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The Culmination of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, in a Miami Courthouse
A look at how we got to this moment.
Sometimes when there is too much news, there is too much Jackal. I had a few final thoughts on Donald Trump’s indictment before the three-day weekend.
Although there were a lot of different reactions to Trump’s indictment, I heard one repeated pretty often: What a stupid way for “us” to “finally” “get” this guy. In other words, this particular (alleged) crime is pretty boring considering all the other evidence of Trump’s corruption. Conservative writer, Erick Erickson, had a post where he mostly calls Trump’s behavior more stupid than malicious:
I’ve read the indictment, and I’m just smacking my head with how stupid this all is — not the indictment, but Trump’s antics as alleged in the indictment. This was all so avoidable. […] All he had to do was hand over all the documents. But he lacked impulse control. It is all so, so stupid. We can “but Hillary” and “but Biden” all we want, but none of them were caught on audio tape admitting to showing people classified documents, and, to our knowledge, none of them ordered a valet to hide documents from their own lawyer, let alone asked their lawyer to hide documents from the FBI.
There have also been similar reactions that argue after everything - the Russia investigation, January 6th, the election lies, the impeachment(s) - it is wild that something as “unsexy” as hoarding classified documents is what finally got Trump indicted.
I think that is the wrong way of looking at things. I almost want to say it misses the forest for the trees, but that seems like too obvious of a metaphor. It’s a combination of that, with some sort of recency bias, that I think overlooks what has made Trump so dangerous since he took office.
The classified documents scandal isn’t happening to Trump in a vacuum, but it is rather the culmination of every one of his malevolent character traits finally manifesting without the protection of the Presidency.
For much of his first term, Trump was dogged by the Russia investigation, which carefully examined his Campaign’s coordination with Russian nationals in the lead up to the 2016 election. There was, to be sure, a lot of hyperbole about the investigation thrown around by liberals while it was going on. Trump did not end up being a secret agent working on behalf of Vladimir Putin, and we don’t even have to get into the pee tape. However, Robert Mueller largely proved the skeleton of the story to be true: There was evidence of coordination and a conspiracy between Trump’s Campaign and the Russians, but it did not rise to the level of criminal activity.
Trump knew that was likely true and that it would be what any investigation found, should it be allowed to conclude. So, he also spent the majority of his term trying to end the investigation and instructing his subordinates (like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort) not to cooperate. He fired the FBI director, James Comey, in an attempt to end it. He even bragged privately (to the Russian Ambassador, no less) that he had succeeded. Then, the wheels of normal government “norms” started turning, and he was investigated by a special counsel. Throughout that investigation, he tried to end it as often as he could, and his actions eventually made their way into Mueller’s final report, which details overwhelming evidence for Trump’s obstruction of justice.
His first impeachment followed largely the same pattern as his behavior in the Russia investigation. He - almost certainly - committed a crime by withholding aid to Ukraine in order to elicit their interference in the upcoming election, and then tried to obfuscate any investigation into his own actions. It culminated with his impeachment and acquittal, although there was “bipartisan” consensus that Trump was guilty, thanks to lonely Senator Mitt Romney. But getting to the two-thirds threshold was always going to be tough.
And that’s all before we get into COVID, which could generate a separate post.
This trip down memory lane is meant to get you to see a specific event on that road as a product of the journey, rather than just another mile marker. After the Russia investigation, his impeachment, his handling of COVID, child separations, etc.; all events that we have come to see as things that “missed” hitting the King, were actually just small cuts that resulted in his “death” on November 3, 2020, when Joe Biden defeated him in the election. It is the specific event that was a product of the journey that was Trump’s calamitous and chaotic first term. We just thought everything else was bigger cuts in the moment, but they weighed him down and made him un(re)electable.
The Russia investigation did “get him.” The first impeachment did “get him.” American voters who had the opportunity to sit through four years of the Trump Administration ultimately decided that the drama associated with his presidency was too much, and they opted to give Joe Biden a chance. I fully believe that if Trump had been able to regulate his behavior and not fire James Comey, or interfere in the Mueller investigation, or try to extort Ukraine, it is entirely possible that he would have been reelected. But the voters examined his behavior and decided that he was unfit to continue holding office.
The reason it feels like the other things were supposed to “get” Trump comes from a misunderstanding of a President’s power. Despite the speculation on some left-wing corners of the Internet, the President of the United States cannot be indicted, and the Founders made it clear that was what they intended.
The accountability of Trump’s behavior was always going to be electoral in nature, given the legal protection of the Presidency. But that’s gone now, and perhaps forever.
While Trump was in power, conservatives got themselves in a habit of dismissing every bad news headline as people merely “freaking out” about Trump’s presidency. It got so crazy that even really smart, well-known conservatives defended Trump after he essentially engaged in a bribery scheme with an ally, and pushed them to interfere in our elections unless they complied. He used the immense power clothed in the office of the Presidency to help himself get reelected. And people defended his actions!
Wild. But just like when you physically work out a muscle incorrectly you can damage it, you can also damage your reasoning and reputation when you reflexively twist yourself in knots to defend Trump over and over again.
This time, he has no real defense. He does not have a team of attorneys well-versed in national security law. Some of his offenses are recorded on tape. And more indictments could be coming related to the documents case, which is before you even get into his conduct in Georgia or January 6th. That’s a lot of defending to do over the next few months. And if you spent four years defending Trump, your muscle memory may be telling you to do so again. But that overlooks how damaging his actions were to his own presidency, which - even he will admit - ended too soon.
This is always who he was.
One of the central arguments made by the “Never Trump” crowd was that he was fundamentally unfit for the office. The culmination of that argument arrived on January 6th, when his followers stormed the Capitol and he refused to do anything to stop it. It was the best example in modern politics of those who spent four years saying, “I told you so,” being proven totally right.
The argument has always been somewhat simple: The guy is simply unfit to hold office and he will harm America if he is allowed to take power. That’s it, and a lot of the other stuff - from policy preferences to liberal overreactions - are just offshoots of the central point.
The documents scandal makes this argument again. In the indictment, you see Trump’s repeated, criminal behavior as he tries to hide the documents from both his own attorneys, and investigators. He directs people to lie on his behalf. He instructs aides not to cooperate with the investigation, to the point where one of his subordinates has now been indicted with him. Trump ultimately does not think anyone should hold him accountable for anything, displaying the same behavior he practiced while President. James Comey has no real authority over him, so he should be fired. Robert Mueller is a threat, so his investigation should be halted.
If you are defending Trump on the documents scandal, you are missing what makes it so significant. It is not actually a defense to say there is a “double standard” when it comes to criminal prosecutions. Instead, it is a continued defense of Trump’s behavior, which has already been deemed unacceptable to American voters (arguably twice, if you count the 2022 elections). To return to Erickson’s point (who gets a lot right in his post), it is not just that Trump’s actions were stupid; it’s that they are a part of his entire, flawed character.
I look at a lot of the current support for Trump and repeatedly think to myself, “Bold strategy, Cotton.” He is fully toxic to a large majority of Americans, he has already lost one election, and is probably responsible for Republicans underperforming in 2022. But defending him over his this scandal just shows that his supporters and even those who are Trump-adjacent still don’t get it: Some people are fit to be president, and others are not. Maybe the reality TV host is the latter?
Happy Juneteenth. This is a great read from where it started, Texas.
From Federalist No. 69, here is Hamilton:
“The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law” (my emphasis).