Trump's Indictment is Good for America
Even if the Republican response to it isn't.
Let’s not get carried away here. I grew up in Chicago politics and now live in New Jersey, so the idea of putting politicians on trial for payoffs strikes me as a bit…routine. So are the ritualistic arguments of Republican politicians that the Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, is engaged in a “political” prosecution of Donald Trump. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone argue that when I was a kid, I could buy an alderman.
We see this kind of thing all the time abroad. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio da Silva, better known as Lula, served 18 months on money-laundering charge after leaving office in 2010. (Now he’s back in power). In 2011, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of paying for sex with a minor (The conviction was later overturned). And of course Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted in 2020 on charges of bribery and fraud. As we saw last week, the bulk of Israeli society — including the military — understands that for Israel to survive as a democracy, the courts must be empowered to hold corrupt politicians accountable. None of these countries have inferior democracies to ours because they do so.
One of the dumber arguments bouncing around Washington in the last few years is that trying to bring Trump to justice would turn us into just another banana republic — that it would set off retaliatory prosecutions. Supposedly some local Republican DA would indict former President Amy Klobuchar for eating salad with a comb. But it’s not like yakking on Fox. Even retaliatory prosecution requires some evidence of wrongdoing.
This is the kind of nervous-nellying you hear a lot of these days from Democrats and independents. It’s a product of Trump Intimidation Syndrome — the idea that we should be afraid, very afraid, of what the Trump mob might do, and actually adjust our views of how the cases should play out with that fear of MAGA in mind.
…even though Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, there are signs that the size of his active army is exaggerated.
That’s wrong on three levels. First, even though Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, there are signs that the size of his active army is exaggerated. Since he was indicted, he’s raised $4 million — a comparative pittance in politics, less than one thousandth of what his campaign war chest needs for 2024. Will he raise more than that after the second indictment? The third? The fourth? Will the voluminous evidence against him presented at the various trials cause MAGA stooges to dig deeper? I doubt it. And they aren’t taking to the streets, either. Notice that the only protesters outside the DA’s office this week were anti-Trump. While the physical threats to anyone connected to prosecuting Trump are of real concern (and Trump will have blood on his hands for his “death and destruction” line if anything happens), it’s hard to imagine many January 6th insurrectionists venturing back into the fray for large-scale demonstrations. Too many of their buddies from that day went to jail. Like most bullies (including Trump himself), they’re basically a bunch of cowards.
The second reason we should stop trying to parse whether Bragg should have gone first, or Fulton County DA Fani Willis has the stronger case, or the extension of the Stormy Daniels case to federal charges is problematic, is that we simply don’t have enough information yet about what prosecutors know. The TV legal eagles have, collectively, left the impression that Bragg doesn’t have a great case. Maybe not. But too few have mentioned that it was the Trump Justice Department that sent Michael Cohen to jail based on the same fact pattern. Even if Trump never does time, this ain’t a misdemeanor case, no matter how often the Republicans try to make it one.
In the Michael Cohen trial, Trump’s DOJ rightly argued that the Stormy Daniels case went to the heart of our constitutional system. Remember, the payoffs took place immediately after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, which rocked the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump knew that if another sex case surfaced, he would surely lose. So he broke the law to win the election.
…we simply don’t have enough information yet about what prosecutors know. The TV legal eagles have, collectively, left the impression that Bragg doesn’t have a great case. Maybe not. But too few have mentioned that it was the Trump Justice Department that sent Michael Cohen to jail based on the same fact pattern.
Did he take part in a conspiracy when doing so? The one thing we know for sure is that every time you think Trump has touched bottom, he crashes through the floor. So the odds are good that he did something worse than we know yet. As always, he’s his own worst enemy. If Trump, who claimed at the time that he was worth $10 billion, hadn’t been so cheap and had paid Stormy Daniels out of his own pocket instead of illegally from campaign funds (a fact not even his legal team has disputed), he’d be at least marginally better off, with only three criminal cases (Mar-a-Lago, Atlanta, January 6) instead of four to worry about.
If you’re still inclined to think this all helps Trump down the road, consider where we will likely be a year from now, as the election season heats up: The presumptive Republican nominee standing trial on criminal charges, serially, in four courtrooms across the country — and that’s not even including the civil trials and cases like Dominion vs. Fox, where Trump’s lies about the 2020 election will be front and center. Talk about Trump Exhaustion Syndrome.
Finally, we should avoid the defensive crouch and sense of dread because this is in fact a good moment for American democracy. It’s now “perfectly clear,” as Richard Nixon liked to say, that the consequences of not prosecuting Trump in all these cases would be far worse than moving forward. It would suggest that presidents — even when they are private citizens — can set themselves above everyone else. That’s the message that President Ford sent in 1974 when he pardoned Nixon for his Watergate crimes, a decision I opposed at the time, later supported (along with a lot of other temporarily-confused liberals at the turn-of-the-century) and now once again think was harmful. In retrospect, it validated Nixon’s line to David Frost: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
…we should avoid the defensive crouch and sense of dread because this is in fact a good moment for American democracy. It’s now “perfectly clear,” as Richard Nixon liked to say, that the consequences of not prosecuting Trump in all these cases would be far worse than moving forward.
So while celebration is premature, satisfaction and relief are the right emotions for the moment. The indictment strikes a blow against Trump’s bottomless impunity and against our own well-earned cynicism — the widespread sense that the man would never face any comeuppance. Even if Trump is acquitted in all of these cases, the effort to hold him accountable will have been fully worth it. A failure to at least try to bring him to justice for menacing the republic would have reduced our foundational credo — “equal justice under law” — to a hollow platitude.
So why do I remain uneasy? It’s the rightwing response, which is not that Trump is innocent but that he should not be prosecuted because he’s, well, Donald Trump. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, echoing Trump’s frothing statement, said:
Think about that for a second. The second-in-line to the presidency says that prosecutors (actually grand juries) cannot indict someone who might be running for office. That logic would let thousands of politicians across the country off the hook for any crimes they may have committed. Or does prosecution only “irreparably damage our country” if it involves, say, one politician running for one office?
What’s alarming is that it isn’t just big time Republicans who are assaulting the system with their foolish statements. I mentioned that politicians routinely dismiss prosecutions as political. But outside lawyers are supposed to know better than to judge the strengths of a case before the indictment is unsealed. Not Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, who called Bragg’s decision “a patently political prosecution.”
How the hell does he know? He hasn’t read the indictment, which is said to include more than 30 counts. And for him not to have done so before mouthing off is in keeping with his efforts to become the Alan Dershowitz of the right. Legal experts — even self-styled ones— undermine faith in the system when they react like pols, not members of the bar.
Then there’s the usual hypocrisy from the “Lock Her Up” chanters, who are now apparently claiming that they were just joking about jailing Hillary. No they weren’t. I was present at the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland and can testify firsthand that the spittle flowing off their chins was entirely sincere.
What’s most dispiriting about the reaction to the indictment is the racism and anti-Semitism that has been unleashed. Take Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, a graduate of Yale Law School, who tweeted this:
Let’s unpack that for a second. First, before even turning his attention to Bragg, Vance plays the race card — hard. The tweet exploits fear of subway crime (a hardy perennial) in New York, where crime is actually much lower per capita than in Cleveland. Then it explicitly mentions the race of those who have been verbally abused (white, of course), while implying that jail time is always the right punishment for mental illness. The idea of sending Trump to jail (which no one believes will happen, by the way) instead of this (first time?) verbal abuser is, according to Vance, “despicable.”
Of course the only reason Vance and so many others can make this case racial is that Trump gave them permission to do so, by calling Bragg an “animal,” which is an old racial slur that aims to conjure apes. The same dehumanizing impulse lay behind the Nazi description of Jews as “vermin.” The next step, of course, was a short one. What do we do with vermin? Exterminate them.
The tropes employed by Trump and his party have a long history. For centuries, anti-Semites have claimed that Jews are secret puppet-masters, using their money to control everyone else. That’s the calumny that Viktor Orban used to drive George Soros’ fine university out of Hungary, and it’s why Orban’s authoritarian acoloytes in the GOP (remember, CPAC held a big meeting in Budapest last year) are going after Bragg this way. Because Bragg isn’t Jewish, he must be controlled by Jews. Natch.
The pathetic justification for the Soros-bashing is that the liberal billionaire gave money to a liberal organization that in turn gave a relatively small amount of money to Bragg’s campaign. By that logic, any Republican is not only the puppet of his or her direct donors, but of anyone who happened to give to, say, the RNC.
It’s a bit surprising that Ron DeSantis would be taking this particular low road in Florida, which has a large Jewish population. But here he is, with an extra jackboot in the face of democracy:
Whoa. Here DeSantis goes beyond the Soros slur to advocate directly violating the Constitution, which in Article IV, Section 2 states plainly,
“A Person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on Demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime.”
The governor is a smart, Harvard-trained lawyer. He knows he won’t need to make good on this unconstitutional threat because Trump’s lawyers have already told Bragg’s office that their client will come to New York and voluntarily surrender. But just saying something like this shows that DeSantis understands that MAGA Republicans — the base he seeks to inherit — will take their grievances over the Constitution in a heartbeat. He will descend to any depth to prove his allegiance to this madness, which means the rest of us must do everything we can to fight it.