No one seriously believes that Donald Trump is “innocent,” where innocent means he didn’t actually do what prosecutors say he did.
What’s at issue in America isn’t whether Trump paid off an adult film actress or lied about classified documents or incited a riot on January 6, 2021 by insisting the election was stolen from him. Trump’s millions of disciples don’t so much dispute the veracity of the allegations leveled against their messiah as much as they dispute the idea that the charges constitute wrongdoing for which he deserves to be punished.
It’s useful, I think, to separate the first two indictments from the third, which came down on Tuesday evening in the US. Who cares, Trump’s supporters wonder, if he paid to cover up an affair with a porn star and maybe violated campaign finance laws in the process? And so what if he had a trove of top secret papers at his palace exile?
The answer to those questions gets at the heart of Trump’s problems. Since ascending the White House in 2016, Trump set about making enemies. He denigrated the Washington political establishment, alienated the FBI and CIA from the top all the way down to the rank and file, publicly berated the judiciary, disparaged decorated generals on social media and just generally pissed off (and on) pretty much everyone who’s anybody. His scorn wasn’t confined to elected officials and public servants either. It extended well into the private sector.
In that sense, Trump wasn’t a very good mob boss, and he effectively forfeited the privileges that normally go along with being a rich, powerful white guy in America:
- Trump is often compared, rightly or not, to organized crime figures, and he doubtlessly ran across the genuine article all the time in New York social circles. But organized crime figures generally try to endear themselves to law enforcement, powerful people in government and anyone who can do them favors, spare them trouble and, ultimately, keep them out of jail. Maybe Trump believed the endearment lane was closed to him from the very beginning (due to the investigation into his campaign and the first special counsel probe), but whatever the case, his list of adversaries and antagonists was a mile long just a few months into his presidency. By Christmas of 2020, his list of friends was down to Sidney Powell, the dilapidated husk of Rudy Giuliani and the My Pillow guy.
- In America, rich and powerful people generally are above the law. That’s especially true for rich and powerful people who happen to be white. Trump is a billionaire former president who, as far as anyone knows, is white as the driven snow under all that orange face paint. Had he not irritated so many people, a relatively petty campaign finance violation could’ve been handled other ways. And while fully acknowledging that the circumstances were different, Joe Biden and Mike Pence can attest to the idea that keeping secret documents at your house needn’t be a big deal, as long as you haven’t made a bunch of enemies in national security circles and also at the Justice Department.
When it comes to the hush money and the documents, Trump is, in a sense, being persecuted. But it’s his fault. His victimization narrative is false. Trump’s not being hounded by prosecutors because of his political beliefs — he can’t even pronounce ideology, let alone spell it. He’s being hounded because he made it his mission in life to disrespect and show contempt for pretty much anybody and everybody he came across while serving as president, including people who didn’t do anything wrong. Even his closest allies weren’t spared. “Sloppy” Steve Bannon was “dumped like a dog.” Anthony Scaramucci ended up being a “highly unstable ‘nut job’.” And on and on. You reap what you sow. It’s karma. And Trump’s is bad. Very, very bad.
As to the January 6 question, the unfortunate reality is that Trump’s pride demanded he become a dictator. His supporters implicitly (and in many cases explicitly) ask why, if the election was fraudulent, Trump was wrong to suggest those gathered in the capital that fateful day “fight like hell” to overturn it. The answer is simple: It wasn’t fraudulent. So, in addition to co-opting scores of hapless citizens in an attempt to overturn an election, Trump drafted his fellow Americans into an armed rebellion aimed at overthrowing the US government.
On January 6, 2021, the world learned what Michael Cohen already knew — namely that Trump’s personality wasn’t compatible with the peaceful, democratic transfer of power. And not because Trump is Saddam Hussein. Rather, because Trump hates “losers” worse than anything else in the world. “Donald Trump, loser” is a concept Trump’s “very good brain” simply refuses to process. Part of Trump knew he lost, but part of him plainly didn’t (and still doesn’t) want to believe it. I doubt that’s exculpatory, but an insanity plea wouldn’t be the worst defense. There’s voluminous evidence to support it.
Admittedly, I didn’t think the US would ever indict Trump for January 6. I thought he’d be indicted for other crimes (which he was), and I was prepared to argue that far from proving anything to the public about the universal applicability of the nation’s laws, charging him with anything less than conspiracy against the United States would actually constitute proof that despite having worked so hard to seal his own fate, Trump was still immune to prosecution for the only crime that really mattered.
But I was wrong. Trump was, in fact, indicted on Tuesday evening in Washington, where he was charged with multiple conspiracies, including a plot to defraud the nation and schemes to obstruct an official government proceeding and deprive Americans of their civil rights. Specifically, Jack Smith accused Trump of sowing “widespread mistrust… through pervasive and destabilizing lies,” thereby “target[ing] a bedrock function of the United States federal government.” The indictment mentioned a half-dozen co-conspirators, although not by name. An attorney for Giuliani said he (Giuliani) is probably one of them.
The charges against Trump (there are four) are punishable by as few as five years in prison and as many as 20. Trump could, in theory, have the charges dropped if he’s reelected. If he were convicted prior to the election, he’d obviously appeal. There’s almost no chance he’d be jailed by what would be his second inauguration. It seems reasonable to suggest he’d pardon himself as president. The only check on that would be the Justice Department, which he’d control.
State charges are apparently the only path to prison for Trump assuming he’s reelected. He can’t pardon himself for state crimes, but he could (and surely would) claim the Constitution demands any sentence be delayed until he’s no longer president. If the courts agreed, America’s democracy would be in a very precarious situation: A sitting president who already attempted to overturn the results of a lost ballot (resulting in an indictment) would be facing prison as soon as his term ends.
Considering how many Republicans went along with the effort to reverse the 2020 election, and knowing what we know about the party’s penchant for prostrating itself at his feet, it’s not far-fetched to suggest a GOP-controlled Congress would do everything in its power to keep Trump in office in perpetuity if he faced jail time upon leaving.