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The criminal indictment of ex-President Donald Trump for his alleged attempts to subvert democracy and incite the Jan. 6, 2021, melee in Washington has been a long time coming. Now that it’s here, two-and-a-half years after a mob listened to Trump, marched about a mile eastward, and ransacked the U.S. Capitol in service of his lies about a stolen 2020 election, it hits a little different than the charges previously brought against Trump.
A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged Trump with an alleged conspiracy to defraud the United States, a conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding, and a conspiracy against voting rights. The charges are a remarkable escalation of the legal troubles chasing Trump during what he hopes is a brief return to civilian life. Trump, who is running for President again in 2024 and is the runaway front-runner in the Republican field, could face years in prison if convicted. Now Trump has made history once again, becoming a thrice-indicted ex-Commander in Chief. Well, at least if the normal rules of political gravity still matter. History is being made, but not all history is good.
It was a day a lot of the folks who experienced the attack in Washington on Jan. 6 had been seeking for a long time. The wall-to-wall coverage on cable, the constant refreshes of social-media sites, and even the text chains around Capitol Hill all reflected an anxiety that this may be a false start. It will be similar when Trump is due in court on Thursday in D.C.
Politicos of both parties in D.C. watched in horror more than two years ago as a riot descended on Capitol Hill, the mob raiding offices, menacing lawmakers, and fighting hand-to-hand combat with police. The top leadership of both chambers followed evacuation protocols to make sure their branch of government wouldn’t be decapitated. Vice President Mike Pence was pinned down and forced to hide at a loading dock while White House aides unsuccessfully lobbied Trump to direct his legion of followers to stop terrorizing democracy. Partisanship fades when Hill staffers talk about that day, even if many of their bosses have publicly retreated from prior criticism of Trump and sought to shade the painful facts.
The Trump years numbed the country to the word “unprecedented,” amid the constant reverberations of history being made. From the day Trump took office as the only person ever elected to the presidency with zero government or military experience, around every corner came norm-breaking and precedent-smashing. His tweets broke the fourth wall, he was the only President impeached twice, became the first in 150 years to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration, and his Administration paid so little heed to laws prohibiting politicking on the government dime that he held the Republican convention on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump’s team has already started telling allies on the Hill that these latest indictments will not matter at all for his reelection hopes. Republicans cite “indictment fatigue,” hoping to plant the idea that voters don’t much care about it and have already accepted that Trump is a bad dude who doesn’t play by the rules. It’s going to be “Old News!” on the socials and “Witch Hunt!” in the hallways. The messaging leaves responsible conservatives squeamish, but they’ll still carry it for fear of being branded insufficiently MAGA, and thus vulnerable in a primary from someone who wears the red hat proudly.
Trump’s past two indictments suggest this one may, perversely, benefit him as well. The aftermath of those charges—totaling at least 78 felony allegations and counting—brought a fundraising boon and a polling surge. That’s right: the self-described billionaire will collect millions in donations from his fans who see the real estate mogul as a victim of a weaponized Justice Department. His best days of fundraising have been his worst ones legally.
It’s worth taking a beat to appreciate how casually we all blew through the phrase “past two indictments” in the previous paragraph. And the fact that a former President now accused of a “conspiracy to defraud the United States” remains the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s re-nomination next year. A thrice-indicted, convicted sexual abuser, alleged election interferer and wealth fabulist is on course to coast to the general election, past capable governors, investors, ambassadors, and even his own former Vice President. Trump could still return to power facing federal charges and, in turn, dodge accountability for any of his alleged misdeeds. (This is why the state-based cases, where Trump will lack pardon powers, may be the real places to watch.)
But that doesn’t mean the next year-plus will be easy for Trump. His troubles are as epic as they are history-making—and, maybe, incompatible with his campaign schedule. Trump is due in court in October to answer a $250 million civil lawsuit brought by the New York Attorney General on allegations the Trumps falsified business records. He is scheduled to begin a New York County criminal trial in March of next year on 34 charges that he falsified Trump Organization business records to pay off a porn star. A federal judge ruled on July 19 the case in Manhattan should continue there, and not be moved into the federal track. Trump was arraigned last month on charges he had classified documents at his Florida vacation club and defied subpoenas to return them, a case also brought by special counsel Smith. He pleaded not guilty to 37 charges. Another three were added last week. A trial date could start in May in Florida.
And, as of Tuesday, he could be facing criminal charges in a D.C. federal court on charges linked to Jan. 6.
On top of all of this, Trump faces potential criminal charges of election tampering in Georgia for a call asking the state’s balloting chief to change the winner; an indictment has been considered imminent in a county-based case since February, and a new grand jury was seated last week. A decision, it seems, is imminent.
Yet, somehow, there remains a better-than-even-odds chance he squirms out of any consequences, which would leave a lot of the witnesses to the chaos of Jan. 6 deeply skeptical about the evenhandedness of the criminal justice system if not dejected and cynical. After all, a high-wattage series of congressional hearings last year into Trump’s conduct surrounding the riot resulted in a collective shrug, and two impeachment trials—one of which was also about Jan. 6—failed to deliver convictions.
Those earlier indictments cut some parts of Trump’s clout down to size. But those haven’t yet been enough to take him down, because Presidents stand like giants. That may be changing, as instead of standing with Sequoia-like titans like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, the Trump sapling is being cut into a stump. With this latest indictment, which is a federal criminal probe that goes beyond fibbing on tax forms and mishandling spycraft files and includes a bodycount, Trump has few chances to rise to his predecessor’s heights, at least beyond a shady corner of his partisan bonfire. It’s why Tuesday’s indictment is not like the earlier ones: it may be the one cited in the first line of future history books. He may well dodge jail time, but even the one-time most-powerful person on the planet cannot escape the accountability of historians.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com