The indictment of Donald Trump is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen in US politics, and I lived through Rick Perry. If the plan was to bring the Trump phenomenon to a decisive end, it will probably have the opposite effect. This might be the twist that launches a compelling second act.
The moral argument to prosecute is strong. No one is above the law; if the New York grand jury does believe a president, any president, did something wrong, he/she should be held accountable. And there’s a tasty irony in the fact that Trump won the election in 2016 promising to “lock her up” (ie, Hillary Clinton) at the same time as he was allegedly committing crimes that might lead to conviction.
But if the goal is to re-normalise American politics and reassert constitutional standards, it’s a total own-goal. Trump will be tried in the court of public opinion; his supporters will argue that the case will likely lean on the evidence of Michael Cohen, a man convicted for lying.
Trump suddenly looks like a martyr, hounded by the Left in a city borough that voted 80 per cent for Joe Biden. The district attorney who green-lit the indictment, Alvin Bragg, is notorious for preferring not to prosecute so-called “low level” misdemeanours such as prostitution or fare-dodging. It all plays into populist narratives of big-city decadence and hypocrisy, and Trump, who was looking a little “low energy” until now, is revived.
His ability to dominate the media had been weakening; now he will be a permanent headline. Republican primary voters had just begun to consider sober alternatives; now the base will be whipped up and even his opponents will feel compelled to put in a good word.
Mike Pence, the former vice-president who has just been told he must appear before a separate inquiry into the January 6 riots, called this development “an outrage”. Ron DeSantis has said he will block any attempt to extradite him from Florida.
Even if Trump is convicted, he can still run for the White House again. We are entering unknown territory, but the only things that technically prevent a person from serving as president are age, birthplace and residence. In theory, he could do the job from a prison cell. One can just imagine Trump conducting an interview with Fox News over a payphone, the sounds of a riot perceptible in the distance.
“I’m having a great time here, Sean. It’s a beautiful prison filled with many great American patriots. And they love me, they really do. White Power Mike said he’d never seen someone do so many push-ups. I did 12, 14 – maybe a thousand.”
And what is the establishment going after him on? What did it deem worth destabilising their country for? From what we can make out, it’s the smallest, most tawdry allegation imaginable: business fraud committed in relation to paying hush money to a porn star (all of which Trump denies, including the alleged affair).
So, maybe putting a president on trial feels like a thrilling blow for democracy, but it also sets a precedent that erodes faith in the system. Since Bill Clinton, there’s been a trend towards trying to overturn election results you don’t like by hitting the winner with legal action, digging into the recesses of their private life if necessary.
The goal is to make it impossible to govern, to push your opponent from the arena. There was not just one attempt to impeach Trump, but two.
And yes, this indictment comes after he has left office, but in the context of a fresh election round, it will be characterised as a first strike to cripple the Republicans, weaponising the justice system and singling out a candidate who threatens the elite.
This indictment drives US politics further into the mud, which is where Donald Trump thrives.
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