When Special Counsel Jack Smith dropped a 38-count federal indictment Friday afternoon against Donald Trump and a coconspirator, complete with shocking allegations of stashing nuclear secrets around Mar-a-Lago, it felt like everyone was holding their collective breath. Just like in the immediate aftermath of January 6, this was a moment when Republicans might finally decide to rid themselves of Trump.
Like so many aspects of the Trump era, this was historic—and not in a good way. Trump became the first former president in history to face federal charges, 31 of which were related to the Espionage Act. Even Richard Nixon wasn’t indicted! While one might argue the Stormy Daniels hush money indictment from Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg was politically motivated (it wasn’t), or that it presents legal challenges (fair point), the gravity of the federal indictment against Trump was such that it would seem hard to simply shrug off. Here was a former president being portrayed as putting the nation’s security at risk. The filing includes photos of boxes allegedly filled with classified documents piled high in a strange chandelier-adorned marble bathroom, in office and storage rooms, and a ballroom which looks like it deeply missed the previous owner Marjorie Merriweather Post’s dulcet touch.
For a minute, it felt like this indictment might move the needle. It was, after all, so detailed, and perhaps most damning was Trump’s apparent admission of guilt. “As president, I could have declassified them, now I can’t,” Trump reportedly said in a recording. So it seems we know what the (former) president knew and when he knew it. Legal experts have spoken about how devastating the case looks for the 45th president, with Trump’s own former attorney general Bill Barr saying that “if even half of it is true, then he’s toast.” The New York Times’ editorial board, arguing why Trump should never again be trusted with the nation’s secrets, noted that the potential prison sentences for these charges “add up to as much as 420 years.”
And yet, if one hoped sanity might return to the GOP, anyone who’s been writing about this Trump-ruled party the past seven years knew Republicans would treat this federal indictment like they did the Access Hollywood tape, the first impeachment, the January 6 insurrection, the second impeachment, and the earlier indictment: They would rally behind him.
If Republicans could stand up to Trump, they could start taking their party back from this lawless lunatic and signal a return to a Republican Party that operated within the normal bounds of the law. But the writing was already on the wall shortly after the indictment was unsealed, with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt brazenly tweeting, “First read of indictment and my reaction is ‘That’s it? The conspiracy is with the aide who moved the boxes? No documents were sold or given to third parties not in his close employ?’” The defense by a fairly mainstream GOP pundit—someone who has had a column in The Washington Post and stops on Meet the Press—was basically that if the former president hadn’t actually tried to sell the secrets, was it really so bad? This seems like a low standard even for Trump.
The post-indictment news cycle quickly devolved into silly season. The editorial page at the Rupert Murdoch–owned Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Do prosecutors understand the forces they are unleashing?” The editorial board continued, “The greatest irony of the age of Trump is that for all his violating of democratic norms, his frenzied opponents have done and are doing their own considerable damage to democracy.”
Republicans framed this meticulously detailed federal indictment as an affront to democracy, and not as the only way to keep a rogue ex-president in check. The backlash was swift and fierce and it has included cameos from typical Trump loyalists, like Representative Jim Jordan, who claimed on CNN that Trump declassified everything (which is contradicted by Trump’s own statement about not declassifying a document), and Senator Lindsey Graham, who snapped at ABC’s George Stephanopoulos while trying to turn the conversation to Hillary Clinton. South Dakota senator Mike Rounds, one of the few GOP lawmakers to call out Trump’s election lies, said, “The unprecedented action of indicting in federal court a former president, who is also a current candidate for president, cannot be taken lightly as it is inherently political and will have a lasting impact on our nation.”
Meanwhile, besides familiar Trump critic Senator Mitt Romney, the GOP messaging has been clear: Attempting to hold Trump accountable is worse than the former guy allegedly doing crimes. Sure, Scotland could arrest former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, France could send former president Nicolas Sarkozy to jail, and Italy could charge late prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 35 criminal cases, but when it comes to Trump, that’s just American exceptionalism. The once Never Trump turned deeply Trumpy senator from Ohio, JD Vance, tweeted, “The question of whether Trump should have kept those documents is fundamentally a political question. Criticize it, attack it, vote against it. But prosecuting a president over his own government’s documents is turning a political issue into a legal one.”
Republicans are trapped in a Möbius strip of their own misery, a spin cycle of fuckery that they created and that they deserve. Republican elected officials are presumably so scared of alienating the base (and potentially becoming targets themselves) that they continue to support the albatross that is losing them elections and undermining our democracy. Trump has somehow managed to make supporting his fight against the law a litmus test for GOP candidates, so the already slim possibility of defeating him in a primary gets slimmer. He’s effectively being supported by the people who are supposed to be running against him.
With every indictment, the GOP base gets more activated by Trump, but the chasm between the base and the general electorate grows. Yes, the GOP is reaping what it sowed. But we all risk getting buried in the process.