One of the key Republican responses to the criminal charges against Donald Trump comes in the form of a threat. (What a surprise.) The argument goes like this, each step dripping with its own form of dishonesty: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s charges against Trump are purely political and/or Trump should simply be above the law. Therefore, a reasonable response would be for local prosecutors in Republican areas to cook up charges against prominent Democrats.
Democrats, the claim is, have forced Republicans to fight dirty.
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Here’s House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer on Fox News:
I’ll tell you one of the things that I don’t think’s been picked up a lot that’s going to be a problem: I had two calls yesterday, one from a county attorney in Kentucky and one from a county attorney in Tennessee. They were Republican, obviously, both states are heavily Republican. They want to know if there are ways they can go after the Bidens now. They’ve opened up a can of worms, they’ve set precedents now that we can’t go back on.
The “one of the things that I don’t think’s been picked up on a lot” part is particularly funny since a lawyer whose firm represents some Trump advisers made exactly this argument in The New York Times last week, when it was just as dishonest as it is coming from Comer. The can of worms is only opened up if you take for granted that Bragg’s prosecution was purely political, and even if you grant that—a big stretch given the documentation on offer—Bragg is the prosecutor where Trump did the thing that is allegedly a crime. How is a local prosecutor in Kentucky or Tennessee going to tie any Bidens to alleged crimes in their county?
But note the lack of pretense that this is about anything but retaliation. There’s the cursory gesture at regret that precedents have been set “that we can’t go back on,” but that’s in defense of a claim that this is a precedent for things it is not a precedent for. Michael Cohen went to prison for his role in this scheme and the Trump Justice Department worked to avert further investigations. Whether Bragg can make the case that what Trump personally did was a violation of New York criminal law remains to be seen—again, Trump’s lawyers will have the chance to aggressively defend their client—but the charges against Trump are a far cry from a Kentucky county attorney saying “Can I go after the Bidens for ... something?” (Comer, remember, was whining about the lack of prosecution of Beau Biden before Bragg indicting Trump seemed like a serious likelihood.)
Comer wasn’t the only one making this threat. Appearing on Fox News, former George W. Bush official Ari Fleischer was even more explicit about it as a threat and as retaliation.
“One of the raps against Donald Trump is that he violates the norms, and as a result the Democrats had no choice, prosecutors had no choice. But Sean, what’s happened to Donald Trump is actually the real violation of the norms,” Fleischer said, touching on (and lying about) the impeachments of Trump and framing Bragg’s prosecution as wholly political. The implication is that no amount of wrongdoing by Trump could justify Democrats taking action against him—the reaction to Trump’s actions will always be the more profound violation of norms.
Then Fleischer moved on to the retaliation part.
Here’s what I hope happens, Sean. I earnestly hope that conservative prosecutors in rural areas of America indict Bill Clinton, indict Hillary Clinton, indict Hunter Biden. Their only way and return to the norms is for one side to realize if they go too far the other will match them. And that is not the way we settle our disputes in America, they should be settled at the ballot box, not through the courts, but Republicans cannot unilaterally disarm. You can’t let them try to interfere in the 2024 election by doing to Donald Trump what they’re doing. And I say that as somebody who will criticize Donald Trump when he goes too far. The Democrats are violating the norms and they’re especially doing it through this case, this weak case, in Manhattan.
Bill Clinton? Hillary Clinton? Republicans are also complaining that the crimes Trump is charged with should have passed the statute of limitations, but Fleischer wants local prosecutors reaching back to, what, the 1990s to get Bill Clinton? And it seems safe to assume that if the Justice Department under Trump could not find a way to “lock her up,” there’s nothing to prosecute Hillary Clinton for. Maybe Hunter Biden went on a bender in a county with a Republican prosecutor sometime, but this is a ridiculous idea unless you’re solely motivated by revenge—which Fleischer can confidently assume his audience on Sean Hannity’s show is.
Fleischer, as a Republican of the Karl Rove school, also knows that projection is the way to go, accusing Democrats of trying to interfere in the 2024 election to distract from the fact that Trump’s alleged crimes are about an effort to cover up his sexual encounters until after the 2016 election, and shifting the burden of “violating the norms” from Trump onto Democrats. But we’re not talking about norms here. We’re talking about laws, and whether Trump broke them.
Republicans cannot be allowed to shift the question from where it belongs—can the Manhattan DA prove that Trump broke the law and get a jury to convict him?—to these outlandish “can of worms” retaliation schemes. There are enough ambitious Republican prosecutors in this country that if they thought they could get a court to allow them to charge Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton or Hunter Biden with a crime, they would already have done it. This isn’t a serious threat of legal action, it’s a media strategy, and it’s the media’s job (outside of Fox News, which is obviously pushing it) to ensure that it fails to gain traction.
Our planned Ukraine episode will have to wait, as Donald Trump is being arraigned in New York City for his role in falsifying records to hide hush money paid to Stormy Daniels. This is the first of a potential slew of indictments coming Trump’s way, and we are here for a celebration of karmic justice—and to talk about what happens to the Republican Party after this.
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