The earthquake has finally arrived. Donald Trump has been indicted on seven counts associated with his handling of classified documents at his Florida home.
These indictments place him in acute legal jeopardy just as the 2024 GOP primary is picking up steam.
What happens now?
The Donald Trump Indictments
The indictments represent progress in the long-brewing legal investigation of Trump’s mishandling of classified documents after the end of his Presidency. The indictments won’t be unsealed until Tuesday, when Trump is expected to surrender to authorities. These charges are hardly the only legal jeopardy facing the former President; Trump remains under indictment in New York on charges of an extensive campaign of financial fraud. In Georgia, Trump may face charges associated with efforts to tamper in the 2020 election.
The fact is that GOP elites have long been aware of Donald Trump’s loose relationship with the law.
His primary opponents mentioned it repeatedly during the 2016 Presidential primary, while they were still in disbelief that the primary voters of the Republican Party could possibly prefer Trump to themselves.
Unfortunately, the GOP’s overall response to Donald Trump has been characterized by the utter cowardice of its elite class and the extremism and perfidy of its base. The base loves Trump, and is indifferent to his crimes as long as he hates the same people that they hate.
The political class hates Trump but is terrified of his relationship with the base, and long ago decided that it was better to be inside the tent than out. Unsurprisingly, few of Trump’s 2024 opponents have acknowledged that the indictments represent serious charges of abuse of power on the part of the former President. Instead, most have simply denounced the prosecutors, secretly hoping that Trump will be destroyed while publicly bemoaning “politicized” prosecutions.=
President Trump won’t see the inside of a prison anytime soon.
None of the cases against him carry the jeopardy of immediate prosecution.
His high-priced legal teams will be able to delay any trials that result from the indictments until well after the election, meaning that he can continue to run for President unimpeded.
President Trump certainly seems to think that the indictments will help him politically, as he has repeatedly attempted to pre-empt prosecutors by announcing his misfortune on social media. Within the GOP it is certainly possible that the indictments are an asset to his campaign, although he’s already so far ahead of his rivals that it may not matter.
The general election is a different matter. Democrats and independents do not view the idea that Trump might serve as President while under indictment positively.
We have to appreciate that Donald Trump is the leader of a minority coalition, and that he has lost the popular vote for President twice. He needs to improve on his 2020 numbers in order to defeat Joe Biden, and to do that he needs to appeal to Democrats, independents, and disaffected Republicans. It’s hard to see how the indictments help him with any of those three constituencies.
Rule of Law
Do the indictments of President Trump spell trouble for the concept of “rule of law” in the United States?
Trump has made the argument that the investigations against him are political motivated, and that they represent a corrupt attempt to destroy him before he can defeat Joe Biden in 2024.
To be sure, there is something dangerous about the idea that a major opposition political candidate can be targeted by the legal apparatus of the state.
But then President Trump ran on the idea of “locking up” his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election, and ordered numerous legal investigations into his political opponents while President.
Elected officials and those running for election are not and have never been immune to prosecution. Former heads of government in countries around the world and in states around the US have faced prosecution for criminal activity. To spare Trump legal scrutiny because he’s running for office would hardly be in accord with the rule of law; rather, it would enhance Trump’s capacity to undermine and destroy the American legal system.
What Happens Now to Donald Trump and the GOP?
Many Republicans have been waiting for seven years for the Democrats to solve their Trump problem. In 2016 many were willing to concede the election to Hillary Clinton in the hopes that a defeated Trump would simply fade away.
After 2021 they hoped that his behavior and that of his supporters was so toxic that he would no longer be a viable political force. Today, they hope that the Departments of Justice of New York, Georgia, and the United States will put a forcible end to Trump’s political career. This is why so many GOPsters are mounting quixotic campaigns against a prohibitive front runner with huge advantages in organizing, funding, and name recognition; they hope that Trump is some kind of weird aberration that Democrats can finally make go away, and that they’ll be left to pick up the pieces.
Unfortunately, these profiles in cowardice are unlikely to be rewarded by the ponderous wheels of justice. Most of them will fall in line behind Donald Trump as the nominee, disgracing themselves and their party by supporting a candidate who regards the law as a trivial inconvenience.
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.