Earlier this week, former President Donald Trump entered a Miami courthouse to respond to criminal charges made against him by the Office of Special Counsel of the Department of Justice that, among other things, he violated the Espionage Act by knowingly mishandling classified documents that he kept upon leaving office and obstructed the government’s efforts to reclaim them.
The 37-count indictment against the former president — which provides detail regarding the charges of willful retention of national defense secrets, conspiracy to obstruct justice and the making of false statements in response to inquiries about them — are serious criminal charges. A conviction on any one of them could have significant consequences. Trump pled not guilty.
We feel like we’ve seen this movie before, even though we haven’t. Trump, who loves to claim he is the first person in history to do one thing or another, now has the dubious honor of being the first former president to face federal criminal charges. But part of the reason we feel a sense of déjà vu is that the federal indictment comes about two months after local prosecutors in New York City filed more than 30 felony charges against Trump in a case arising from hush money payments made to a porn actress before the 2016 presidential election. Trump denied those charges.
And we have been regularly reminded about two other criminal investigations that are being pursued separately from the New York and Miami indictments: First, a Justice Department investigation of Trump’s wide-ranging efforts to stay in power after losing the 2020 election, and how those efforts led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. And second, an inquiry by the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, relating to possible election interference by Trump in the 2020 election.
Had anything of this magnitude happened to almost any other national politician a decade or more ago, the result would have been largely predictable. The politician would declare his innocence, bow out of public activity and pledge to devote his full time to support his family and to the necessary fight against the forces of evil that conspired to take him down. But that’s not how Donald Trump operates.
Trump’s approach is to confront his accusers, declare and repeat his own narrative of the facts that may or may not be grounded in truth, and ascribe improper motive to anything his opponents do or say. Trump is a master at playing the victim card. He has perfected an aggressive approach that enables him to strengthen support from his base and beyond notwithstanding accusations of serious malfeasance, and parlay that support into increased fundraising and higher poll numbers. We saw that result following the New York indictment and are seeing it again with the Miami charges.
But Trump’s multiple criminal indictments present an opportunity. Although the ever-expanding group challenging Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination needs to walk a careful line, the stage is set for the emergence of a credible alternative to Trump’s narcissistic narrative in which he considers himself not merely above the law, but wholly unlimited by it.
The Miami indictment is serious. Trump would be well-advised to take it seriously. And so should his supporters. ■