Monday, June 12, 2023

Trump's federal indictment and what it means


Donald Trump announced on Truth Social yesterday that he had been indicted by a federal grand jury. The Department of Justice has not yet made a statement, but Trump said that he has been summoned to the federal courthouse in Miami next Tuesday at 3 pm.

Credit: Twitter screenshot from @mediumbuying

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Justice Department sources told the New York Times that the indictment contains seven charges relating to retaining classified documents and obstructing justice. There could be multiple counts relating to each charge.

Jim Trusty, an attorney for Mr. Trump, confirmed that there were “several obstruction-based type charges, and then false statement charges.” At least one charge is related to conspiracy and at least one charge was filed under the Espionage Act.

Currently, the indictment is sealed so the exact nature of the charges is not publicly known, but based on Trusty’s statements, which were in turn based on the summons, Politico says that the basis for the charges includes:

CNN last week reported the existence of an audio tape that was in the government’s possession in which Trump admitted that he possessed classified documents. Now the outlet has published part of a transcript of the recording.

Rustling papers, Trump reportedly says, “Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this. This was done by the military and given to me.”

Trump continues after complaining about Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying, “All sorts of stuff – pages long, look. Wait a minute, let’s see here. I just found, isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this.”

At one point, Trump comments, “As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t.”

This is what is known as a smoking gun. On the recording, Trump confirms that he knew he had classified documents, that he knew he wasn’t supposed to have them, and that he knew that he had not previously declassified them and could no longer do so. This is a prosecutor’s dream, showing both recognition that he was breaking the law and intent. It is a damning piece of evidence.

The government reportedly obtained the recording of the meeting through a subpoena in March. The meeting itself took place in 2021 at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey resort. Two biographers were present at the meeting as well as former chief-of-staff Mark Meadows and several aides including communications specialist Margo Martin. There is no word on whether others present at the meeting might face charges, but it is likely that they have been interviewed by federal investigators.

Trump’s admissions on the recording dovetail with earlier reports of The Former Guy’s attempts to obstruct the FBI in recovering documents from Mar-a-Lago. Also previously known was that a statement put out by Team Trump denying that further classified documents were at the former president’s compound turned out to be a false claim.

Predictably, Republicans did not react well to the news that The Former Guy was being charged. As I pointed out yesterday Trump’s primary opponents have been hesitant to attack him. Many Republicans came out in open defense of Donald Trump, and many more launched attacks on the Justice Department.

Ron DeSantis predictably called the indictment “the weaponization of federal law enforcement,” but even more mainstream and sane Republicans attacked the system. For example, Tim Scott promised a “purge” of the justice system

Some Republicans went quiet. Nikki Haley had a string of Friday morning tweets about Biden’s energy plan while Mike Pence’s Twitter timeline was about campaign events.

Asa Hutchinson released a strong statement, saying that “Donald Trump’s actions - from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law - should not define our nation or the Republican Party,” and calling it a “sad day” and a distraction.”

Chris Christie was more measured in his response, saying, “We don’t get our news from Trump’s Truth Social account. Let’s see what the facts are when any possible indictment is released.”

“No one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were,” Christie noted.

Such statements about the rule of law are common from Republicans, but this is where the rubber meets the road. To find out what Republicans really think about the rule of law, watch them over the next few days. Republicans who really believe in the rule of law will call for calm and let the process play out. Republicans who feel it’s more important to pander to Trump and his base will pour fuel on the fire and do things like compare our justice system to a “banana republic,” as Matt Walsh did.

In reality, the indictment shows that we are the opposite of a banana republic. In a banana republic, the top banana is unaccountable and can do whatever he wants with no fear of being held accountable. That’s the system that Matt Walsh and Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott seem to want.

In our system, where law the law reigns supreme, even presidents (and former presidents) have to obey the law. That is the very antithesis of a banana republic.

What the MAGA Republicans would have you believe is that Joe Biden had Donald Trump indicted for political reasons. The reality is that Joe Biden was not involved in the process.

The reality is that the Justice Department picked a special counsel to investigate the matter, specifically taking the Trump investigation out of the hands of the Biden Justice Department. The reality is that Special Counsel Jack Smith took the evidence to a federal grand jury. It was the grand jury, not Joe Biden, that indicted Donald Trump.

But the MAGA Republicans cannot admit these truths because doing so would require them to acknowledge that Donald Trump is at least incompetent and may well be corrupt. They cannot bring themselves to confront these truths because that would mean that they have to confront Trump and his base. That would likely mean the end of their careers since Donald Trump now is the Republican Party.

The Republican presidential candidates undoubtedly hope that the indictment will remove Trump from the running. They won’t be that lucky. In the first place, we are only six months from the start of the primary season, and trials - especially big trials - don’t happen that fast.

In the second place, the candidates’ own attacks, not on Trump but on the justice system, will enable Republican voters to tune out the reality of Trump’s crimes. Republican voters will rally around Trump and repeat the Democratic mistake of 2016 by nominating a candidate who is under federal investigation. The spineless sycophancy of the Republican challengers is going to help to renominate Trump and then he will lose again in 2024.

I won’t say that it’s impossible for Trump to win re-election. After 2016, that’s a phrase I won’t use. I do think that Trump was very unlikely to win even before the indictment, however, and campaigning while dealing with a looming federal court case does not help his chances.

Far more dangerous than indicting a former president and/or current candidate are the attacks on the justice system that are intended to prop up a personality cult at the expense of undermining federal institutions. This is precisely what many of us were worried about when Donald Trump was elected.

Our constitutional Republic has been resilient. It took a long time to get to this point, but we have so far withstood what my friend Steve Berman once called a “stress test” of our Constitution and government. Our system has held up to the stress so far, no thanks to the MAGA Republicans and those who take the coward’s way out and go silent, but I wonder how long the stress can continue to be applied before something breaks.

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Update: As of 2:30 pm on June 9, the indictment has been unsealed. 37 counts including showing classified documents to unauthorized persons. Trump’s military aide, Walt Nauta, has also been charged.

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