Over the weekend a south Florida federal judge—appointed by Donald Trump and approved by the Senate a few days after the 2020 election with 21 Democrats voting against her—announced her “preliminary intent” to grant Trump’s wish for a special master to review the Mar-a-Lago classified documents. This move may allow his legal team to slow-walk this disaster for a little bit. A court will have to go through the material to determine if anything is covered by Trump’s claims of executive privilege. This seems hard to imagine given that executive privilege has never before applied to an ex-president, but we’ll have to see.
Whatever happens on that front, Trump knows the truth. D-Day is coming. Merrick Garland, Christopher Wray, and a widening circle of other people know exactly what’s in those top-secret documents he has, and Trump knows they know. And there’s reason now to think that some of it is pretty explosive. That’s on top of the mere fact that it’s apparently illegal for him to possess them in the first place.
This brings us to an interesting, and terrifying, new reality. Trump has lived his entire life flouting the law, wriggling out of trouble because he’s rich and powerful and could hire good lawyers. But this time’s different. Now he’s cornered. Thus the terrifying question: What is a cornered Donald Trump capable of?
I decided to ask someone who knows him a lot better than I do. I emailed that question to Michael Cohen this past Saturday, and he emailed back this: “There is nothing Donald Trump won’t do to save himself from accountability. Starting a civil war, threatening to trade government secrets to our adversaries, or throwing others under the bus to deflect from his culpability are just a few of the options circling inside Donald’s head. The country needs to be very concerned!”
OK, well, that’s a lot! Let’s examine these scenarios one by one.
Starting a civil war: I don’t take Cohen to mean that Trump would literally make a call to arms. Rather, it’s that he would incite such rage against the Justice Department, the FBI, and the entire system so methodically closing in on him that he would winkingly (or maybe not even) encourage violence.
Trump’s allies are already making such calls and have been for a while. Steve Bannon has told his listeners that “this is war” and has referred to the FBI as “the Gestapo.” Members of Congress have tweeted about the need to “defund” the FBI (Marjorie Taylor Greene) and called for a “complete dismantling and elimination of the democrat brown shirts known as the FBI” (Paul Gosar). That is civil war–level rhetoric. And at least one Ohio man took this rhetoric seriously enough to attack an FBI field office in Cincinnati, which led to his death. (Mona Charen of The Bulwark has gathered several examples of this kind of incendiary commentary here.) Trump, if indicted, will throw gallons of his own gasoline on that toxic and treasonous fire.
I used to ask myself: When will this Trump movement become unambiguously fascist, such that no one can even bother debating it or denying it any longer? The answer I settled on is: When he raises a private army or militia of his own that sometimes works alongside local police and federal law enforcement officials and at other times battles them but that answers only to Trump and operates under rules of engagement that only Trump enforces.
That, after all, is what Hitler’s brownshirts did. They were an explicitly Nazi Party militia. We saw that in an ad hoc way on January 6, 2021. That was a fascist militia that stormed the Capitol. It just wasn’t a standing one. If Trump is indicted, it is alas no longer far-fetched to imagine that some kind of standing militia—organized not even around one political party but around one man—will conjure itself into being and carry out acts of violence against certain individuals or institutions.
Trading government secrets to our adversaries: This scenario has me really worried. The form I can see this most readily taking is blackmail of Garland and the entire U.S. government. That is: If you indict me, Trump may communicate privately to Garland, I’m turning everything I have over to the Kremlin. I know that sounds utterly insane. But who can doubt he’d do it in a heartbeat if he thought it was his best play? Trump has, in fact, already sent a cryptic “Nice democracy you got here, it’d be a shame if anything happened to it” kind of message to Garland. And let me remind you of Cohen’s first sentence: “There is nothing Donald Trump won’t do to save himself from accountability.”
Throwing others under the bus. Of all the scenarios, this is the one that might be entertaining, as opposed to some grave threat to democracy. Trump might have dirt on some of his allies that he’ll release publicly to save his own skin or to humiliate them if they should turn on him. But while it might look like a hilarious spectacle for a while—a series finale on the long-running reality show in which Trump’s inner circle has been trapped—this too would still eventually precipitate and extend a long national nightmare that would have Trump as its central figure.
Cable news talking heads are saying, after the release last week of the FBI’s redacted affidavit, that an indictment of Trump is now less a matter of if than of when. As New Republic contributor Alex Thomas noted, that “when” could be a while off—investigations involving classified material tend to be long and drawn out. But if an indictment is a fait accompli, then we’re in for something we’ve never seen in this country; something perhaps never seen in any country or certainly in any democracy: a former head of state potentially leading a civil war and/or committing open treason by using state secrets for leverage.
Remember the pattern of Trump’s life. He has spent 50 years doing whatever he wanted to do, giving no thought to the law or consequences of his actions. And he has never faced any serious consequences. Through endless trials and four bankruptcies and all the rest, the only thing that has happened in his life is that he’s gotten more powerful and richer (certainly since being president, the way he’s cashed in on occupying the White House for four years), with millions of Americans quite literally ready to kill or die for him. He’s truly been bulletproof.
Until, perhaps, now. He may finally have crossed a line that will force the system he has so long ignored and abused to stop him and try to bring him to justice. What do we get when we combine a completely conscienceless human being with the power and latitude given by our Constitution and body of laws to presidents and a propaganda apparatus that constantly lies for him? We’re about to find out.