By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
That sums up the state of America’s justice system. It has been so polluted by our toxic, polarized politics that no matter what the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies do, the consequences will likely be dire.
The F.B.I.’s search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago palace in Palm Beach, Fla. is bringing this dilemma to a head. At the time of this writing (Sunday, Aug. 14), highly classified documents had been found in apparent defiance of a subpoena that was issued in June, but charges had yet to be filed against Trump, who denies any and all wrongdoing. Meanwhile, right-wing media and the Republican Party is fiercely rallying to the former president’s defense.
With Trump under investigation on multiple fronts (possible tax fraud, attempting to illegally overturn the 2020 election, improperly possessing classified documents), he and his allies are sure to rile the Republican base to fury by screaming “harassment!” even if due process is followed to the letter. But if you let Trump off the hook, you give him and anyone else carte blanche to do whatever they like, laws be damned.
Some crimes (the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol in particular) are unavoidably political, but if every investigation and legal action is automatically a partisan witch hunt, then according to the Republican argument being a politician provides a shield against prosecution unless the charges come, on the very off-chance, from one’s own side.
As it is, there are DOJ policies — no prosecuting a sitting president; no investigating major candidates within 90 days of an election — that too often allow rogues and scoundrels like Trump to remain unchecked. All you have to do is actually read the Mueller Report (I have) and you’ll see that Trump’s pursuers have been exceedingly fair and cautious despite having probable cause to believe dirty deeds had been done. You wouldn’t know that if all you listen to is the right’s furious spin.
Long gone are the days when prominent members of both parties stood together in recognition that behavior like President Richard Nixon’s indisputable role in the Watergate break-in was unacceptable. Now, subpoenas from courts and congressional committees are openly defied and one’s own side is defended even if what it has done is indefensible.
What makes the Trump era so surreal and terribly dangerous is that the right side of our political spectrum no longer recognizes the legitimacy of laws when enforced by the center or left. Even the process itself is relentlessly called into question, corroding public confidence in our institutions.
Trump has hardly been under constant scrutiny for flimsy, trumped-up reasons. He’s been brazenly bending and breaking established rules and laws in plain sight for years. It was Trump himself who decided to make the illegal possession of classified documents a felony because he believed Hillary Clinton was guilty of doing so and “Lock her up!” was one of his rallying cries.
Anyone who isn’t a blind follower can only slap their forehead in exasperation at how the former president keeps wriggling free and continuing to wreak havoc.
The GOP’s lusty embrace of unfounded, inflammatory conspiracy theories has so rotted the party that it is now dancing by the bonfire of open civil war in response to Mar-a-Lago search and the House Select Committee’s inquiry about Jan. 6. The reports of calls to violence in pro-Trump Internet forums is truly chilling.
What’s truly nauseating is the bald hypocrisy. According to Trump and his defenders:
It’s our patriotic duty to endlessly investigate a Democrat such as Hillary Clinton for possible wrongdoing, but an outrage and political suicide in the party if Donald Trump or another Republican is put under a comparable legal microscope for obviously justifiable reasons.
It’s acceptable to be lax in handling classified information if you are Donald Trump, but not if you are Hillary Clinton.
It’s mere “political discourse” to riot and try to overthrow the government on illegal grounds because you believe an election was stolen from your candidate (never mind the constant lack of evidence), but a high crime to violently protest blatant police brutality that has yielded more than a century’s worth of clear evidence.
It’s your right and common sense to plead the Fifth Amendment if you are a Republican, but all others are admitting their guilt if they do so. (It appears that Trump is suddenly woke to the true meaning of taking the Fifth after years of him saying only the Mob resorts to it and that it should disqualify someone from becoming president.)
It’s fine to use your shady, backroom influence in Washington on behalf of foreign entities if you’re a Paul Manafort, a Michael Flynn, or a Rudy Giuliani, but not a Hunter Biden. (It’s worth noting that Biden’s son has yet to be specifically cited for anything.)
The GOP’s radicals have succeeded in creating a situation where there is no longer a common acceptance of the rule of law and due process for all. There is only outrage and vows of revenge on the right when law is applied to Republicans.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threatening Attorney General Merrick Garland with investigation, and Senator Josh Hawley calling for Garland’s resignation or impeachment, before anything was revealed about the grounds for the Mar-a-Lago search tell you all you need to know about what is coming.
It’s hardly a shock that Trump is further inflaming his followers by suggesting that the FBI planted evidence. Reportedly, about 11 sets of documents, some highly classified and possibly pertaining to national nuclear secrets, were removed during the search.
Given this climate of bitter distrust and antagonism, I fully expect violence if Trump is charged with any crimes. The deadly August 11 incident at the FBI field office in Ohio, where a gunman (who was possibly a participant at the Capitol on Jan. 6) tried to invade an FBI field office, was probably just the start. The lengthy process of prosecution and appeal all the way to the Supreme Court will allow plenty of time for Trump and his minions to fan the flames and for our society’s pot to boil over into civil war.
I also expect mayhem at polling places with right-wing “observers” challenging and threatening voters they deem suspicious, and all-out chaos after the 2022 and 2024 elections, with Republican-controlled states and counties overseen by 2020 election deniers refusing to certify victories by Democrats. Mere suspicion of fraud will be the standard. Heck, you can already see it happening in GOP primaries this summer when losers rolled out this now-standard accusation.
It’s far beyond bitterly ironic that “the party of law and order” is routinely accusing law of turning America into a banana republic. These derisively and aptly nicknamed “Banana Republicans” are rapidly turning us into one.
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.