Will 37 Criminal Charges Even Matter?

American Democracy

Democracy Examined

The new Trump indictment is bad news for the former president. His recent interview with Bret Baier of Fox News is helping turn it into a catastrophe.

Trump sat down with Baier in an interview released earlier this week presumably to exonerate himself and keep his campaign momentum going. Trump is facing 37 charges for withholding national defense information, concealing his possession of classified documents, and delivering false statements to the FBI. Serious stuff.

Thankfully for Trump, he had months to prepare a defense for his inevitable prosecution after refusing to simply hand over the requested papers. Nevertheless, when Baier pressed Trump to explain himself, it led to one of Trump’s more memorable and chaotic back-and-forth exchanges:

BAIER: They said, ‘could you give us the documents back?’ And then they said they went to DOJ to subpoena you to get them back.

TRUMP: Which they’ve never done before.

BAIER: Right.

TRUMP: And in all fairness—

BAIER: Why not just hand them over then?

TRUMP: Because I had boxes—I want to go through the boxes and get all my personal things out. I don’t want to hand that over to [the National Archives and Records Administration] yet. And I was very busy, as you’ve sort of seen.

BAIER: Yeah.

TRUMP: I’ve been very, very busy.

BAIER: But according to the indictment, you then tell this aide to move to other locations after telling your lawyers to say you’d fully complied with the subpoena, when you hadn’t.

TRUMP: But before I send boxes over, I have to take all of my things out. These boxes were interspersed with all sorts of things—golf shirts, clothing, pants, shoes. There were many things.

So with that, the former president of the United States committed himself to the defense strategy of: “I was too busy to comply.” Apparently in addition to being too busy to hand over the requested documents, Trump was also too busy to think through a serious explanation for storing national secrets in a Mar-a-Lago ballroom. According to some legal experts, Trump’s comments are tantamount to admitting that he willfully obstructed justice.

For a normal politician, this would probably be the end of his career. But we’re talking about Trump, the new Teflon Don. Trump has staked his political career on convincing his supporters that he’s the victim of a never-ending witch hunt, and he’s labeling this investigation as its latest iteration. Still, it could be that constantly flouting the rules may finally catch up to him. After all, the court of public opinion is far easier to manipulate than the court of law.

It’s too early to tell where exactly this will lead, but we’re starting to see the contours of a few major trends which will play out over the coming months.

Fox News is Leaning Away from Trump 

Baier’s interview was remarkably incisive considering Fox News’ close association with the Republican party. It was no walk in the park, and it suggests that Trump isn’t going to have such an easy time with Fox during the primaries.

Fox News executive Rupert Murdoch’s relationship with Trump has been contentious for years, with Murdoch first trying to have Trump defeated by another Republican during the 2016 election cycle, then falling into line during the Trump years, before finally turning against him again. By last July, Murdoch had dumped Trump for DeSantis. Trump’s airtime on Fox was slashed.

“Everyone knows that there’s this ‘soft ban’ or ‘silent ban,’” on hosting Trump on Fox, according to a source close to Trump. Trump has responded as you would expect, describing Murdoch as a “MAGA Hating Globalist RINO” who is “aiding & abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA.”

To be clear, Fox is not anti-Trump, but rather more supportive of his Republican alternatives, DeSantis foremost among them. The seriousness of the Baier interview spells trouble for Trump, who can’t ditch the news anchor just yet. Fox is hosting the first Republican debate on August 23rd, and Bret Baier is slated to co-moderate.

The American Public Isn’t Buying Trump’s Defense

A few polls have come out since Trump’s most recent indictment, and a majority of Americans are aligned around the basic narrative that Trump likely did something wrong and will be unfit for office if he is convicted. 69 percent of Americans agreed that Trump holding nuclear or military documents at Mar-a-Lago is a security risk, 61 percent of Americans believe that the charges are serious, and 57 percent of Americans believe that Trump should not be able to serve as president again if he is convicted.

CNN poll came to even more damning findings, with 55 percent of Americans stating that Trump has done something illegal to instigate the indictment and another 30 percent stating that Trump has done something unethical but not illegal. Just 15 percent of Americans were willing to say that Trump hadn’t done anything wrong.

Broad swaths of the country agree with the basic points of the case against Trump, even if only slim majorities of Americans believe that Trump is being treated fairly and the charges are appropriate for the alleged crimes.

Republican Primary Voters Aren’t Budging

Polls of Republicans are telling a different story. So far, the indictment seems to have had no discernible effect on Republican primary voters’ likelihood of supporting Trump. He retains a comfortable lead in the crowded Republican primary field, sitting with about 52 percent support compared to Ron DeSantis in a distant second at 21 percent.

Trump’s position is also strengthened by a key asset his Republican rivals lack: extreme loyalty. 79 percent of Trump supporters say they will definitely support him in the primaries, compared to just 51 percent of DeSantis supporters who said the same about their preferred pick. The people who are voting for Trump have gone all in.

The result is that Trump’s already-struggling popularity on the national scale is at risk of dipping further as a result of the investigation, but Republicans seem poised to elect him as their nominee regardless.

The Rule of Law is Collateral Damage

Trump’s favorite talking point regarding the indictment is that this is a witch hunt pursued by a rogue federal bureaucracy. It is part of a concerted effort to deflect blame from the president and cast it onto our law enforcement agencies.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you’ll know that the FBI is in serious trouble, and the DOJ is too. Calling to dismantle our federal law enforcement agencies has been a popular cause for a group of high-profile, Trump-aligned Republicans for the past year. Our federal bureaucracy is collateral damage to ambitions of the Trump campaign, and the new indictment threatens to make that worse.

Unfortunately, there is little the DOJ and FBI can do to improve their position, as they are caught in a catch-22. Not prosecuting Trump would be failing to uphold the rule of law, but prosecuting him guarantees that the most-listened-to man in America will go after our institutions even harder. So long as one politician is openly flouting the rules and his voters are unwilling to hold him to account, some sort of damage is inevitable.

At the final GOP presidential debate in 2015, Jeb Bush said that Donald Trump is “a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Eight years later, the chaos reigns. Everyone knows this documents scandal is going to have serious consequences for American democracy, but its anyone’s guess what those might be.