Donald Trump has built his career on brazenness. A man without shame, he has hurtled on apparently unstoppably, through serial scandals, two impeachments, electoral rejection and an armed insurrection by his supporters. Now he is setting another grim precedent, as the first former US president in history to be charged with a criminal offence. Half a century after the first investigation into his business dealings, a New York grand jury has voted to indict him. But even if he cannot bluster or bully his way out, he will keep fighting the law, and the law may not win.
That the case relates to paying hush money to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels is at once apt and disconcerting. Apt, in that its tawdriness and banality encapsulate the man. Disconcerting, in that it appears almost inconsequential beside the damage he has wrought upon the nation. He still faces multiple other civil and criminal cases: on the latter score alone, he is being investigated in relation to potential mishandling of classified documents; attempts to overturn his loss in Georgia in the 2020 election; and obstructing the transfer of power, as part of the justice department’s probe of the January 6 insurrection. Many would rather have seen charges brought against him on one of these grounds.
The indictment is still sealed, but reportedly includes more than two dozen counts. While Mr Trump has admitted authorising a $130,000 payment on the eve of the 2016 election, he still denies an affair with Ms Daniels, claiming to be a victim of extortion. Though his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges relating to the money, the case looks far from straightforward legally. That has fuelled concerns that it may be unsuccessful and could even strengthen him. Yet by breaking the taboo on indicting a former president, some think, it could encourage other prosecutors to take action.
Any charges would play to the martyr myth of Mr Trump’s supporters: he is already exploiting the case in fundraising and it is expected to boost him in the Republican primaries. His rival, Ron DeSantis, was quick to denounce the indictment; Fox News, which had distanced itself from Mr Trump in recent months, fell back into line. But the tackiness of this matter makes it perhaps less potent than an election-related case – and it’s unlikely to help him in the general election with former supporters who stayed at home or peeled off to Joe Biden in 2020.
The former president, barefaced as ever, has decried the charges as “election interference”, accused the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who is Black, of being racist, and drawn on antisemitic tropes. His incendiary rhetoric is not only vicious but dangerous. He had already written of “potential death and destruction” if he were indicted. His supporters have amply demonstrated their propensity for violence. But he has also demonstrated his propensity to hype the threat of force.
To shy away from bringing charges because they will increase divisions and might unleash violence would be wrong. As both businessman and politician, Mr Trump has spent a lifetime seeking to avoid legal consequences for his conduct. To allow him to sidestep them for fear of his reaction and that of his supporters would be to bolster his message that truth and the law are for little people, and that lies and might will triumph. That would surely be a far greater blow to American democracy.
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