For those aching to see Donald Trump brought to justice, the fourth time may not be the charm. But for Mr. Trump, his likely fourth indictment almost certainly will have a special charm.
The serial Trump indictments, stretching from early spring to midsummer, have been precedent-shattering events: a former president of the United States charged with crimes ranging from the near-frivolous (hush money to a porn star) to the deadly serious (seeking to overturn an election). But they also have been landmarks in the 2024 presidential election, building and then solidifying Mr. Trump’s hold on the Republican Party and shoring up his support in the struggle for the party’s nomination.
Nearly nine in 10 Republicans, according to a CBS Poll conducted by YouGov after his third indictment, believe the legal cases against Mr. Trump are designed to prevent his return to the White House.
Nothing about this procession of legal charges, barely foreseen by the Founders and inconceivable even during the depths of the 1970s Watergate scandal, has proceeded along a predictable path. In that regard only – in its defiance of lived experience or reasonable expectation – it has been entirely predictable, completely consistent with the upending of decades-old convention that marked the arrival of a louche tycoon on the political scene in 2015, Mr. Trump’s sweep of the GOP primaries in 2016, his inaugural in 2017, and his chaotic presidency through 2021, including his efforts to overturn the election that propelled Joe Biden into the White House.
Now the country is girding for his fourth indictment, growing out of an examination of his efforts to persuade, or more precisely bully, Georgia’s secretary of state officials to “find 11,780 votes,” enough to deprive Mr. Biden of the state’s 16 electoral votes and to slide them into Mr. Trump’s column. “I felt then – and still believe today – that this was a threat,” Brad Raffensperger, the recipient of the call, wrote in an account of the remarkable entreaty, a tape of which was made public.
If all goes according to script – the pre-indictment manoeuvering and its aftermath being the only elements of the Trump legal charges that actually do go according to any remotely recognizable script – Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis this week will ask a grand jury to approve criminal indictments against the former president, or his allies, or possibly both.
Then another spectacle will ensue: a denunciation of the charges as politically motivated, pained expressions of phony horror from most of his dozen rivals for the nomination, a motorcade to the airport, a flight to Atlanta, another motorcade, a not-guilty plea, and so on. All of this will be duly recorded for history by television reporters given remarkable access to making public what, in other, normal circumstances, would be mortifyingly private proceedings.
By contrast, the agony of Richard Nixon during Watergate was deeply private. There were occasional flashes of outrage, to be sure, and a November, 1973, angry statement before news executives (“I am not a crook”) but little else. His misery was private, revealed only in tape recordings of White House manoeuverings. It wasn’t until his departure from the presidency, on Aug. 9, 1974, that the 37th president’s despair was on public view, in a teary set of comments before departing the White House remembered today mostly for it emotional rambling and his statement that “my mother was a saint.”
There have been no reminiscences about Mr. Trump’s mother, and no emotion tinged with regret from the 45th president, only defiance and vows to carry on, along with the most astonishing remark of the entire proceedings, issued after his third indictment at a Republican dinner in Montgomery, Ala., when he said, “Any time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls. We need one more indictment to close out this election. One more indictment, and this election is closed out.”
Except. Except that Mr. Trump is burning through money at a remarkable rate: US$36-million in legal fees in the first half of the year, according to Federal Election Commission reports, with much more coming after June 30, when the reporting period ended. Nearly 90 cents of every dollar of the Trump expenses went to legal fees.
And slowly it has become apparent that Mr. Trump, who has spent far less time in Iowa and New Hampshire (sites of the first two tests of the 2024 nomination fight) than his rivals, has transformed his court appearances into campaign events, even to the extent of accommodating the press outlets he reviles the most by permitting them to place cameras inside his court-bound motorcades.
It was not by reporters’ and producers’ creativity and initiative that television was able to capture the departures and arrivals of his jetliner, with the word “TRUMP” emblazoned on the fuselage. His press aides assured that that would be televised.
In this, Mr. Trump – by any reckoning an American original – most nearly resembles Theodore Roosevelt, of whom his daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, once said, “My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”
That was never so evident as it was over the weekend at the Iowa State Fair, where his rivals walked past a huge butter sculpture of a cow, wandered among stalls selling deep-fried bacon brisket Kraft Dinner, and downed pork-chops-on-a- stick in desperate efforts to attract attention. Of course the political display that won the most attention: Mr. Trump himself, likely only days from being indicted for the fourth time.