The Criminal Delusions of Donald Trump

The Criminal Delusions of Donald Trump

The Criminal Delusions of Donald Trump

The former president faces seven federal criminal counts—and there are more to come. But the law won’t stop Trump from lying to himself.


With Donald Trump’s federal indictment on seven criminal counts relating to the former president’s seizure of more than 300 classified documents, the American constitutional system faces another stress test sparked by a failed autocrat’s malign narcissism. The charges brought by Justice Department special prosecutor Jack Smith are both chilling and bathetic—like so many of Trump’s crimes, falsehoods, and power plays. Trump reportedly kept correspondence with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, presumably as a bit of kitschy memorabilia to impress throngs of sycophants at his Mar-a-Lago home; he’s also alleged to have purloined documents revealing nuclear secrets and outlined a plan to invade Iran for his private delectation, which brings the episode closer to the last reel of Dr. Strangelove than The Interview.

Smith’s case will get a fuller airing next Tuesday when Trump is formally indicted, but early reports indicate that the 45th president will face charges of retaining national security secrets under the Espionage Act, along with conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements. These latter two charges are by now known to Americans as Trump’s standard MO (see the Alvin Bragg indictment and E. Jean Carroll verdict in New York). But the Espionage Act charge places these venal Trumpian reflexes in the context of the imperial powers that he so cavalierly assumed in January 2017. In training his grasping and self-seeking impulses on the war-making side of the presidency, he’s jeopardized more than his carefully cultivated political image as the fearless tribune of forgotten MAGA patriots; his lies and obfuscations allegedly betray his office’s gravest responsibilities of defending the republic against its enemies and upholding collective security.

In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll get forensic readings of the alleged security breaches created by Trump’s rushed repatriation of this document cache to his Mar-a-Lago estate when he finally relinquished the presidency in 2021—as well as his repeated lies about their classified status and actual whereabouts. That’s all good—except, of course, that the mainstream political press will also continue to parrot and platform Trump’s played-out string of rationales, bullying tactics, and deceptions. We can already guess what Trump’s excuses will be, in extended, grammatically challenged social-media glosses on the old Nixon whopper that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

In order to dilute this agitprop masquerading as a legal strategy, we’d do well to further parse the legal case against Trump in Mar-a-lago in the context of Smith’s other pending investigation: Trump’s obvious and documented role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection. Trump’s coup attempt flagrantly defied his fundamental oath to uphold the Constitution, prospectively sacrificing the country’s civic order and baseline transitions of power on the altar of his wounded vanity and lust for unrivaled influence. It’s far from coincidental that Trump embarked on his document hoarding spree in the immediate aftermath of his failed coup. The boxes of classified materials, like the desperate bid to coerce state election officials to throw the 2020 election into the House of Representatives, bear witness to Trump’s positive-thinking fantasies of unchallenged power and impunity.

That delusional faith is what has created some of the strongest evidence in each case. The report of the Iran plan comes from a recorded phone call in which Trump brags about having it. According to a transcript obtained by CNN, the former president tells two people working on the autobiography of Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows about a document containing a plan to attack Iran he “just found.” He says, “It is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this.” He even notes that he didn’t declassify it when he was president and isn’t able to now. (His legal team remains at a loss to track down the papers.) Likewise, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger recorded a post-election call from Trump pressuring him to “find” 11,000 votes to turn the state’s election results in his favor. (For those of you keeping score at home, the Raffensperger call is also the subject of a still another grand jury probe of Trump by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, which is also expected to yield indictments.) The appeal of all those clumsily transported and concealed boxes of documents for someone like Trump–who, it should be remembered, had to be prodded into paying attention to his own national security briefings during his presidency—is the same as the psychic brief behind all the baroquely engineered lies about the 2020 election: to continue supporting the fever dream that he remains the real president, cheated out of his rightful hold on power by scheming left-wing radicals and a fake-news media establishment.

For all the genuine alarm, and legal agita, over the Mar-a-Lago case’s national security implications, we are left reckoning with something broader and uglier at the heart of all of Trump’s power-mongering: a wholly personalized model of presidential authority that overtly sacrifices constitutional government at the maximum leader’s whim, inconvenience, or tantrum. The theory behind all the many Trump prosecutions is that, at this late stage of democratic decay, the law will serve as the system’s 11th-hour savior. But the law won’t stop Donald Trump from lying to himself—and seems unlikely to rescue a political and media order that keeps mistaking Trump’s nihilistic delusions for reasoned policy disagreement.

It’s the conventional legal wisdom that Trump is mounting his third campaign for the presidency in order to keep himself above the law—to pardon himself and his corps of quisling enablers when he once again reaches the summit of executive power. But it’s at least as plausible that Trump thinks that the reverse is true: that he can harness the backlash he’s choreographing in response to his overlapping legal prosecutions as the surest path to the boundless power that every narcissist craves. The chilling and bathetic truth of the matter is that he might be right.

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