The fever dream finally broke when former President Trump was arrested Tuesday evening.
Minus handcuffs, his New York arraignment happened almost exactly like “the Resistance” long hoped and dreamed. And then, Trump returned to Mar-a-Lago; all but called the Manhattan district attorney, as well as the judge overseeing his case, a crook; said “the country is going to hell”; took shots at the other prosecutors investigating him; and declared he had “no interest” in plea deals.
"He has to take it to the limit,” a source close to Trump told RealClearPolitics. The former president now wages concurrent battles in both the court and on the campaign trail, asserting all the while that his fate and that of the nation are inextricably tied. He isn’t going anywhere. The fever is beginning again.
“They can’t beat us at the ballot box, so they try to beat us through the law,” Trump said, summing up for supporters gathered in the ballroom of his Florida estate the legal proceeds that had occurred just hours before. “We are a nation in decline. And now these radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections by using law enforcement,” he said. “We can't let that happen.”
Trump is now the first former president in history to face criminal charges. According to the charging documents read in court earlier that day and released by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, he had “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.” He faces 34 felony criminal counts for falsifying business records. He pled “not guilty.”
Democrats said this was proof that no one was above the law, though Trump avoided the normal indignities of common criminals, like having a mugshot taken. He was arraigned and then quickly released on his own recognizance, but not without a warning. Judge Juan Merchan said during the relatively short hearing Tuesday that Trump and all those involved ought to “refrain from making statements likely to incite violence or create civil unrest.”
This may prove challenging for a bombastic candidate like Trump, who warned just last month that his indictment would bring with it “potential death and destruction.” Civil unrest may also be a potentially subjective term as the former president, like many other politicians before him, regularly exhorts his supporters to “take back their country.”
There is little precedent for indicting a former president, let alone for how an indicted politician runs for the presidency. For instance, Kevin O’Brien, a former assistant U.S. attorney, told RCP that statements Trump made on the stump could come back to haunt him in court. “They’re admissible, if relevant to some issue in his case,” he said before Trump began his remarks. “The rub would be proving what he actually said – ordinarily this would require some kind of recording.”
Most of the cable news stations carried the speech live, though MSNBC made a point to avoid giving Trump airtime. Every major newspaper plastered news of the indictment on its front page. The saga, punctuated by remarks made possible by the judge’s decision not to try and impose a gag order, is now the center of American politics around which all else revolves. Trump spoke for a little over 20 minutes.
He went through each of the investigations one by one, and the investigators behind them, in a primetime speech that felt very different from his normal campaign exuberance.
According to Trump, Bragg was “the criminal” because he illegally allowed details from the grand jury deliberations to leak and “he should be prosecuted, or at a minimum, he should resign.” Merchan wasn’t much better: “I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris and now receives money from the Biden-Harris campaign – and a lot of it.”
The other legal trouble was different, he seemed to say, part of the same “witch hunt.” He condemned New York State Attorney General Letitia James as “a racist in reverse” for bringing a lawsuit against him regarding his business practices. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is investigating whether Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, was also “a racist” who was waiting “in the wings” to go after him.
“Then you have a radical left lunatic, known as a bomb-thrower, who is harassing hundreds of my people day after day over the boxes hoax,” Trump said turning his attention to the federal level. “This lunatic new special prosecutor named Jack Smith – others of his ilk say he’s even worse than they are.”
Martyrdom can be a valuable political currency, and the Trump campaign previously told RCP that “in the short term” the indictment “is really helping us in the primary.” The former president has indeed surged even farther ahead of GOP rivals in the polls since the saga started. But beyond allegations of a two-tiered justice system, the campaign also alleges that by going after Trump, law enforcement has neglected its more basic functions. And the candidate was careful to hit that note, arguing that “unrelenting crime” was one of the reasons “so many people and companies are leaving New York.”
And while Trump publicly proclaimed that he has no interest in plea deals or abandoning politics, at one moment, he seemed to reflect on the potential personal cost of his current legal jeopardy.
He recalled how Judge Merchan had handled the case of “a fine man who worked for me,” a reference to Trump Inc CFO Allen Weisselberg. As Trump told the story, that judge told the defendant that if he admitted his guilt, he’d receive 90 days in jail. If he didn’t accept the plea, and was found convicted at trial, “You're going away for 10 years and maybe longer, which for 75-year-old man with a great family really means life.” Trump turns 77 in June.
Not long ago, the candidate promised conservatives he would be “your vengeance.” Tuesday night, he was their victim, detailing his legal woes, getting into the weeds of each, complaining at one point that he was being investigated under the Espionage Act, “where the penalty is death.” The crowd booed.
Some were sympathetic, even Trump critics like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who alleged that the Manhattan DA was pursuing “a political agenda.” But even former allies, like Trump’s former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, came away from the speech unimpressed.
“He had a great day with the weakness of the indictment. But this speech was just … boring,” Mulvaney told RCP. The South Carolina Republican called the remarks “a complete lost opportunity” because voters, including some who didn’t support Trump in the last election, “tuned in wanting to sympathize with him, to support him. And he gave them almost zero reason to do so.”
If Trump takes that scripted approach on the road, Mulvaney predicted that “no one will come to a rally to watch that speech.”
Opponents couldn’t contain their glee. Members of the Resistance wished one another “Merry Arrestmas.” For instance, the former president’s estranged niece, Mary Trump, wrote online that she was ecstatic and focused on how “awesome it is that the first accountability domino is about to fall.”
Others warned norms broken couldn’t be so easily fixed and that indicting a former president who is beloved, or at least hesitantly accepted, by 71 million Americans could bring irreparable consequences. Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, called for conservative prosecutors in red states to indict President Biden’s son Hunter because “the only way to stop this and return to the norms is for one side to realize if they go too far, the other will match them.”
While some were prescribing extra-constitutional means to preserve the republic, others on the right elevated their allegiance to Trump to an article of faith. Texas Rep. Troy Nehls made no mention of the Constitution, for instance, when he tweeted a new creed: “God. Country. Trump.” Geogia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who traveled from New York for the indictment to Florida for the speech, compared the former president to Jesus Christ, who “was arrested and murdered by the Roman government.”
At the White House, the Biden administration repeatedly refused to even mention or comment on the gathering storm now threatening to envelop the nation. But Trump acknowledged and embraced it. “With all of this being said and with a very dark cloud over our beloved country,” he concluded, “I have no doubt nevertheless, that we will make America great again.”