By Bruce Shlain / Detroit
Donald J. Trump was put under arrest on Tuesday and charged with 34 felony counts. There were no handcuffs, no mug shot, and no sitting in a jail cell, but he seemed none too happy about becoming America’s best-known criminal defendant.
The New York City indictment is in fact for some of Trump’s lesser crimes, not like the ones that could be coming down the pike for fomenting a riot on the Capitol to blunt the peaceful transfer of power, the interference in the election in Georgia, or the stolen classified documents stashed at Golf-a-Lardo. It is kind of like getting Al Capone on income tax evasion after all of Capone’s murders, extortion, and influence peddling under the table.
In fact, it is not strictly illegal to make a hush-money payment, as in a nondisclosure agreement (wealthy men, for instance, employ these agreements in harassment suits all the time). The charges laid out at the arraignment detailed how the money was allegedly funneled and covered up, business records were falsified and tax fraud was committed, all in an illegal conspiracy to aid Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 by covering up his extramarital affairs.
Trump attorney and bagman Michael Cohen was sent to jail in 2019 for this imbroglio. He served his time and came out singing forcefully about the “Individual 1” named in his indictment, none other than the then-sitting president. Even if it concerns a relatively minor matter, a crime is a crime, and it is an important historical precedent, adding to Trump’s résumé as the only president to be twice impeached.
Minutes after the news broke on Thursday that a Manhattan grand jury had voted in favor of bringing charges against Donald Trump related to a hush-money payment made to adult actress Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump Jr. was responding angrily online. Obviously, DJTJ was taking it seriously because, as Jimmy Kimmel noted in his monologue, Junior’s hands were not waving around like the Swedish Chef on The Muppets.
“This is weaponized justice at its absolute worst…Soros-backed Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg is actually indicting my father," Trump Jr. said on Rumble, a right-wing video platform. "This is communist-level shit. This is stuff that would make Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot — it would make them blush. It's so flagrant. It's so crazed."
The rest of the MAGA voices, from Ted Cruz to Josh Hawley to Steve Scalise, dozens really, climbed out of the Republican Clown Car and piled on with a chorus of coordinated talking points. The indictment was variously deemed a political hit job, a catastrophic weaponization of the justice system, election interference, and an assault on democracy.
Shape-shifting Sen.Lindsay Graham went on Fox News and had tears in his eyes while defending Trump, then went all Oral Roberts and ended with a plea to send in money to help Trump fight this terrible injustice. Naturally, it’s always about the grift, and Graham at this point appears so well-trained by the Master himself that nobody has to tell him to beg for donations.
"They're trying to destroy Donald Trump,” Graham said, “because they fear him at the ballot box. To the conservatives out there, make sure you vote. If you’ve got friends, make sure they vote. If you don't have any friends, go make some friends but you need to help this man, Donald J. Trump. They're trying to drain him dry. He's spent more money on lawyers than most spend on campaigns. They're trying to bleed him dry. Donaldjtrump.com. Go tonight, give the president some money to fight this bullshit."
Fox News tried fitfully to ignore Trump, his speeches, and his rambling phone-ins to Fox & Friends. The Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit revealed the private texts showing the true opinion that Rupert Murdoch and the on-air hosts held about Trump–that he was costing the GOP one election after another and was better left to his own devices (and those were the nice remarks).
However, when Fox executives saw their viewers leaving in droves, they realized that they could not quite get off the Trump train so easily. Hence the hearty defense of #45’s political persecution, including a three-installment interview with Sean Hannity. Just as the leaders of the GOP walk on eggshells so as not to rile the almighty Trump base, the network aimed at right-wing oldsters watching an endless loop of commercials for adult diapers, hearing aids, and shit pills, has found it just as difficult to cast Trump aside.
Presidential hopeful Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis finds himself in the same quagmire. He parrots one Trump policy after another so as to appear very much like Trump himself except for not actually being Trump –Trump-Lite, if you will. He acts the tough guy while coming down as hard as he can on Disney World for its support of LGBTQ initiatives, and makes it well known that Drag Queen Story Hour has no place in the Sunshine State he envisions. His “owning the libs” strategy includes dumping migrants in Washington, D.C. or on Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of the night because if they want to be sanctuary cities, let them deal with these tired and poor people.
Nonetheless, DeSantis immediately declared that the indictment of Trump was “un-American” and pledged not to cooperate with federal authorities who wished to extradite Trump to New York to be processed and arraigned. It was an empty promise, as Trump was already negotiating through his own lawyers on how he was to be brought into the courthouse, with his Secret Service guard in tow.
So it was typical DeSantis, presenting a tough-guy-warrior front while living in a wimpyland of cowering fear of his political rival. Trump has slammed him again and again, with the nicknames “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron,” and accusing the governor of grooming underage students to be his sex toys or having come to him in tears to beg for his endorsement. DeSantis has said nothing in return.
The MAGA pundits are already saying the felony charges revealed on Tuesday will energize Trump’s followers and hand him the nomination. Of course, that is hardly the case, and doing nothing but complain about your persecution and prosecution is not the kind of campaign that could ever attract independents and win a national election. Even though he may get a temporary bump from presenting himself as a martyr to the cause, Trump is finished, but like Bluto’s speech in Animal House, nothing is over until he says it’s over.
Meanwhile, GOP House honchos Jim Jordan of Indiana, Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer of Kentucky and Administration Committee Chairman Bryan Steil of Wisconsin sent a letter asking Bragg to testify before Congress about his investigation into the hush money payment Trump made to adult film star Stormy Daniels, implying collusion between the state prosecutor and the feds. However, the House of Representatives has no jurisdiction over a state prosecution whatsoever. Bragg finally wrote back to tell them in effect to “Weaponize this!”–warning that their interference in a criminal investigation was on the brink of being criminal conduct.
As for Trump, he remains his typical model of restraint, using his Truth Social over the last few weeks to call Prosecutor Alvin Bragg an animal, degenerate, psychopath, racist, and radical-left monster, and posing with a baseball bat next to Bragg’s head. Bragg has already received a death threat with an envelope filled with white powder. At the arraignment, Judge Juan Merchan let Team Trump know that he was very concerned about such comments, without acknowledging how problematic it would be to place a gag order on a criminal defendant who is also running for president.
Trump cares little if he stirs up some nutty assailant to commit mayhem, since as a chaos agent, that remains how he plays the game. He scheduled a rally in Waco, Tex., a none-too-subtle reference to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who waged war against the U.S. government. At Waco, he opened with a surreal musical interlude, a recording of Trump reciting The Pledge of Allegiance with the J6 Choir (the convicts imprisoned for the Capitol riot) singing “The Star Spangled Banner” behind it. Then he lied about federal prosecutors resigning because the case against him was so flimsy (in fact they resigned because the case was not being pursued) and claimed that they had already dropped the case against him in New York after mistakenly predicting the day of his arrest days earlier.
The case against Trump was of course very much alive. It is not really a a moment for simple hoorays that the rule of law has been upheld, and proof that in our society no man can be above the law. The trial will take a long time, it may be terminally boring in the details, and we will have to see if Trump ever serves any time. More importantly, as the Washington Post editorial board pointed out, this could very well be opening a Pandora’s box of endless cycles of revenge, whereby the party in power feels free to prosecute the party members who just lost an election.
It seems that many in the GOP are ready to do that now. Listen to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who was preparing to deliver a Lincoln Day address in Gettysburg, Pa. last Thursday night, but just had to tweet about Trump’s indictment: "The irony of standing on the battleground when I found out President Trump has been indicted is profound." Greene said Trump was innocent and “the only one standing in the way of these modern-day tyrants, just like our Founding Fathers did, to protect each of us from evil.
“Impeach Biden,” she continued. “He’s given us every reason and the family banking records and more are giving us receipts. But now the gloves are off. Prosecute any and all crimes. Enough of this witch hunt bullshit.”
Greene appeared outside the New York courthouse to protest Trump’s arrest on the heels of her controversial appearance on 60 Minutes, where she was allowed by interviewer Lesley Stahl to spew her toxic brew of hate-filled rhetoric.
Some may dismiss Our Little Margie as a garden-variety, foul-mouthed, ignorant bigot who fell down the QAnon rabbit hole and emerged as a conspiracy wack job with a blood thirst for insurrection and civil war. But the Crazy Caucus that she represents brought Kevin McCarthy to heel before he was allowed to be House Speaker.
It is really not clear in the fog of retribution and super-polarized mudslinging whether cooler heads will ultimately prevail, and just how this Trump indictment will serve as a clarion call for transparency, truth and justice. The sorry-ass truth is that part of Trump’s legacy may be that what we have always thought of as the Ship of State may have already sailed.
Bruce Shlain is the co-author of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond; Oddballs: Baseball's Greatest Pranksters, Flakes, Hot Dogs, and Hotheads, and Baseball Inside Out: Winning the Games Within the Games. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Men's Life, Mother Jones, and other publications. Writer and producer for Major League Baseball, Good Morning America, editor of a Manhattan weekly, senior copywriter for BBDO. He is currently at work on a memoir A Changed Man.