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Trump in the Dock
The good news and bad news about the Mar-a-Lago Indictment
June 16th marks eight years since Donald Trump descended the escalator into the muck. We’ve had eight years of a shameful epoch that still has no name. It’s too painful to call it “the Trump Era” and there’s no convenient catch-all like “Watergate.” The placid period between 1815 and 1825 — roughly the time James Monroe served as president — was called “the Era of Good Feeling.” I think we can do better than “the Era of Bad Feeling,” which doesn’t capture the desecration of our democratic institutions. Please post your ideas in the comment section below.
While it was nice to see Trump “scared shitless” at his arraignment, as one of his former chiefs of staff put it, I have a queasy feeling about the Mar-a-Lago documents trial — if there is one. But before I get to that, I want to offer some good news, or at least some straws in the wind that may offer hope for a less-bad future than we’re all bracing for.
Remember the Sherlock Holmes story where the clue was the dog that didn’t bark? Well, what didn’t happen during Trump’s arraignment was badly under-covered.
When New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted Trump in April in the Stormy Daniels case and reporters outnumbered pro-Trump protesters in Foley Square, we were told that the explanation was that Trump is unpopular in New York City. The same cannot be said of Miami, which is why Miami police prepared for as many as 30,000 people in the streets. It didn’t happen. Fewer than 1,000 showed up — many of them anti-Trump — and they were festive but non-violent.
In fact, fewer people protested than have been convicted of crimes connected to January 6th, and that may not be a coincidence. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s aggressive prosecution of the Proud Boys and other insurrectionists has likely had a deterrent effect. Two years after 1/6, almost nobody likes Trump enough to risk getting arrested for supporting him.
This suggests that the threat of political violence in this country has receded. We still face lone wolves who have been — and will continue to be — inspired by Trump to commit violent acts. That’s the twisted and totally unprecedented reality we’ve grown accustomed to — a president using his stature to incite hate from the very top. But we should breathe a little easier. Trump’s base is not an army and the sick tweets of fascistic members of Congress about military-style operations on Trump’s behalf are not as scary as they were pre-arraignment. Trump’s rants and unhinged tweets will continue to rub our divisions raw but they only matter if he wins.
It’s sad that a third of this country remains behind him — tens of millions of Americans whose minds have been poisoned by lies. It’s disgusting that he has once again cowed most of the craven fools who claim to “lead” the GOP — the same people I saw in Cleveland in 2016 chanting “Lock Her Up!” are now, with the shoe on the right foot instead of the left, saying “Let Him Go!” for much graver offenses. And it’s pathetic that Rupert Murdoch can hold his head high at Davos or Herb Allen’s Sun Valley retreat and still employ producers who sign off on this:
But there’s desperation in that chyron (which Fox took down). As if the Foley Square, Miami, and (likely) Atlanta MAGA no-shows weren’t bad enough for Trump, it turns out his supposed cultists aren’t watching from their couches, either. In a stunning turnaround, MSNBC is now crushing Fox (not to mention CNN and Newsmax) in the ratings. Why? The firing of Tucker Carlson is obviously a big factor but I suspect some Trump fatigue is also at work, even inside the cult. While Republicans have bought the spin about Trump being unfairly attacked by Joe Biden and the left, they seem more resigned and cynical than angry about it.
If MAGA world was truly on fire, Trumpsters would be digging deep and responding to their Dear Leader’s impassioned, lie-filled fundraising appeals. But they’re not. The Trump campaign reported only $13.9 million cash on hand at the end of March and the $20 million or so it has raised after two indictments and lots of huffing and puffing still leaves the Orange Menace at least a billion dollars short of what he needs to run a presidential campaign, not to mention pay his lawyers. Will he make up the difference from the outrage he’ll whip up if he’s convicted? Nope.
This would hurt Trump in the general election, where winning over the independents who have deserted him in droves will be very expensive. But his money problems won’t likely matter in the primaries, where the indictments fit snugly into Trump’ free media message, as David Axelrod notes:
Now we’re moving into the more depressing dimensions of this story. While Trump pursues his “witch hunt” line — a lying but unifying message for the GOP — Democrats, as we learned this week, are not replying in kind. Expect this order of battle to continue for months. Democrats will defer to the legal system and let the government’s lawyers do the talking.
But what if they don’t get a chance to do so? What if Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, essentially puts the prosecutors on trial first? What if she delays the trial until after the election? She has multiple options for doing all three, as Charlie Savage explains. Yes, Trump is finally facing some accountability, but he remains one of the luckiest bastards on earth. He had only a one in six or seven chance of randomly drawing Cannon as his judge and he came up aces.
Recall that Cannon was twice smacked down by the 11th Circuit after issuing flagrantly pro-Trump and non-sensical rulings related to the Mar-a-Lago raid. If she had responded with humility to her first reversal and recognized that she was in over her head (she has no relevant experience in complex national security cases) and needed to defer to precedent, we might have more hope that she could be a fair judge. But she, um, re-offended — and was slapped again by the Trump-appointed judges on the appellate court.
There’s been some talk that if Cannon delays the case until after the election or throws it out entirely, she’ll be rewarded by a victorious Trump with a seat on the Supreme Court. Given the outrage this would provoke among the handful of anti-Trump Republicans in the Senate (not to mention the rest of us), Cannon must know that she would be unlikely to be confirmed. But she also knows that delaying this trial would make her a hero on the right, with all sorts of job possibilities suddenly available to her if she got tired of being a judge.
The prosecution is prepared for Judge Cannon going rogue. Andrew Weissman and Ryan Goodman wrote this week in The Atlantic that special prosecutor Jack Smith has a backup plan. If it looks like Cannon is blowing up his Florida case, he could indict Trump in New Jersey for disseminating classified documents to writers and a PAC representative at his Bedminster estate. (Smith detailed that crime in his Florida indictment but conspicuously didn’t bring charges connected to it). But this contingency would come at a cost. Changing venue would reinforce the GOP message that Trump is being persecuted.
The ideal circumstance would be for Cannon to surprise everyone and do her duty. Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor who co-authored pieces with me about prosecuting Trump for previous crimes, believes there’s a good chance she will. He wrote optimistically in The New York Times:
“Ultimately, if Mr. Trump is convicted, better to have it happen before one of his appointees. That will go a long way in tamping down Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ bogus claims of a ‘witch hunt’ and a politicized prosecution.”
I hope you’re right, Nick.
As we wait to learn if Cannon will be impartial, I’ve been daydreaming about the possibility of new evidence. Did you see that copy machine in the photo of the storage room?
What was it used for? Who had access to those rooms? Indictments have a way of shaking loose new information. Maybe Trump showed off documents at Mar-a-Lago, too.
And what about spies on the premises? In 2019, Yujing Zhang, a Chinese national, was arrested at Mar-a-Lago. She was carrying four cellphones and a computer thumb drive. Nine more thumb drives, five SIM cards and a device used to detect hidden cameras were found in her hotel room. In 2021, 33-year-old Inna Yashchyshyn, a Ukrainian woman, posed as a member of the Rothschild family and had her picture taken with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Last year, one of her close associates, Russian oligarch Valerie Tarasenko, was wounded in a shooting in Canada. The FBI investigation of all of these cases is ongoing.
When something happens as momentous as the first federal indictment of a former President of the United States, we tend to peer ahead with the assumption that the story will remain in the headlines. It probably won’t. We’re in for a long period of legal wrangling, off TV. The Mar-a-Lago case may be eclipsed for a time by Fulton County District Attorney’s indictment of Trump on state charges of trying to manipulate an election (Trump’s infamous “I just want to find, uh, 11,780 votes” audio) and possibly by Jack Smith’s January 6th case.
Meanwhile, the major references to this indictment will come on the GOP campaign trail, where reporters are asking the candidates about pardoning Trump.
While they’re at it, they should ask every Republican candidate for president and any other federal office: “Can you honestly tell me that if Barack Obama had been indicted for refusing to return nuclear secrets from his home on Martha’s Vineyard you would not support his prosecution?”
This is a different, more proper kind of whataboutism for our benighted era — an era that still has no name.