When special counsel Jack Smith’s team indicted Trump on Thursday, the embattled ex-president and his supporters were quick to denounce the process. “I am an innocent man,” Trump whined in a video message. His wooden tone and facial mannerisms were as insincere as Nixon’s when he blurted out, “I am not a crook.” No, cancel that—it’s unfair to the crook: Nixon’s declaration of innocence, in words and body language, was positively Churchillian compared to that of Trump.
In 1974, most senior Republicans—having realized that Nixon’s demise was imminent—stayed silent. By that summer, after more than two years of revelations about the scope of the Watergate scandal, few senior GOP politicians were willing to risk their own necks to defend a man who patently was a crook.
In 2023, by contrast, before the specific language of the indictment or the evidence behind them were unveiled, one GOP grandee after the next lined up to condemn the process as a politically motivated show trial. On Thursday evening, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy referred to it as a “dark day” for the United States, calling the indictments a “brazen weaponization of power.” It was, he said, “unconscionable.” Majority leader Steve Scalise called it a “sham.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who privately must be delighted by Trump’s travails, felt compelled to signal a “weaponization of federal law enforcement.” Long-shot presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, who similarly has to be tap-dancing at the MAGA-man’s legal woes, pledged that, if elected, he would pardon Trump on day one in the White House. That well-known political philosopher Elon Musk weighed in on what he called the “differential enforcement” standards being applied against the former president. Other Trump sycophants added their two cents. For Jim Jordan, it was a “sad day for America.” For professional provocateur Matt Gaetz, it was a “hoax,” whatever that might mean.
Smith’s office let the comments come thick and fast. For 16 hours, commentators wondered why they were sitting silently while Trump and his cronies set the narrative on this. Then, the other shoe dropped. And what a shoe it was. This was a lug sole Doc Martens, the sort of footwear that could do damage just by being looked at.
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Why Senate Republicans Threw an Epic Hissy Fit Yesterday
Why Senate Republicans Threw an Epic Hissy Fit Yesterday
Early Friday afternoon, East Coast time, Smith’s office unsealed the 49-page indictment. In copious, almost cinematic detail, it chronicled the cavalier way in which top-secret documents, many of them relating to nuclear weapons, military attack plans, or US strategic vulnerabilities, were housed at Mar-a Lago—for God’s sake, some were even stacked in a shower. It described the web of lies in which Trump ensnared his own attorneys during a months-long effort to evade the government’s demands that he return these documents. And it laid out the series of untruths that he told federal investigators.
The indictment documented several instances in which Trump, much like recent Pentagon documents leaker Jack Teixeira, who wanted to impress his friends in the gaming and chatroom worlds, simply seemed to be showing off. Like an overgrown child, he dangled classified information in front of people who didn’t have the security clearance to see it.
Read the indictment, and it’s clear that these charges don’t emanate from hearsay or rumor; the allegations weren’t spun out by a couple of disgruntled ex-employees. Instead, they were the product of interviews with dozens of Mar-a-Lago insiders. Read this indictment, and there’s no way to honestly conclude that Trump was simply behaving carelessly, that he didn’t know what he was doing, that the documents were insignificant, or that this is all just some sick fantasy hatched by Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Perhaps that’s why some of the language emanating from Washington began to shift, albeit subtly, by Friday afternoon. Now, McCarthy was no longer waxing poetic about the injustice of the indictment; instead, he had whittled it down to being something that would “disrupt the nation.” Meanwhile, virtually the entire GOP caucus in the Senate was keeping mum, with hardly any senators leaping to Trump’s defense and some, including Mitt Romney, making clear their intense disdain for the man and his actions.
If this were anyone but Trump, faced with such overwhelming evidence, faced with the reality that a number of his inner circle had turned on him and talked to the Feds, faced with the fact that he can’t even convince his own attorneys to stay on the case, the defendant would be thinking about copping a deal. After all, add up the number of years that Trump could spend in prison if a jury were to find him guilty on all 37 counts—31 of which involve violations of the Espionage Act—and, even with good behavior, he likely wouldn’t be released until sometime in the middle of the millennium. Maybe add in the time from the New York indictment, the additional decades or centuries for his role in the January 6 insurrection and for his efforts to subvert the democratic process in Georgia, and Trumpty Dumpty could end up behind bars until sometime in the 3000s. That would be, to put it in Trumpian terms, the biggest, the best, the most enormous, the hugest, the most incredible prison sentence ever for an ex-president.
But this is Donald J. Trump, America’s greatest master at defying political—and judicial—gravity. This is Trump, the demagogue who can bend tens of millions of Americans to his will. This is Trump, who has reshaped an entire political party in his image and who wraps himself in the flag and accuses anybody who tries to hold him accountable of being un-American. Donald J. Trump will fight these 37 charges just as he is fighting all the other charges—of sexual assault, of tax evasion, of corruption, of insurrection, of campaign finance violations—by going on the attack and claiming to be the victim of the greatest political witch hunt in US history. And, at least for now, a goodly number of Republicans are going to go along for this sick and sadistic ride.
I say “at least for now” because both Trump and the GOP are vulnerable: If McCarthy or Scalise or any of the other top House Republicans break with Trump over these charges, then Trump’s ability to float unscathed above the tumult would likely disappear. At least a portion of his base would, ultimately, be dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that he is a grifter. But, at the same time, if the leadership does break with Trump, they know that Trump has within him the power and the desire to conjure a party-destroying Götterdämmerung moment, to take his devotees with him on a Great Trek away from the electoral process. Trump and the Republican Party are thus, at least for now, locked together.
The worse Trump’s legal peril gets, however, the easier it becomes for McCarthy and his cohort to start the disentanglement process. And at some point, from the looks of this indictment, it will become a political imperative. After all, when the broader American public (beyond the GOP base) starts to pay attention to these charges, it’s hard to see how Trump’s poll numbers stay steady, especially with the conservative-leaning independents who crave stability.
There are, of course, diehards who will forever fall on whatever sword Trump lays out for them. Yet they are, even among Republicans, I suspect, a minority. Men such as McCarthy are fair-weather friends. They care only about power. If and when Trump becomes too much of a liability, they will, I’d venture, ditch him in a heartbeat. And then, Trump will be left exposed, with no protective layers separating him from his nightmares. Examining this indictment, it’s easy to see that Trump could actually be sentenced to prison.
And where will that leave the broader GOP? Floating in a sea of wreckage, navigating a foul mess of their own creation. With this indictment, the GOP’s chickens are finally coming home to roost. Republicans made their bed with a sociopath, and that sociopath’s actions are now becoming ever more impossible to sanitize or to ignore.