In spite of all the nuanced reporting about the depths of Donald Trump’s legal woes, and the seriousness and breadth of the federal charges now arrayed against him, there’s another conversation taking place on the periphery, as his radicalized supporters rally around their imperiled antihero. As the brazen criminal leading the Republican Party finally faces the prospect of imminent justice, his legions of heavily armed goons and partisan loyalists are promising to unleash hell on his behalf, and they aren’t joking.
Many Republicans would prefer to tear this country apart before they’d accept the downfall of their strongman idol. It would be unwise not to take this impulse extremely seriously.
Indeed, Trump’s supporters have by now proved beyond any shadow of a doubt their capacity for bloody mayhem and political terror, particularly with Trump and most elected Republicans goading them on. Right-wing message boards are currently humming with homicidal rage, as anonymous users talk about stockpiling weapons and ammunition, amid rabid discussions of vengeance, and perhaps plans for political violence.
This is hardly empty bluster. It’s deadly serious.
For his part, Trump is eagerly feeding the gathering storm, deploying increasingly inflammatory language both online and in a recent speech in Columbus, Georgia, where he warned apocalyptically that his indictment represented the “final battle.” He called the case against him a “witch hunt, scam, hoax.” He ripped into the special prosecutor, Jack Smith, as “deranged,” a “coward,” a “terrorist,” a “slimeball,” and a “Trump hater.” He also attacked the special prosecutor’s wife, a reminder of his utter lack of limits or scruples, as he goes about openly intimidating federal authorities.
Meanwhile, Trump’s political allies have joined him in his crusade against federal law enforcement, issuing a steady stream of threats, false justifications, and violent invective, further cranking up the tension in the United States of America. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the DOJ was “weaponized,” and complained of “unequal justice,” because Trump had been indicted for mishandling classified material, and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden had not, rolling out a favorite talking point on the right.
Rep. Andy Biggs posted this on Twitter: “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye.” During a speech, defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake said, “If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me, and you’re going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me.” She went on, “And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA. That’s not a threat, that’s a public service announcement.” Rep. Clay Higgins called on Trump supporters to “buckle up,” and “know your bridges,” in a Tweet filled with paramilitary jargon, and what appeared to be battle plans.
Nonetheless, it’s a ‘damning’ indictment.
The first president in American history to be federally prosecuted, Donald Trump has been indicted on 37 counts of gross mishandling of highly classified documents, willful retention of national defense information, withholding or concealing documents in a federal investigation, obstruction of justice, lying to federal agents, and conspiracy. Legal experts that have examined the sprawling indictment say it is among the strongest cases they have ever seen, and the few prominent Republicans outside of Trump’s orbit concurred with that assessment.
GOP presidential candidate and former federal prosecutor Chris Christie called the charges “devastating” and said the indictment was “damning.” Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, said the “detailed indictment” was “very, very damning,” and predicted that Trump’s “toast.” Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, called on him to drop out of the presidential race immediately.
Of course, there is the distinct possibility of yet more criminal indictments, beyond the federal charges and the Manhattan charges Trump’s currently facing. Investigations into January 6 continue by the special prosecutor and the DA in Fulton County, Georgia.
Surprisingly, Nikki Haley today called Trump’s behavior “incredibly reckless,” after first alleging the case was an example of “prosecutorial overreach.” It’s unclear if this is the beginning of a crack in his armor, or a mere wrinkle, and whether Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and other leading Republicans might finally abandon the former president to his fate.
Regardless, this case is no witch hunt.
It’s the meticulous documentation of a prolonged exposure of America’s most sensitive secrets, and shows Trump’s reckless disregard for this country’s national security. He hoarded boxes filled with top secret nuclear capabilities, attack plans, foreign intelligence, and American vulnerabilities on a stage in the Mar-a-Lago ballroom, in a bathroom in a shower, his office, a storage room, and other unsecured locations around his resort.
As Ron DeSantis noted, he would’ve been “court-martialed in a New York minute” for taking classified materials during his time in the Navy.
Trump was also prone to showing the documents off to random writers and political operatives, people lacking security clearances, to settle old scores and win political points. Unfortunately for him, he was recorded doing it, giving prosecutors a potent weapon to use against him in court.
“As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t,” he said, holding a classified document related to a possible American attack on Iran. “Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this,” Trump says. “This was done by the military and given to me.”
It’s surreal, and indefensible. The classified documents allowed Trump to feel powerful, important, and relevant. They were also good insurance for the future, even if they deeply endangered the country at large, sitting in notoriously unsecured Mar-a-Lago.
Who knows how they might eventually be useful? Secrets are valuable.
Of course, numerous Chinese nationals and other suspicious individuals routinely attempted to breach those very premises, and quite plausibly, accessed the documents themselves. Certainly, agents spying for any number of foreign powers may have known about and quite possibly seen these documents, and learned the American secrets contained therein.
Trump held onto the documents despite numerous demands for their return from the federal government, and he repeatedly lied about them to federal agents, and asked his lawyers to lie on his behalf, after he was served with federal grand jury subpoenas. Trump’s characteristic disregard for the law, norms, and any and all ethical and moral boundaries is on clear display in the 49-page indictment, as he plays games with some of the nation’s most sensitive military and national security secrets.
Nevertheless, the MAGA faithful are unmoved.
As he observed long ago, accurately it turns out, it appears that Trump really could shoot someone on 5th Avenue, and maintain his base of political support. In fact, the consequences of his wrongdoing seem to simply bind him and his supporters closer together, in an unholy marriage based on lies, grievance, and white hot rage. The first indictment in Manhattan solidified his lead in the Republican primary, and this federal indictment seems to have further secured his unassailable position atop the GOP.
It’s counterintuitive but true, unfortunately.
Donald Trump built an enduring cult of personality on the broken backs of elected Republicans’ cowardice and fecklessness, confident in the knowledge that sycophantic Republicans would never stray from him, never put the country before their own political prospects.
That was a safe bet indeed.
Republicans have stayed by his side through his entire ruinous presidency, his unbridled corruption, incompetence, and criminality, a lethal coup d’etat at the U.S. Capitol, two impeachments, and much else besides. Most Republicans long ago embraced authoritarianism, violent fascism, and the unapologetic criminality that fuels Donald Trump himself.
But America’s democratic institutions are fighting back, and Trump no longer has the power or the protections of the presidency. Rather, he has the destroyed Republican Party as his shield, and he’s holding our entire political system hostage with it.
Ultimately, prosecuting Donald Trump is the application of a legal bandaid onto a gaping political wound. But if the rule of law means anything at all in the United States, it was the only option. As Trump prepares to be arraigned in federal court tomorrow in Miami, this country is bracing for more political violence, more stochastic terror, more partisan ruptures.
But at least we have reached the end of impunity, and that is a step in the right direction, assuming we survive the reckoning. In the meantime, Trump and his allies will do everything in their power to turn Trump’s own personal legal peril into a society-wide political meltdown meant to engulf us all.
It’s going to be a bitter fight, between the forces of democracy, the rule of law, and political pluralism, and the forces of armed autocracy, political violence, extremism, terror, and tyranny. It’s an existential battle for our ailing democracy, one we can’t afford to lose.