When troubles come, they come not single spies but in battalions. Donald Trump’s criminal indictment – the first in history of a former, and possibly future, US president – has a Shakespearean quality to it. This dramatic moment has been long anticipated and cued by Trump himself, who expected it to take place last week. Yet it still retains the capacity to shock. Until it is leaked or unsealed, the precise indictment will be unknown.
But we know the outlines of its content, which concerns his payment of hush money to an adult film star. In that respect, Trump’s charge sheet has more of the flavour of a Shakespearean farce than tragedy. There is not a soul in America who was not long ago deeply appraised of his history with women. It is hard to believe it would badly harm his presidential campaign in the short term. He may even get a boost. Trump will milk every drop he can squeeze from his narrative of a crooked deep state that is out to get him.
That is how it looks today. But there could well be squads, if not battalions, of future indictments to come. Whatever the legal merits of the case that Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s district attorney, has brought, nobody could accuse him of lacking courage. Having broken the dam, Bragg has made it easier for other public prosecutors to make the leap. They will no longer be jumping alone into the darkness or taking the risk of being the first official to aim at the king and miss. That is on Bragg’s shoulders. The very least that Bragg has done is to pave the way for other prosecutors to take lesser reputational risks on far graver charges.
On the potential docket is the allegation that Trump tried to interfere with the 2020 election, up to and including attempted sedition, knowingly stored highly classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home and then lying to the FBI about it, and tried to coerce Georgia election officials into falsifying voting counts to change the state’s electoral college result. Even the sex dimension could pick up steam. Trump may have to appear on the stand in New York next month in a civil case brought by E Jean Carroll, who alleges Trump raped (and subsequently defamed) her in a Manhattan department store in the 1990s. History will record Bragg’s action as the beginning of whatever legal fate awaits Trump, including potential jail time.
Trump told by prosecutors he is target of a criminal investigation over handling of classified documents
Trump facing trial: How the 2016 election is returning to haunt the former president
It could take years before appeals are exhausted and final judgments rendered. Justice is never in a hurry. Politics usually is. Over several decades, Trump arguably has had as much experience of getting out of legal difficulties as anyone in America. He is the Houdini of bankruptcy courts. Nor does being indicted, or even convicted, bar him from running for the White House. The battle will thus inevitably turn into one between Trump’s political skills and the strength of the US legal system. Shortly after news of Trump’s indictment broke, Ron DeSantis, Trump’s most serious rival for the 2024 Republican nomination, accused Bragg in a tweet of advancing a “political agenda” that is “un-American”. Much of the rest of the Republican party issued similar Trumpian missives.
It is an extraordinary moment. The party of law and order may be lining up against an American bedrock principle that no person shall be above the law. But the situation could be even riskier than that. Bragg is African-American. Trump has described Bragg as an “animal” and a “degenerate psychopath”. A Republican senator, Rand Paul, has demanded Bragg’s arrest. Republican lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene has called for George Soros, who indirectly funded Bragg’s campaign for district attorney, to be stripped of his citizenship.
The most important court will thus ultimately be US public opinion. If past is prologue, America’s political reactions will be deeply polarised. All things being equal, having a potential criminal – indeed a potentially serial criminal – as your presidential nominee ought to be bad for the Republican party. But all things in today’s America are not equal. The country is entering a deeply consequential struggle about whether America has a government of laws, or of men. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023