It wasn’t surprising at all that Donald Trump said Saturday that he wanted to see his people protest what he claimed to be his imminent arrest, courtesy of the Manhattan district attorney, presumably on felony hush-money and campaign-finance charges relating to Trump’s payment to Stormy Daniels. Trump’s actions are demented, but they’re what we’ve come to expect.
More alarming was what House Speaker* Kevin McCarthy did next. McCarthy, according to Politico, said that any such move by District Attorney Alvin Bragg would constitute “an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA who lets violent criminals walk as he pursues political vengeance against President Trump.” McCarthy added that he is “directing relevant committees to immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.”
McCarthy was joined by a number of House members—Marjorie Taylor Greene, most floridly, who tweeted that “Republicans in Congress MUST subpoena these communists and END this! We have the power to do it and we also have the power to DEFUND their salaries and departments!” She meant the Department of Justice, which Congress funds, although she sort of seemed also to mean the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which it generally does not, although district attorneys often receive relatively minor federal grants for specific purposes; I found a New York City Council Finance Committee document (that doesn’t have a sharable URL) saying that the Manhattan district attorney’s budget is around $125 million and that all five New York City district attorneys combined received $11.7 million in federal grants last year.
New York conservatives have a lot of issues with Alvin Bragg, and it’s fine for them to voice their concerns. There are also some legitimate questions about this potential prosecution of Trump. But what McCarthy and the others—including Mike Pence; so much for him taking on Trump—are doing here is something new and ominous: It’s a direct attack on one of the central pillars of a democratic society—the independence of law enforcement entities to make the prosecutions they see fit to make. It replaces democratic accountability with the accountability of thuggery. It is, in other words, straight-up fascism.
Whatever one thinks of Alvin Bragg, and not living in New York I don’t think much one way or the other, this much about the man is indisputable. He is the duly elected district attorney for the County of New York, having been chosen by the voters of that jurisdiction to hold the job. He won a competitive primary in June 2021 fairly narrowly; and then, that November, he beat his Republican opponent by a whopping 67 points. Those voters, not Kevin McCarthy, are his bosses. He is answerable to them, not Chip Roy of Texas or Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Bragg has without question changed the policy in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. He directed his prosecutors to seek alternatives to jail time for all but the most violent of crimes. People can like this or not like it. But here’s the salient fact: He campaigned on it. He was crystal clear. And he won—by 67 points in the general.
Bragg has been at the center of other controversies. Just a month or so into his term, two prosecutors resigned because they thought Bragg wasn’t moving aggressively enough in building a case against the Trump Organization. That brought him a few barbs from the left. Now he’s being savaged by the right for this potential prosecution that both the Justice Department and the Federal Elections Commission have previously determined wasn’t worth pursuing.
Maybe Bragg is right (and I should say—it’s obvious that Trump cares nothing about the law, and it sure seems obvious that he paid off Daniels to keep her quiet until Election Day). Maybe he’ll get a conviction. Maybe he is wrong and Trump will be acquitted. However it all turns out, it will be up to the voters of New York County (i.e., Manhattan) to decide his fate when he seeks reelection. It’s not up to Kevin McCarthy and Congress.
If we lose that basic measure of democratic accountability and allow an intensely ideological Congress, led by members from California and Georgia and Texas and Florida, to exert pressure to decide what prosecutions a district attorney in New York City should and should not bring, we’re cooked. There’s a lot that’s imperfect about our justice system, God knows. And maybe this particular prosecution will prove to be unwise. If that’s so, Bragg will have some explaining to do—not only or even chiefly to Trumpists and conservatives, but to liberals, because if Trump is prosecuted and acquitted here, Bragg will have increased Trump’s chances of moving back into the White House.
But again—that will be between Bragg and his voters. As for McCarthy … you may have noticed in the second paragraph that I put that asterisk next to the words “House Speaker.” That’s because McCarthy’s speakership is the most qualified and compromised speakership in modern, or maybe all of, American history. He made a series of secret promises to the most extreme, anti-democracy members of his caucus, and we are now seeing in practice what that meant.
And he made the biggest promise of all three weeks after January 6, 2021, when he went down to Mar-a-Lago and posed for that sycophantic picture, in the process securing Trump’s support for his speakership run. That’s who owns him: the man who provoked a coup against the United States led by a mob that he hoped would hang his own vice president, and the most extreme authoritarians ever elected to Congress.
And speaking of accountability—McCarthy owes his seat in Congress to the voters of his district, but he owes his power to Trump and Greene. Guess which constituency he’ll work harder to please? Was it the good people of Bakersfield, California, clamoring for him to restore the committee assignments for Greene and Paul Gosar? In 10 short weeks as speaker, he’s already—and quite resoundingly—answered the question of who his real bosses are.