Trials Are About Facts. That’s Bad For Trump.

7 minute read
Charen is a syndicated columnist, Policy Editor at The Bulwark, and host of the Beg to Differ podcast.

The mournful lesson of the GOP primaries in 2016 was summed up by the hashtag “LOL, nothing matters.” It captured the vertiginous sense among traditional Republicans that the political world had been loosed from its moorings; that damning facts no longer had purchase with voters because a critical mass of Americans had, for whatever reason, chosen to trust the least honest man in America.

The series of indictments against Donald Trump may mark a turning point.

From day one, when the president’s press secretary lied to reporters about Trump’s inaugural crowd size, the Trump presidency amounted to a systematic assault on truth. Though at times almost amusing—as in “Sharpiegate” when the commander-in-chief displayed a doctored weather map to support his erroneous claim about a hurricane’s path—most of Trump’s lies were no laughing matter. They served as an acid eating away at the already frayed bonds of affection among Americans. They incited fear of immigrants (as when Trump frequently claimed that “Middle Eastern terrorists were flooding across the southern border”), distrust of allies (as when he ceaselessly insisted that NATO was stiffing the U.S. on contributions), and confusion about basic facts such as how much of the wall Trump actually built (not “450 miles” as he boasted, but 40). The number of Americans who died needlessly from COVID-19 due to Trump’s denial of the seriousness of the threat (“It will go away in April”) and endorsement of quack cures will never be known, but the U.S. wound up with the highest number of deaths per 100,000 population among advanced industrialized nations.

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The chaotic and dishonest federal response to COVID-19 response was a steep price Americans paid for Trump’s assault on truth. But it may not have been the most consequential. The lies did even more damage to social trust. The deluge of deceit undermined faith in every institution that Trump suspected might thwart him—the press, the intelligence services, the courts, government employees, public health authorities, the military, and finally, the electoral system.

Self-styled Trump grand strategist Steve Bannon has implied that the lying is strategic; that “flooding the zone with s—” is part of a plan, similar to that employed by Vladimir Putin, to confuse the public to the point where they give up attempting to separate truth from falsehood. In the long eight years that Trump has dominated our national life, he has succeeded in transforming a third of the GOP into a hermetically sealed cult and persuading a fair share of the remainder to treat negative information about him as politically-motivated dirt (even if also possibly true). 

Trump has not achieved this alone. Elected Republicans, party functionaries, and the organs of right wing influence have played a large (if sometimes expensive) role in this, serving as Trump’s phalanx of falsehood. The gaslighting has demoralized those Republicans who remain immune, to say nothing of independents and Democrats.

Which brings us to the indictments. The one realm of American life that has shown itself impervious to Trump’s assault on truth is the courts. The tactics of lying, whataboutism, distraction, and insults may succeed on NewsMax or in the pages of the Federalist. They don’t work as well in front of a judge. As Stefanos Bibas, a Trump-appointed judge on the Third Circuit, ruled after rejecting the Trump campaign’s effort to disenfranchise millions of Pennsylvania’s voters: “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”

“Specific allegations and proof.” That is unfamiliar territory for Trump. Courts are not perfect truth detectors, but they are a helluva lot better at separating fact from fiction than talk radio, social media, or cable TV. Just ask E. Jean Carroll or the plaintiffs in the Trump University case.

In 2020, the Trump campaign filed more than 60 lawsuits challenging the results of the election. A total of 86 judges, including all nine justices of the Supreme Court, heard at least some of these claims. With the exception of a trivial ruling about Pennsylvania’s late arriving mail ballots that would not have changed the outcome, the Trump campaign lost every case. Among the judges who ruled against Trump’s claims were 38 who were appointed by Republicans (including Trump himself). 

Trials have a unique power to rivet attention. A trial of a former president will be an unprecedented national moment with the capacity – perhaps the unique capacity – to penetrate America’s information silos. The upcoming trials in Florida for willful retention of classified documents and in DC for a conspiracy to disenfranchise the American people probably will not budge the Trump faithful. But the segments of the Republican party that are not in Trump’s thrall may yet be persuadable. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who get most of their information from right-leaning sources may have only the haziest notion of what Trump is accused of. They will have forgotten that all of the chief witnesses against Trump at the January 6 congressional hearings and those likely to testify in upcoming trials are fellow Republicans and former Trump associates. They will hear from Republicans, like former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who voted for Trump twice but could not in conscience steal the election for him, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who would not lie to subvert the 2020 election outcome.

Testimony can be expected as well from the two top Michigan state lawmakers who were summoned to the White House and jawboned to change the Michigan electors. After a lengthy meeting, they emerged to declare “We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and, as legislative leaders, we will follow the law. . . “ The jurors will hear from former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr who has said not only that Trump knew he lost and that he told Trump that the allegations of fraud were “bull—-,” but that Trump never gave “any indication of interest in what the actual facts were.”

They will also probably hear testimony from former acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen, former deputy acting Attorney General Richard Donaghue, former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, former assistant to the chief of staff Cassidy Hutchinson, and very likely Mark Meadows himself. Trump’s former campaign manager, his White House counsel, his director of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security, his Director of National Intelligence, and more will lend their credibility to the case. Jurors will weigh Trump’s choice to disregard their judgments in favor of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. The court will hear former Vice President Mike Pence say again that he could not violate his oath or his conscience and steal the election for Trump.

Courtrooms don’t run like TV studios. Irrelevant testimony is not permitted. Changing the subject won’t fly. Cross examination reveals contradictions. Failure to answer a question will get a rebuke from the judge. Lying under oath is a crime. So is witness tampering. Trump will not have the scope, so often exploited in the past, to create diversions from this drama. It will hold us and him in its grip. With any luck, some Republicans will get their first inkling of the avalanche of lies Trump has told.

And just maybe, some Republicans will be a bit inspired by the patriotism and integrity of Americans like Rusty Bowers, who withstood pressure from Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, and Trump to falsify Arizona’s electoral votes. “I took an oath,” he explained simply. And in his diary he noted: “I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to.” 

Republicans like Bowers, Raffensperger, and Pence saved America from chaos in January 2021. Perhaps they can do the same for 2024. 

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