If mercy and justice reliably prevailed in this fallen world, Donald Trump would not be permitted to squat rent-free and endlessly in the public consciousness. After suffering humiliation at the ballot box, he would have slithered off to live out his days at his tropical Elba in South Florida, playing golf and eating what he has called “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.” But there is no chance of that.
On Saturday morning, at seven-twenty-six to be precise, came word from Trump suggesting that he would be indicted by a grand jury in Manhattan on charges related to his alleged intimate affections, falling-out, and subsequent financial arrangements with the actress Stormy Daniels. Trump posted the message on Truth Social, his social-media site, in thundering capital letters: “THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” He seemed almost to brag about the possibility of indictment—an assertion of his continuing relevance and centrality. At the same time, with his call to arms, he deliberately aroused memories of the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021, which he did so much to organize and incite.
Trump lives in a state of constant auto-excitement. If he is not at the center of things, he is dead. Traditionally, former Presidents take differing but familiar roads: Jimmy Carter chose the path of pure service, as near to selflessness as one could imagine; nearly all the rest find ways to make a fortune, take up golf, and manage their historical reputations. They retreat. Trump, of course, moves ever forward, a white shark leading a white movement. He is undeterred by rejections, impeachments, abandonments by former allies, and multiple legal threats. He wants only to return to the White House, where he would assemble an Administration of the vengeful; and, if he cannot win, he will at least enjoy the pleasures of remaining at the center of things for a while longer.
While he campaigns and devises new nicknames for his Republican rival Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump faces potential prosecution on multiple fronts: the case in New York, for which his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was already convicted and served time in federal prison; his central role in inciting the January 6th insurrection and obstructing the certification of the Electoral College votes; and the attempt to commit election fraud in Georgia. There is also the matter of his handling of classified documents, which led to the F.B.I. search of his residence at Mar-a-Lago, and his potential role in any financial crime committed at his business, the Trump Organization.
Just because Trump said he is going to be arrested Tuesday does not mean it is true. But when Trump was recently given the opportunity to testify before a grand jury, in Manhattan, that was indeed a signal that indictment could be imminent. According to NBC News, officials in New York have been meeting to put in place adequate security measures in and around the Manhattan criminal court should Trump be indicted. Trump no longer commands the platform of the White House to mobilize supporters in the way he did two years ago: “Will be wild!” But he finds ways to get the word out.
The legal and political sources I’ve spoken with tell me that if, in fact, Trump is right and that the first indictment he faces is from the Manhattan D.A., Alvin Bragg, he is fortunate, at least in the short term. Those sources say that the Stormy Daniels case is the least significant and the weakest one facing Trump. Bragg will have to prove that the hush money provided to Daniels to cover up their affair amounts to felonious election fraud. A caveat: if indeed an indictment is coming, we do not know the specifics. Nevertheless, as the Washington Post associate editor and columnist Ruth Marcus writes, the problems with the New York case are manifold. Under state law, the hush-money payments would be only a misdemeanor. “It could rise to the level of a felony charge if prosecutors could show that Trump ordered falsification of records to conceal another crime,” she writes. But it’s unclear whether that other crime would need to be a federal offense, or whether a state offense would suffice.
Trump is shrewd enough to reap political gain if he is indicted this week in New York. Just as he played the martyr when the F.B.I. recovered classified files from Mar-a-Lago or when he was investigated, repeatedly, in Congress, he will once more complain that he, like his loyal followers, is the victim of élite disdain and persecution.
But this strategy of martyrdom is unlikely to prevail. Time will run out for Trump, be it in Georgia, at the Department of Justice, or, if it goes on that long, at the ballot box. It’s not even clear that the most vociferous of the pro-Trump groups such as the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, which have endured intense investigation and legal charges for their roles in the Capitol insurrection, will be eager to take to the streets again in Trump’s name. Recently, Ali Alexander, one of the organizers of the Stop the Steal rallies that followed the 2020 election, posted on social media, “Previously, I had said if Trump was arrested or under the threat of a perp walk, 100,000 patriots should shut down all routes to Mar-a-Lago. Now, I’m retired. I’ll pray for him though!” ♦