When I wrote about Donald Trump’s first indictment last month, I said that by stretching the law to attack the former president, New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg had done a great deal to validate Trump and his followers’ belief that the establishment was doing everything possible to take him down.
In Trump’s second indictment this month, though, we can see an even greater enemy than the so-called deep state — and his name is Donald J. Trump. If the man could just get out of his own way, no shadowy cabal would stand a chance.
The indictment from special counsel Jack Smith details the ways the government says Trump violated the laws concerning classified documents and, while an indictment is just the prosecutor’s version of the story, it is a pretty convincing account. Russiagate may have been a fantasy, and the Manhattan DA’s claims likely won’t amount to much, but Smith’s charges read like willful lawbreaking that will not be hard for the government to prove.
The details of the indictment have been widely reported by now, but the one that stands out is where Trump admits, on tape, that he showed classified documents to several people visiting Mar-a-Lago — none of whom had a security clearance of any sort. He did this while on tape, talking with people he had just met.
Moreover, Trump told them that while he could have declassified the documents when he was president, he had not done so. Here we have Trump’s own words destroying the strongest possible defense he could have put forth: that he had declassified the documents he took, but just had not kept good records of having done so. Of course, this sounds like an obvious lie, but it would have been hard to prove one way or another. Instead, prosecutors now have a recording of the former president saying, essentially, that he knew he wasn’t allowed to have these things and did it anyway.
To keep the records is strange enough — there’s really no good reason for him to have the documents now that he is no longer president — but to discuss them openly in front of strangers who are recording him is a new level of self-sabotage.
Are there reasons to think the indictment is politically motivated? That Trump is being treated differently than other, similarly situated ex-officeholders? Sure, but perhaps not to the extent he and his supporters claim.
President Joe Biden was recently found to have kept classified documents in nonsecure locations, including a former office and the garage of one of his houses. The FBI also found a few pages of classified material at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home. The difference here is that both men fully cooperated with federal law enforcement to secure the documents and maintain America’s state secrets.
Trump did not do this, and if the allegations in the indictment are true, he actively obstructed attempts to secure the documents. The more obvious analogy to Trump’s conduct is how Hillary Clinton behaved after being caught with classified documents on a nonsecure private email server set up in her home. She even used her private email while abroad in the “territory of sophisticated adversaries” (Russia), which likely led to it being hacked by foreign governments.
Like Trump, Clinton did not disregard the law out of a desire to commit espionage. They both did it because they thought the rules did not apply to them, opting for convenience and sloppiness instead of protecting American lives and secrets. Trump noted the connection when, according to the indictment, he praised Clinton’s attorneys for deleting half the emails on her server. Trump told his own lawyer that “she didn’t get in any trouble because he said that he was the one who deleted them.”
The comparison was apt. But Trump’s lawyers declined to destroy evidence for him.
Still, the similarity between Clinton’s and Trump’s actions rightfully gives many people the impression that there are two kinds of accountability for high-ranking officials: a lenient one for Democrats and a harsh one for Republicans. But they shouldn’t draw the wrong conclusions from that. It’s not that Trump shouldn’t be prosecuted; it’s that Clinton should have been.
In letting her get away with this same sort of crime, FBI Director James Comey created his own “broken windows” scenario for politicians — Trump saw Clinton getting away with it and figured no one would stop him from doing the same. This analogy is complicated by the fact that Trump, after running on a promise that he would “lock her up,” never pushed any prosecution of Clinton once he took office.
It is too late to hold Clinton accountable, but Biden’s Department of Justice is determined not to be as lenient as its predecessors. And, right or wrong, fair or unfair, Republican voters must confront the hard truth that this was a problem entirely of Trump’s own making. They must also decide what they want to do about that.
The 2024 GOP primaries were already turning into a psychodrama revolving around Trump’s personality. This second, more credible indictment adds to that, forcing voters not to consider ideas and policies, but rather to conduct a referendum on Trump, his crimes, and his character.
During a previous Clinton scandal — Bill Clinton’s obstruction of justice and perjury — a group came together urging the country to “move on” from all of that and just let him get away with it.
Today, Republicans cannot control what happens to Trump in the courtroom, but they can move on by turning the page on the former president and all his drama. They can make 2024 about choosing the best candidate to lead the nation forward — not wallowing in the past.