This is the big one. The gravest legal threat Donald Trump has ever faced, the one most likely to rattle his political comeback and imperil his very freedom.
The former president announced he’s been indicted and been ordered to appear in a Miami court next Tuesday, on what his lawyers say are seven charges, including Espionage Act violations over wilful mishandling of classified documents.
“I’m an innocent man,” Trump said in a video late Thursday. “This is warfare for the law. We can’t let it happen.”
So the breaker of political barriers is about to bust a new one. The first president to be impeached twice; he recently became the first ex-president charged with a crime. He now becomes the first ex-president charged twice, and the first charged with federal crimes.
Make no mistake: this is in a different legal league than his earlier arrest this spring on New York state charges of hush money payments to hide a sexual affair.
Even some vocal Trump critics questioned that earlier arrest, calling those charges weak. His former attorney general, Bill Barr, called it a miscarriage of justice.
Barr views this case differently.
“I’ve said for a while that I think this is the most dangerous legal risk facing the former president,” Barr told CBS earlier this week, speaking of the documents investigation.
“From what I’ve seen there’s substantial evidence there. … There’s no excuse for what he did here.”
What Trump did, allegedly, was take classified documents with him upon leaving office, then brush off requests to hand them back.
Trump argues that he had the right to take those documents and, if he’s charged, why wouldn’t President Joe Biden be too, given his own mishandling of numerous classified documents?
What makes Trump’s case different, Barr said, is how his former boss behaved when federal authorities told him in 2021 they wanted the documents returned.
Media reports say special counsel Jack Smith has been questioning people in Trump’s orbit about whether he knowingly lied, and directed others to lie afterwards.
“This would have gone nowhere had the president just returned the documents. But he jerked [the government] around for a year and a half,” said Barr, who insisted he does not view this case as a witch hunt.
He suggests this case could do actual political damage, as the public learns about it.
It would be a first. The former president has retained near-unassailable loyalty from Republican voters through past scandals.
The earlier charges against Trump did absolutely nothing to dim his political prospects. He is crushing the field in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and, if anything, his lead has only strengthened since his first arrest.
Even in a general-election matchup, early polls suggest a close race where Trump stands a chance of defeating Joe Biden and returning to power on Jan. 20, 2025, just over 48 months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
The only safe prediction at this point? His legal fight will become the centre of gravity in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, with everything orbiting around it.
Trump rivals keep rallying to him
Rival candidates will be forced to take positions: Are you with him or against him? Will you pardon him if elected, or not? Will you speak out on his behalf? What are you doing to fight back?
It’s happening already.
One primary rival, Vivek Ramaswamy, immediately declared Thursday, with the indictment details still secret, that, if elected president, he would pardon Trump on his first day in office.
Trump’s most serious primary rival didn’t go quite that far but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis denounced the indictment and promised to reform the Justice Department.
Congressional Republicans are hinting they’ll fight back against the government, using their investigative power: “[We] will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable,” tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Fox News on Thursday night featured a parade of Trump defenders. There was no airtime in Fox’s prime-time lineup for critics like Chris Christie, or for former vice-president Mike Pence, who earlier this week took a nuanced view when asked about Trump charges in a CNN interview.
On Fox, even occasional Trump rivals were closing ranks. South Carolina lawmaker Nancy Mace — whom Trump tried to unseat in a primary — castigated the charges as political.
“Make no mistake,” Mace said. “This is the executive branch tonight trying to take out their No. 1 opponent.”
She predicted: “Joe Biden just secured Donald Trump’s nomination.”
Watching the general public reaction
To be clear, Mace’s remark notwithstanding these charges would have been recommended by a special counsel – appointed by Biden’s attorney general – and would have been approved by a grand jury. Biden said Thursday he’s had no information on the case.
One Trump ally called on rival primary candidates to suspend their campaigns and show up in Miami next Tuesday to protest – in support of Trump, their opponent.
So don’t hold your breath for a right-wing repudiation of Trump. The broader electorate, meanwhile, remains an open question.
Just 23 per cent of Americans believe Trump should be allowed to serve as president again if convicted of a serious crime, says a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll
Let’s see how serious they think this is.
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