This Was a Wagnerianly Bad Week for Donald Trump
With legal cases piling up, the former president may be destined for a jumpsuit to match his skin tone.
Nearly every week is a bad week for Donald Trump these days, but this week brought developments that, while extremely gratifying from my perspective, are monumentally, roaringly, Wagnerianly bad for the former guy. It now looks somewhere between probable and certain that as he seeks the presidency, Trump will be staring—at not one, not two, but three indictments—as well as at least one criminal trial, which we learned this week is going to happen in the thick of the presidential primary season.
I don’t want to speak too soon. The wheels of justice grind slowly, and they can roll very timidly where presidential office-seekers are concerned. But we’re getting closer with each passing week to being able to say that by running for and becoming president, Trump finally went too far and made his biggest mistake. If you’re a rich private citizen in this country, you can break the law all you want, short of things like actual murder, and the law might never catch up with you. But take a public office, and suddenly an entirely different set of laws applies to you, the scrutiny of your words and deeds—past and present—becomes white-hot intense, and the system takes your misdeeds far more seriously than a mere failure to pay your taxes. This can take a person who became accustomed to ignoring the law over the course of 50 years by surprise—though in fairness, it could be a big reason more white-collar criminals don’t run for president.
Let’s go through the three cases, with which you may have some familiarity. The first is the criminal indictment already unsealed, that of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, over the Stormy Daniels hush money and the whole National Enquirer “catch and kill” business. This week, Judge Juan Merchan (by the way, he is a native of Colombia; I’m starting an over-under pool on when Trump starts pointing this out) set the trial date for next March. Also on the schedule for next March: No fewer than 25 primaries—13 on Tuesday, March 5 (Super Tuesday), and another dozen following over the course of the month.
Picture it: It’s Tuesday, March 12. The date of the primary in the crucial state of Georgia, the state Trump most blatantly tried to steal in 2020. Ron DeSantis is in the Atlanta suburbs. Nikki Haley is in Columbus. Tim Scott is in Macon. Asa Hutchinson is in Augusta. Mike Pence is barnstorming his way from Valdosta to Albany to Vidalia. And Donald Trump is in a courtroom in Manhattan testifying, lying his brains out, as will be obvious to everyone watching except the MAGA people.
Case number two is the big one: where special prosecutor Jack Smith enters the chat. Reports came out this week that Smith could be within weeks—some say within days—of bringing charges against Trump. The Washington Post reported Thursday that two Mar-a-Lago employees moved boxes of papers the day before a June 2022 visit by FBI agents (this was not the raid—that was August—it was just a visit) looking to collect classified documents pursuant to a subpoena that May.
It could be a coincidence. (There are a lot more coincidences in this world than people think.) But it looks pretty weird. Legal experts seem to be in agreement that the classified documents situation represents Trump’s biggest legal Achilles’ Heel. And remember—Smith is also investigating Trump’s role in the January 6 attacks. We all saw Trump egg on the violence in a way that meets any human common-sense standard. But meeting a legal standard is a higher bar. So that may be harder to reach.
But the encouraging development along these lines this week? There is renewed speculation about what’s going on behind the scenes with Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff at the time. CNN reported this week that Meadows is quietly advising the House Freedom Caucus on the debt-limit fight. But that report also noted that Meadows is no longer in touch with Trump, which has led to speculation about whether Meadows is cooperating with Smith. A former Defense Department counsel tweeted the CNN story and wrote: “If he’s cooperating, game over.” Others were skeptical that Meadows would cooperate against Trump. But prosecutors have leverage. If Meadows is cooperating, well, there’s probably no one, not even Melania, who possesses a fuller mental log of the things Trump did and said that day.
We circle back to Georgia to consider the third case: Fani Willis’s probe into Trump’s frantic search for the famous 11,780 votes he called for to be added to his short-of-Biden’s-tally total. Willis appears almost certain to bring an indictment against Trump in August, a date she announced a week ago today. (See what I mean about this being a spectacularly bad week?) This investigation has long seemed the most open-and-shut of all the cases against Trump, given that the whole world has heard him on the telephone instructing state officials to go find him the votes.
So, let’s assume indictments from Smith and Willis. When would those trials commence? In all likelihood these, too, would kick off sometime next year. (Though I suppose that maybe one will have to wait for the other; all indictments answered in the order they are received and all that,) Still, it’s just wild to imagine what this could all look like, what kind of presidential campaign we might have if one candidate is moonlighting as a semi-professional defendant.
We must, of course, admit of the possibility that the GOP will nominate Trump anyway and, by Election Day, he will be thrice acquitted.
But it sure seems more likely that a harsher outcome awaits him. Let’s just look at the post-presidential legal track record. In December 2022, the Trump Organization was found guilty on all charges of tax fraud. Earlier this month, a jury took about three minutes (okay, not literally) to agree that Trump sexually abused E. Jean Carroll. There’s a pattern here.
There remains the question of whether there’s a point at which this all becomes too much even for Republican primary voters. A third indictment may be a bridge too far; they might decide at long last that Trump’s no longer worth the trouble. But he’ll turn this into Armageddon. It will get ugly—perhaps terrifyingly so. But the end times are coming, all right—not for the world, but for Trump. If he’d stayed a private citizen, the law wouldn’t have gone to the expense and trouble of nailing him. But he became a public servant. As corrupt as our country and legal system are in many ways, you just can’t do anything you want as a public servant. The system eventually says enough. Let’s sit back and enjoy every delicious minute of watching him learn this lesson.
This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.