Can anyone really be surprised that Donald Trump has finally been indicted for a crime? After all, allegations of his serious misconduct have been circulating for a long time. Trump and his organizations have been accused of fraud (against real estate investors, bankers, contractors and Trump University students), tax evasion, misuse of charitable contributions, racial discrimination, campaign finance violations, theft of classified documents, influence peddling, Russian money laundering, illegal income from foreign countries while president, and personal misconduct including sexual abuse and even rape. Then there are the most serious allegations relating to the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns: election tampering, collusion with foreign hackers, obstruction of justice and inciting insurrection. I doubt if this is a complete list.
Nevertheless, leading Republicans are shocked—SHOCKED!—that a grand jury could actually accuse the former president of a crime. How could anyone do such a thing?
During the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, Trump declared that the only way he could lose was if the Democrats committed election fraud. When he actually did lose in 2020, that explanation became the Big Lie that the Democrats had managed to rig the election, and did so in every battleground state Trump lost. Now we have a new Big Lie, that any prosecution of Trump by a legal authority could only be a grave abuse of power. Once again, Republican leaders, with very few exceptions, are marching to the same drummer, fearing a loss of support from the base if they don’t fall in line.
Witchhunt! Conspiracy! Police state! Weaponization of the legal system! These are the terms Republicans are using to describe this predictable and long-awaited development. In their minds, the indictment is the outcome of a massive conspiracy orchestrated by President Biden and the radical-left Democrats. Or so they say, whether they actually believe it or not. Even Trump’s would-be opponents in the next election, like Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, are getting on the bandwagon. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went so far as to proclaim that he would not cooperate with Trump’s extradition to New York, although federal law would require him to do so if Trump failed to surrender voluntarily.
The appeal of the new conspiracy theory has little to do with the law or the facts. Never mind that the indictment in question comes from a New York investigation over which President Biden had no authority. Never mind that the most serious federal investigations are the responsibility of a Special Counsel independent of the White House. Never mind that most of the witnesses against Trump in the January 6 investigation and others have been Republicans who put their civic duties above their party affiliations. Never mind that nothing in the Constitution or federal statute places a former president beyond the reach of the criminal law.
Day in court
The Republicans who are loudly condemning the indictment would be wiser to focus their remarks on the presumption of innocence and respect for the legal process. The allegations I listed above are exactly that—allegations. (A few of them, such as the misuse of charitable funds and the rip-off of Trump University students, have been established by judgments in civil cases.) As always, defendants and their accusers deserve their day in court. That is when, according to the ideals of our justice system, the truth can come out and justice can be done.
Only when Trump filed suit to overturn the 2020 election did we learn that evidence to support his claims was practically nonexistent. Only when Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News for defamation did we learn that Fox’s prime-time commentators did not actually believe the Big Lie that the election was rigged. They helped spread it anyway, apparently because the Fox business model called for telling their viewers what they wanted to hear, to keep their ratings high and the advertising dollars flowing. Did they learn their lesson? Apparently not, since they are now eagerly promoting the New Big Lie. Here too, the country may need some legal proceedings to sort out truth from fiction.
Telling the truth-seekers from the Big Liars is not rocket science, pardon the cliché. The Big Liars are the ones who would rather engage in wild speculation than examine the facts of the case. In the New York case, they have rushed to judgment without even waiting to see the actual charges. In other investigations, leading Republicans have worked hard to keep the facts from emerging by delaying and impeding the legal process. Republicans with front-row seats to the events of January 6, like Mike Pence, Mark Meadows and Keven McCarthy, have been dredging up every possible excuse for not testifying about what they know. Trump himself usually contests subpoenas to testify or responds to questions by taking the fifth.
The truth and justice that the legal system might provide is exactly what Trump supporters most fear. The Trump playbook in this respect is the one recommended by Roger Stone. Whatever the accusation, always deny it, and then turn the tables by attacking the accuser. In legal cases, that means attacking the investigators, the prosecutors, the judges, and the witnesses. They are all politically motivated liars, not to be confused with that paragon of honesty and civic virtue, Donald Trump. Give me a break! Give us all a break.
I am trying to retain my faith in the two-party system, but one of our parties is sorely testing it. A democratic country needs at least two responsible parties, both of which are deeply committed to the democratic process and the rule of law. In our current political crisis, we seem to have only one.