By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Even though I bloviate here each week, I have no problem admitting when I’ve been proved wrong. In the case of what transpired in 2022, I’m very happy to do just that.
Given all we have learned about Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, and ongoing efforts by far-right Republicans to place our electoral system at the mercy of their partisan state legislatures, I expected the midterm elections to be riddled with voter intimidation, chaos and violence. It’s a huge relief that they came off peacefully. There were only a few relatively minor incidents and a residual effort by ultra-Trumper Kari Lake to undo the results of her loss in Arizona’s race for governor.
I attribute that good fortune to successful prosecutions of militia members, Jan. 6 participants, and the miscreants who plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The legal crackdown likely gave such folks reasons to lie low. I also imagine that the GOP has gotten woke to the fact that their extreme approach to challenging unfavorable election results with boatloads of bull droppings doesn’t sit well with most Americans.
Though the Orange Beast has hardly been slain, Trump has been taken down a peg politically. Legal cases against him (tax fraud, obstruction of justice, interfering with an election, illegal possession of classified documents) are proceeding. Still, it’s easy to feel skeptical that not much will come of them. I try to take comfort in things said on a recent edition of WAMC-FM’s daily Roundtable show by Albany County District Attorney David Soares.
Addressing the frustration that many feel about the glacial pace at which U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other prosecutors are moving in their investigations, Soares pointed out how painstaking such efforts must be in order to succeed with a conviction. To use his analogy, all the i’s must be dotted and t’s crossed when taking on someone with Trump’s power and almost unlimited funding (much of it provided by his ever-contributing supporters).
“If you go after the King, you better not miss” is the old saying that Soares cited. That means making sure you have enough solid, credible evidence to prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt, especially to a jury that will likely contain at least one member who is even somewhat sympathetic to Trump.
Soares also explained that prosecutors will likely pursue only cases or aspects of them that are as close to open-and-shut as possible. To do otherwise is to leave too much to chance. Trump’s possession of highly classified documents is one favorable case. The law clearly says it is illegal to possess such material in an unsecure location and without authorization. Either Trump did do such a thing or he didn’t. As the search of his Mar-a-Lago palace revealed, he obviously did. However, his attempt to overthrow the U.S. government is not as cut-and-dried.
In our current polarized environment, millions of Americans feel Trump’s actions before and after losing the 2020 election were completely justified. Never mind that there is still no evidence to give his efforts a shred of legality. His party says the Capitol riot to stop certification of the vote was “legitimate political discourse” and MAGA nation clearly agrees. Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ texts to GOP leaders are certainly damning. The Jan. 6 Committee’s final report may be as well. The same with revelations in the sedition trials of Capitol riot participants. Even with all that, it could still be very hard to convince a jury that Trump’s actions rose to the level of intentional criminality.
I agree with the common expectation that Trump will go the way of Al Capone: nailed for one crime (in Capone’s case, tax evasion) while a host of more serious allegations remain unpunished or unresolved. It’s also easy to feel that Trump’s penalties will be infuriatingly light. A federal judge recently declined to charge him with contempt of court for failing to fully comply with a grand jury subpoena to return classified documents. Prior to that, a Manhattan criminal court judge fined the Trump Organization $4,000 — you read that right, $4,000 — for defying subpoenas requiring them to provide requested evidence in a tax fraud case. Talk about chump change!
Given the political backlash, quite possibly violent, that will occur if Trump is indicted, let alone convicted, it’s easy to see why prosecutors may try to walk a tightrope and have his deeds legally condemned while he and other perpetrators receive a stern tut-tut-tut. But it’s still a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t deal. If Trump essentially skates, what does he or anyone else have to lose by conveniently ignoring the Constitution, thumbing their nose at subpoenas, and trying to void election results?
In the meantime, I expect 2023 to be a year of nauseating political spectacles. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives will almost certainly be working to justify GOP support for the Jan. 6 insurrection while bombarding the country with inflammatory rhetoric and false claims. I’ll eat my hat in Macy’s window with great gusto if their promised investigations of the Biden Administration don’t yield the same results as the 13 federal or Republican probes of Hillary Clinton: bupkis.
At this time next year, I’ll be more than glad to admit I was wrong about all of this … for any reason. I just wish I could see reasons to think I will be.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.