ordering his political henchmen to refuse to cooperate with Congress’s investigation into the events of January 6 is no different than his noncompliance with prosecutorial investigations into his business methods.
Were the GOP grandees and grassroots, or his media enablers at Fox News and elsewhere, to abandon Trump to his legal torments, he’d be dismantled as a viable potential presidential candidate in a New York minute. But, so long as Trump’s supporters continue to parrot his lies about the “stolen” election, and continue to paint the legal investigations as nothing more than extensions of that dastardly plot, he has a chance to remain politically center-stage, the larger-than-life circus ringmaster barking out one-liners to his besotted audience.
And the more the investigations multiply, the more vital it is to Trump’s political fortunes that he can continue to present himself as a victim.
In the short term, Trump looks most vulnerable to a New York indictment. Late last year, he was subpoenaed to give testimony in a civil investigation launched in 2019 by the state attorney general, Letitia James, into whether the Trump business empire repeatedly misstated the value of its assets — inflating them when it was in need of bank loans, and underestimating their value when it came to filing taxes. Then, last week, it was revealed in court that James had also recently subpoenaed Trump’s children, Don Jr. and Ivanka. Their brother, Eric, had already been questioned by James’s investigators more than a year prior.
Trump has sued Attorney General James in federal court to try to get the subpoenas thrown out, and has so far refused to cooperate. He has also continued to resist parting with his tax returns, taking the issue up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an interview with CBS News in December, he lambasted James, and portrayed himself, improbably, as an entirely innocent victim of vendetta politics. “We are such an aggrieved and innocent party. It is a disgrace,” the twice-impeached, coup-plotting ex-president stated.
Beyond the nauseatingly self-pitying tone, there’s a political message: Trump needs his dyed-in-the-wool fan base to stick with him no matter what — remember when he boasted that he could shoot a person on Fifth Avenue and his voters would continue to support him? — and the best way to solidify that support is to work to illegitimize all those who would investigate him and his family’s business practices. As long as that base holds, the GOP grandees will continue to enable Trump, and continue to pander to his delusional beliefs about stolen elections and all-encompassing conspiracies. And, most importantly, so long as GOP politicians know that Trump can turn his often-violent supporters against anyone he chooses to target, it’s unlikely that more than a handful will resist his wrongdoing or work to block him from ever returning to power — which, in the Trumpian way of understanding, is his best bet, in the long term, for stymying prosecutions against him and his family.
What likely makes the real estate mogul particularly concerned about the civil inquiry in New York, and particularly eager to go on the attack against James, is that it is running parallel to a criminal inquiry, covering much of the same ground, being presided over by the Manhattan district attorney. Back in June, the DA’s office informed Trump’s organization that it was considering criminal charges against it based on valuable perks given to a top executive, perks on which taxes should have been (but apparently weren’t) paid. The three-year-old criminal inquiry has also reportedly explored whether or not the Trump organization illegitimately played around with the valuation of properties both in order to lower tax obligations and also make it easier to secure loans from Deutsche Bank and other financial institutions.
So far, Trump has shown no sign of being willing to cooperate with James’s subpoena. Instead, he responded by suing the New York attorney general. Similarly, Don Jr. and Ivanka Trump have also filed motions to quash their subpoenas.
These legal battles will play out over the coming weeks and months. As they do, expect Trump’s antics to get ever more outrageous, for the ultimate showman knows that his best chance to beat the rap, or raps, isn’t necessarily to present a solid legal defense but, rather, to whip up his crowd into an ever-greater sense of aggrievement at how their Don is being treated.