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What Has Trump's Endless Prosecution Accomplished?
As more and more effort is spent trying to put Donald Trump behind bars, he keeps growing politically. Is it time to wonder if there's a connection?
Editor’s Note: This is an old article, from June 14, 2022. The previous context was the January 6th hearings. In the wake of Donald Trump’s New York indictment, I’m re-releasing it. Trump predictably has gained ten points versus Ron DeSantis in a post-indictment poll, which underscores the core argument here, i.e. that politically the endless pursuit of Trump only hardens support for him among Republicans. The response to this of course will be that this doesn’t matter, that the law is the law, etc. However, it does matter, in ways I’ll address in a coming note. For now, it’s useful to review how long this has been going on. From last June:
Tonight was meant to be the grand primetime finale of the January 6th hearings, but those have been postponed. MSNBC’s Ali Vitali, when asked the reason, answered in classic fashion. “Look,” she said. “You have to infer that the reason for that is they’re getting new cooperation, not least of which from former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone…”
Do we? Have to infer that? From George Nader to Michael Cohen to Hope Hicks to Michael Flynn to Don McGahn to Alexander Vindman to Cassidy Hutchinson to a long, long list of others, we’ve been repeatedly told the key Bearer Of Secrets had turned states evidence, and the “John Dean moment” was here. Do you remember the New Yorker article from the summer of 2018, “Allen Weisselberg, the Man Who Knows Donald Trump’s Financial Secrets, Has Agreed to Become a Coöperating Witness”? The one containing the line, “Allen is the one guy who knows everything”?
No? Neither had I. But it happened, another moment crumpled up and thrown at the bottom of what in the rearview mirror now looks like an enormous mountain of lost opportunity, a Giza Necropolis of spent political capital. Getting Trump indicted has seemed just around the corner for six long years now, but the action of every final showdown always unfolded like a Kafka novel, where the punchline of the Land Surveyor’s valiant search for justice was that it never got him over even the first in the thousand lifetimes of obstacles he needed to overcome to reach the center of the Castle. This still feels like that. Is this really the end, or barely just starting?
I’d planned to live-blog the hearings this evening over an introduction of the six-year history of the “We’ve definitely got him now!” show. Hearings are off, but it’s all worth reviewing anyway, especially since other events are conspiring to answer the question of just what all these years of efforts have won Democrats politically, which seems to be, not much.
The Endless Prosecution not only failed to win Trump’s accusers the public’s loyalty, it apparently achieved the opposite, somehow swinging working-class and even nonwhite voters toward Republicans in what even Axios this week called a “seismic shift” in American politics.
Democrats six years ago were presented with a unique opportunity, one so obvious even Donald Trump figured it out. The electorate was angry, beaten down, and willing to listen to anyone with a real plan, and instead of providing one — the obvious project would have involved throwing over some key donors for a while, then ripping off the populist politics of Bernie Sanders to re-sell them with slicker packaging — party leaders spent all their currency trying to sue, indict, impeach, remove, or jail Trump.
It’s an extraordinary story that’s gotten almost no attention, even as the Endless Prosecution has become a permanent feature of American life. Trump has become America’s Goldstein, increasingly invisible yet still always conniving to overthrow “democracy itself” through a succession of ever-bolder and more desperate schemes. Why, just recently he tried to call a White House support staffer who was “in talks with the January 6th panel,” meaning even at this late date he is seeking to obstruct justice still! Yet somehow he always escapes the promised reckoning, even as he lives high on the hog, right in our midst.
People have forgotten how long this has been going on. You can go back to November of 2016, when a group of six members of the Electoral College signed on to an effort to “deny Trump the presidency but also to undermine the legitimacy of the institution” in a hope of stopping Trump by getting 37 Republican electors to convert. Or, go back and read the December 15, 2016 Vanity Fair article, “Democrats are Paving the Way to Impeach Donald Trump,” which described how a series of legislators including Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin, and Chris Coons introduced a bill requiring Trump to divest himself of foreign holdings, with the failure to comply constituting a constitutional violation. We heard over and over that he was in violation of the Emoluments Clause, which led groups like ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.Org (the site should have a jazzier name now, like StillImpeachingDonaldTrumpNow.Org) to push this as one of the first impeachment angles. When Trump was inaugurated, we heard promises to pull out all the stops to reverse the election, with none other than Michael Moore appearing in McPherson Square to say, “I will not tolerate this again,” a scene highlighted by the Washington Post in a piece called, “The campaign to impeach President Trump has begun.” The first mention of Trump’s name next to the word “president” in that paper was in conjunction with impeachment.
Texas Democrat Al Green made one of the earliest efforts to impeach for “Inciting Hatred and Hostility” and got 66 votes, then there was an idea about impeaching over relationships to China (which provisionally granted Trump 38 trademarks, including for an escort service!), followed by Senator Angus King suggesting Trump be impeached for appearing to ask Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn (after which now-long-deceased John McCain said matters had reached “Watergate scope and size”); then there was talk of setting up an “impeachment clock” after Trump fired Comey, and articles were prepared by congressman Brad Sherman over obstruction of the Russia investigation as far back as July of 2017 (this idea would resurface over and over).
Next came an effort to remove him for failure of “moral leadership” after Charlottesville, followed by an effort to impeach for “undermining the independence of the federal judiciary” and “the freedom of the press,” all of which overlapped with a half-official, half-media-driven campaign to remove Trump as unfit under the 25th Amendment. Then it was emoluments again, then hearings on the Stormy Daniels matter, and high-profile interrogations of close aides like Michael Cohen that were hyped as the long-awaited Dean moments, except they never led anywhere.
When the Mueller Report was released, efforts to remove Trump actually stalled for a hot moment, with a depressed Steny Hoyer saying, “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.”
Then, after another lull following the momentum-cratering testimony of seeming hospice escapee Robert Mueller, and still one more downer after a judge threw out the DNC’s “collusion” lawsuit against Trump, Julian Assange, and the Russian state, the impeachment game moved seamlessly to Ukrainegate. That scandal ate up a year or so of our lives beginning in the fall of 2019, followed by a succession of congressional and litigious efforts to get access to Trump’s finances that among other things led to the Supreme Court case, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, which failed to deliver again as the court passed on separation of powers grounds.
Then in the last year of his presidency there was new talk of removing Trump over his failure of leadership during the Covid crisis, for his infamous interview with Bob Woodward in which he said he “played down” the danger of the virus for political reasons, then for alleged pre-interference with the mail system, then for inaction over “Bountygate,” just to name a few pursuits. Then came the actual election, which set in motion the series of seemingly far more serious events leading to the current series of investigations: Trump’s denial of election results, his alleged interference with vote counts in places like Georgia, and his role in the January 6th riots, all of which seemed serious enough that the New Yorker was able to write with a straight face two weeks ago, “A Potential Criminal Prosecution of Donald Trump Is Growing Closer.”
For the moment I’d prefer to bypass entirely the question of which of all those offenses Trump was actually guilty (my guess would be some, including some of the serious ones, but then you’d also have to send cops in the other direction over similarly serious matters like the sham Russiagate probe), and just look at what all of this has accomplished politically. The “Boy Who Cried Wolf” factor is so massive that some would-be Trump detractors in the center-right may have blown off even the more alarming elements of the January 6th story (like the “You heard him, Pat, he thinks Mike deserves it” testimony by Hutchinson) on general principle. The Cry Wolf phenomenon gets worse every time national media overreacts to what any decent editor should recognize as relatively minor historical events. The New York Times for instance pulled out its ALLIED ARMIES LAND IN FRANCE font for the recent Trump-grabbing-steering-wheel story that turned out to have about nineteen holes in it:
This has been going on for so long, most Americans would feel odd, as if a limb were missing, if this were to end. Trump’s been out of office for two years but both the news media and Trump’s political enemies seem determined to keep him at the center of American life, not just as a media character but as a real political threat.
The January 6th hearings do have an air of finality about them, but we now know the climax in this story is always delayed. However, it’s been manifestly obvious these stories are not having the desired effect politically. This week saw the release of a stunning New York Times/Siena poll showing Democrats now have more of a foothold with white college graduates than with nonwhite voters. The major shift was with Hispanic/Latino voters, where Joe Biden’s net approval rating has declined by 71%, going from a +40 rating to -31 since January of 2021.
There are polls showing Trump ahead of Biden in a theoretical matchup by five points or more, with Trump crucially holding his support levels throughout the January 6th hearings. A more amazing poll involved the American Federation of Teachers, which for the first time in a gazillion years showed likely voters trusting the GOP more than the Democrats on education, an enormous swing that is impossible to blame on any combination of Tucker Carlson and Chris Rufo’s Twitter account. These numbers feel more like the result of years of ceding issues like education to Republicans while resources and energy get thrown into the Endless Prozess.
Regarding the Times poll, the “why it matters” analysis in Axios, which described a “seismic shift,” told most of the story:
We’re seeing a political realignment in real time. Democrats are becoming the party of upscale voters concerned more about issues like gun control and abortion rights. Republicans are quietly building a multiracial coalition of working class voters, with inflation as an accelerant.
Rather than try to deliver more and reposition themselves as a party taking on donors and the Washington permanent state, Democrats tightened those relationships and pushed all their chips on what looks to casual audiences like an effort to outlaw the opposition. Maybe Trump the individual deserves it, who knows. But political parties ultimately are about persuading voters, and these prosecutions have proven time and again not to be persuasive. A message keeps getting sent that so long as Trump exists, support is owed, not won, and that message loses votes, making this entire thing a net minus politically if Trump is not jailed and perhaps even if he is.
A friend who worked on the Hill for years insists Washington was ruined by Game of Thrones. Everybody with a political job in the capital thinks of himself or herself as a soldier in a thrilling bloodsport, instead of a pawn chipping away for incremental improvements somewhere. The Trump show is six years of thirtysomething Dems in gingham and power dresses gunning to be Arya killing the Night King. They think 80 million Trump supporters will collapse into ice cubes if they get him.
It doesn’t work that way. You have to win in 50 real states, not Twitter.
*An earlier version of this article misidentified the subjects of the AFT poll.