When Donald Trump was caught laundering money through his casino, he made a deal to pay $10 million and the problem went away. When Trump was caught defrauding people with his fake university, he paid $20 million and the problem went away. When Trump was caught stealing money from his own charity, he paid a fine of $2 million and the problem went away.
All his life, Trump has been convinced that so long as he was able to pull a few more million out of the family vaults, there was nothing he couldn’t get away with. And he’s been right. His deep pockets have allowed him to dodge and delay every legal issue he’s faced, and each time agencies charged with enforcing the law decided they’d rather have Trump’s money than justice.
In the last five years, Trump has only gained an extra layer of protection. Impeached for attempting to blackmail Ukrainian leaders into making false statements against Joe Biden, then impeached again for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Trump was never in serious danger so long as Republicans had more than a third of the Senate. Republicans have made protecting Trump not just a cause, but the cause. To a very large extent, the modern Republican Party exists to create a protective screen for Trump.
Except this time, all the money, all the lies, all the threats, and every chyron on Fox News is not going to be enough. This time, Trump is in trouble.
Considering the kid glove treatment Trump was given in his appearance at the Miami courthouse, it may not seem that way. When 25-year-old Reality Winner was taken before a federal judge on a single charge of mishandling classified documents, the government argued that not only was she a flight risk, she was a “threat to the public.” Her parents offered to put up their house as collateral. Her attorneys offered to severely restrict her movements and her access to the internet. The government was having none of it. Winner was held without bail until trial.
But with Trump … There’s no choice about having your photo taken when facing federal felony changes. Except for Trump. There’s no way that someone facing multiple charges of violating the Espionage Act would not see severe restrictions on their movement before trial. Except for Trump. There’s no way that someone with overseas properties, overseas bank accounts, and a private jet who was facing charges with a possible total sentence measured in centuries would not be considered a flight risk. Except for Trump.
Every time judge Jonathan Goodman referred to Trump not as “the defendant” but as “the former president,” it underscored that in spite of the seriousness of the charges, Trump’s money and power are still shielding him from the treatment that would have been received by any other person standing in the docket.
It would be easy to believe that somewhere around December 2024, after the next election has been decided and a dozen different appeals have been made, the government would simply put out its hand, take another check from Trump, and let the whole thing go away.
That’s not going to happen. Because this time, even those who most want to protect Trump can see the truth of the indictment documents. This time, he ****ed up.
When the announcement came out that Trump was to be indicted by the Miami grand jury seated by special counsel Jack Smith, Republicans did their one job: They rushed to Trump’s defense. From Jim Jordan to Marjorie Taylor Greene to Josh Hawley, they dragged out the expected screams of indignation and reached truly mesmerizing heights of “what aboutism” as they threatened to indict everyone who had so much as registered as a Democrat.
Then the actual indictment was unsealed, and the protests became distinctly muted. It wasn’t just an instantly meme-able image of the bathroom stocked with boxes of classified documents, it was 40 pages of absolutely damning incidents in which Trump, given every opportunity to do the right thing, did the wrong thing. Then he did the wrong thing on tape. Then he explained that he knew he was doing the wrong thing. On tape.
Somewhere out there, a lot of new desks are being ordered for Republican offices to replace all the ones that got damaged by the head-pounding.
As The Washington Post reports, Trump’s attorneys tried to broker a way out of all this over a year ago. They knew just what that kid glove treatment in Miami demonstrated again: If the Justice Department could find a way to let Trump off, they would let him off. They urged Trump to just hand over what he had and put an end to it.
The evidence that this would have worked, and wouldn’t even have required Trump to cut a check, is abundant and obvious: Not one of the charges on Trump’s indictment has anything to do with a document that was voluntarily returned. That’s true of the hundreds of classified documents that were in the boxes handed over to the National Archives in January 2022 after nearly a full year of resistance. That’s true of the additional folio of documents Trump’s attorneys handed over in June of that year after first claiming there were no more documents in Trump’s possession.
Every single charge comes from a document that Trump not only refused to provide, but went out of his way to deny he was holding. He lied to the FBI. He lied to his own attorneys. He lied to everyone.
Interviews with seven Trump advisers with knowledge of the probe indicate he misled his own advisers, telling them the boxes contained only newspaper clippings and clothes. He repeatedly refused to give the documents back, even when some of his longest-serving advisers warned of peril and some flew to Mar-a-Lago to beg him to return them.
The saying “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” may seem trite, but in this case it’s doubly true. If Trump had listened to his attorneys, he’d be in the clear. If Trump had admitted to having the documents and given them back, he’d be in the clear. Hell, if Trump had fessed up after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago and simply said he thought he had them all and had made a mistake, there would not have been an indictment.
Trump had stupendous, illogical, unlawful, almost endless opportunities to get out of this—opportunities that would have been given to no one else. The DOJ would have taken any excuse not to indict Trump. But this time, Trump only took all that extra rope and fashioned it into an extra-long necktie. He made it impossible to simply let him go.
This morning, The Washington Post is wondering if Trump “bodyman” Walt Nauta is going to flip and testify against his boss. It’s possible. Nauta was clearly acting on Trump’s orders when he hauled those boxes out of the store room and lined them up for Trump’s perusal. His lie to the FBI was clearly done with the intent of protecting his boss. If Nauta flipped, it would be another solid nail in Trump’s coffin.
It’s possible … but it’s not necessary. What’s already in the indictment is more than sufficient to see Trump convicted.
This isn’t to say that the DOJ won’t reach some kind of deal with Trump. There’s no doubt they would love to be going on to other cases (there was that guy who tried to overturn the election and incite violence ... What was his name again?). There’s also no doubt that a conviction for Trump won’t mean what it did for an ordinary citizen like Winner, or a retired Army lieutenant, or an NSA contractor.
But it’s not going to be signing a check this time. These charges are serious, and conviction on even one of them is going to result in at least a period of probation and severely restricted movement. Conviction on multiple charges is going to mean prison time.
Then Hawley and Jordan and Greene can scream even lounder. It won’t help Trump.