As Donald Trump departed his luxury golf resort in the suburbs of Miami to surrender to federal authorities yesterday (13 June), US television networks interrupted their programming to carry live aerial footage of his motorcade. Heading towards the court where he would be arrested and arraigned on charges of mishandling classified documents and obstructing justice, the former president declared it on his social media platform “ONE OF THE SADDEST DAYS IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY”.
The major cable news channels, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, which span the US’s partisan divisions, were broadcasting almost identical images. They showed Trump’s convoy sweeping into the underground car park at the court, the artist’s sketches of Trump with his lawyers inside the courtroom, Trump waving to his cheering supporters outside. But viewers from across the political spectrum watched the same events unfold through very different lenses.
For Trump’s opponents, this was the moment that justice had finally caught up with the former president. As Jack Smith, the special counsel leading the prosecution, put it when he released details of the charges against the former president on 9 June, “We have one set of laws in this country and they apply to everyone.”
Unlike the criminal charges against Trump in New York, where he is accused of falsifying business records to cover up an affair with the porn actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election, this case involves serious crimes that relate to US national security. Among the documents Trump is alleged to have kept and stored in his Mar-a-Lago estate is information about US nuclear programmes, the vulnerabilities of the US and its allies to attack, and military plans for an attack on a foreign country. As his former attorney-general Bill Barr remarked after reading the indictment: “If even half of it is true, he is toast.” (Trump has pleaded not guilty to all counts in both New York and Miami cases.)
But for the former president’s supporters, this case has nothing to do with justice or national security. Instead, what they saw yesterday was an innocent man being dragged through the courts as part of a political witch hunt orchestrated by the liberal elite. In the parallel reality Trump has conjured, this case is just the latest plot unleashed against him by the “corrupt Biden administration” to block his bid to regain the presidency in 2024.
Senior Republicans have backed up Trump’s claims that the case is politically motivated. Responding to the news of the indictment on 8 June the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, called it a “dark day for the United States of America”, claiming that it was “unconscionable for a president to indict the leading candidate opposing him”. He vowed that his party would “hold this brazen weaponisation of power accountable”. Andy Biggs, a Republican congressman from Arizona who sits on the House judiciary committee, wrote on Twitter: “We have now reached a war phase.”
Trump and his enablers have attempted to discredit the charges against him in two ways – and in the process, the Department of Justice and the FBI.
The first is to claim that Trump is being singled out for prosecution when classified documents have also been found at Joe Biden’s home and former office. The two cases are different, with the president said to have returned the documents as soon as they were discovered and to be “co-operating fully and completely” with the justice department’s investigation. But this distinction is unlikely to gain much traction among Trump’s supporters.
Then, there is the fact that the case has been brought by the justice department, which is led by Merrick Garland, the attorney-general, a Biden appointee who reports to the White House. In November 2022 Garland appointed Smith, a former war crimes prosecutor, to oversee the criminal investigations into Trump to try to avoid any perception of impropriety. But here, too, the nuance is being overwhelmed by the former president’s tirades against the “department of injustice”. As Trump railed against the charges in New Jersey, Fox News showed a split screen of Biden giving a speech with the caption: “WANNABE DICTATOR SPEAKS AT THE WHITE HOUSE AFTER HAVING HIS POLITICAL RIVAL ARRESTED.”
As the gravity of the case against Trump has become clear in recent days, several of his rivals for the Republican nomination have begun to offer tentative admonishments. His former vice-president, Mike Pence, for instance, said that these were “very serious allegations” and that he couldn’t “defend what is alleged”, but that Trump was “entitled to his day in court”. Nikki Haley, who served as the US ambassador to the UN under Trump, said that if what was in the indictment was true, then he was “incredibly reckless with our national security”.
Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who is polling second behind Trump among the potential Republican nominees for the next presidential election, remarked: “As a naval officer, if I would have taken classified [documents] to my apartment, I would have been court-martialled in a New York minute.” He couched his comments in a reference to the eight-year-old controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails, but the timing suggested it was intended as a dig at Trump. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in the country,” DeSantis said.
These were hardly profiles in courage. At the same time as they attempted to formulate cautious criticism of Trump, every single one of these candidates has boosted his narrative that the case against him is political. DeSantis has condemned the “weaponisation of federal law enforcement” and the “uneven” application of the law “depending on political affiliation”. Pence said that “after years of politicisation, it’s hard for me to believe that politics didn’t play some role in this decision”, while Haley claimed the department of justice and the FBI had “lost all credibility with the American people”.
Trump’s Republican challengers are caught in a trap of their own making. If they alienate the former president’s base they know that they have little chance of winning the party’s nomination, but if they don’t attack Trump more directly then they have little hope of differentiating their own candidacy.
Despite his legal troubles, Trump still dominates the Republican field, with a lead of 61 percent to 23 percent over DeSantis in polling conducted after the latest charges against him were announced. Among likely Republican primary voters, 76 per cent said they believed the indictment was politically motivated. That last figure is the most troubling. In the months ahead, it is not only Trump that will face trial, but also the US justice system. The former president has already demonstrated the lengths that he will go to try to hold on to political power. As he now fights the federal charges against him, the danger for the country is that he succeeds – at least in the eyes of much of the population – in destroying the credibility of the institutions trying to hold him to account.
[See also: The chaos and confusion of Trump on trial]