I saw in a press report earlier that while Republicans are stuck in a Soros, Soros, Soros rage fugue Democrats are a mix of giddy and anxious. I’ll assume some version of that is correct. I certainly see a lot of giddiness and sundry booyahs! and similar comments. Those are totally understandable. Donald Trump has made a lifetime of skating. He’s run roughshod over the whole country for seven-plus years and skated on every bit of wrongdoing. So of course people are excited, satisfied, pumped and relieved that finally he’s hit a bump in the road.
But there’s also that note of anxiety.
Last night when I went on the Ari Melber show I made the point that Donald Trump has managed to cast a spell over so many of us that we can’t help living in his drama. We shouldn’t do that. And that’s what a huge amount of “Is this case big enough? Should this case go first?” is about. You can see that right here if you haven’t already.
But that still leave some other points. Will this lead to a pattern of tit-for-tat where partisan prosecutors will manufacturer trivial or entirely bogus charges against future Presidents either at the state or federal level? Will Joe Biden end up in the slammer too? Will there be new Jan. 6s, new outbreaks of civil violence? Will this and quite possibly further charges somehow resound to Trump’s political benefit? After all, just the threat of indictment seems to have helped Trump stomp Ron DeSantis’s incipient primary challenge. What if he’s charged but somehow manages to beat all the charges in court? Will it just go terribly wrong somehow we cannot yet even imagine?
My best guess is that none of those things will really happen. Each is possible. But I approach the whole thing with an almost perfect calm.
For years Americans have debated the special status of the presidency and what standards should be applied to a president’s potential criminal wrongdoing, either during or after their presidency. While no president is above the law, we cannot deny that they are distinct creatures in the constitutional order. These are interesting and challenging discussions.
But the current situation is not.
Donald Trump hasn’t just broken the law. He’s done it in numerous and overlapping domains and consistently through his whole eight-year political career. He’s committed monetary crimes tied to his personal business. He’s repeatedly sought to corrupt public institutions, not least by obstructing justice and using the law as a tool of his personal vengeance. He’s incited violence and even orchestrated a multifaceted conspiracy to overthrow the government itself. He has committed crimes of a personal and pecuniary nature and other crimes of a public and political nature. Perhaps his most emblematic offense is confusing the matter by fusing the two in ways that make them almost indistinguishable.
In formal argument we have the concept of a reductio ad absurdum. Take a reasonable or at least debatable proposition and pile it high with such an extreme set of facts in one direction or another that its opposite becomes impossible to argue. This question of presidential accountability is often argued in that fashion in both directions. Here we get to the heart of the matter. Donald Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of this argument, just striding off the pages of formal logic into our lives. Clearly a president and ex-president who violates the law at every turn, both in pedestrian and commonplace ways as well as grave and extraordinary ones, must be held legally accountable because otherwise the whole structure of accountability collapses. If he’s not, then we have decided on the basis of the most extreme set of facts that presidents can do absolutely anything. We know that that cannot possibly be right. Just on logical principles.
And so, as I said, I have a perfect peace about the whole thing. Not because I know how it will turn out but because I know it is the only possible correct decision. It is not even absolutely essential that Trump be convicted. Certainty of conviction isn’t justice or accountability. I similarly have no personal need for Trump to lose his money or his freedom. I think he deserves both. But that’s for the courts to decide. The administration of the law is how a society speaks to itself about what is acceptable and what is not. And through his actions Donald Trump has left us with only one possible response.
As he said himself, it is what it is.