On 16 or perhaps 17 July 2024, in Milwaukee, the Republican national convention will likely nominate as its presidential candidate a convicted criminal. When Donald Trump ascends the podium to accept the nomination for his third time he will probably have been found guilty months earlier of having staged an attempted coup to overthrow American democracy – “conspiring to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, obstruct the certification of the election results, and discount citizens’ legitimate votes”, in the words of special counsel Jack Smith.
The US district court judge Tanya Chutkan has announced that she will set the trial date at the next hearing on Trump’s case on 28 August. Smith has sought a 2 January 2024 start date for a trial to last an estimated six weeks into mid-February. Trump’s attorneys have preposterously suggested a date in April 2026. If Judge Chutkan fixes the trial for any time before 1 June 2024, Trump will accept the Republican nomination after its verdict is rendered.
And if the date is earlier than June, Republican primaries will be conducted at the same time as the trial. Day by day, the compounding of the doubled events will incite his followers to redouble their fervor and devotion. Rocket fuel will be pumped on to the fire of Trump’s campaign. While the closing statements are delivered to the jury, Republicans will, if the polls hold, have already voted overwhelmingly for Trump and reduced his opponents’ chances to ashes.
The day of the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, 15 January, is also the day that his second defamation trial with E Jean Carroll begins. The judge in that case, in New York, Lewis A Kaplan, found in July that Trump had “raped” her. “Indeed, as the evidence at trial recounted … makes clear, the jury found that Mr Trump in fact did exactly that,” he said. So Trump will mount the stage at the convention, regardless of the legal verdict about the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, or any other verdict, as an adjudicated rapist.
All told, so far, Trump faces 91 criminal counts in four jurisdictions. Three other elaborate trials will follow his January 6 case, if it is scheduled any time in January or February. His trial date in New York is tentatively on the calendar for 25 March 2024. In that case, he is charged by the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg “for falsifying New York business records in order to conceal damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election. During the election, Trump and others employed a ‘catch and kill’ scheme to identify, purchase, and bury negative information about him and boost his electoral prospects. Trump then went to great lengths to hide this conduct, causing dozens of false entries in business records to conceal criminal activity, including attempts to violate state and federal election laws.”
But Bragg has suggested he would postpone this trial to allow the January 6 federal case to be first.
Trump’s trial in the Mar-a-Lago presidential records case is on the calendar in Florida for 20 May 2024, where he is charged with the illegal and willful theft of national security documents and obstruction of justice.
Even more than during the gripping performance of his various indictments, the theatre of his trials will subsume politics. There will not be another campaign, some semblance of a normal campaign of the past, a fantasy campaign, separate from Trump’s trials. The scenes from courtroom to courtroom will overlap with the primaries – the final ones taking place on 4 June 2024 – only intensifying the zeal of his base. And then Trump’s battle with the law will engulf the general election.
The trials are a continuous spectacle, featuring an all-star cast in far-flung locations. Political reporters are barely heard from, while legal analysts fill the airwaves. Every twist and turn, every motion, every argument is the breathless lead story. Everyone, from prosecutors to co-conspirators, named and unnamed, indicted and unindicted, are characters in Trump’s new reality show – part violent action movie (the insurrection), part sleazy porn flick (Stormy Daniels), part conspiracy thriller (Mar-a-Lago), and part mafia drama (the fake elector racket).
But the Trump trials are more than his means; they are his ends. The trials are not the sideshow, but the heart and soul of Trump’s campaign. They have become his essential fundraising tool to finance his defense, his platform for whipping up his followers into a constant state of excitement, and his instrument for dominating the media to make himself the center of attention and blot out coverage of anyone else.
The trials are the message. They are the drama around which Trump plays his role as the unjustly accused victim, whose rights are trampled and who is the martyr for his oppressed “deplorables”. He is taking the slings and arrows for them. The narcissist is the self-sacrificing saint. The criminal is the angel. The liar is the truth-teller. If any Republican lapses in faithfulness, they are more than a mere doubter or skeptic, but a betrayer and traitor. Trump’s trials are the rigorous trial of his followers’ faith. Rejection of temptation in an encounter with an impertinent fact that might raise a qualm shows purity of heart. Seduction by fact must be resisted. The siren song of critical thinking must be cast out as sin. Trump’s convictions are the supreme test of his followers’ strength of conviction.
Republicans are not prisoners of Trump’s narcissistic rage. They don’t reject it. They don’t regret it. They don’t apologize. They mirror it. They mimic it. They exult in it. It is the gratification they receive for passing through the ordeal of belief. His rage is their reward. It is their cheap vicarious defiance of the evil-doers: the establishment, the globalists, the Fauciists, the FBI, the Barbie movie. As Trump has received target letters, so judges, district attorneys, the special counsel, and their wives, too, must be targets. Fair game is fair play. Hallelujah!
Poor Mike Pence, who Trump chose as his running mate to balance his sinfulness with Christian virtue, benightedly still believes that truthfulness, righteousness and clean hands makes him the ideal evangelical avatar. He has positioned himself on the Republican issues as a scold of Trump’s fall from grace on abortion. Pence is in favor of a national ban, not leaving it to the states like Trump, as if issues matter. His humility as a godly servant leader, for years imitating every gesture of Trump’s, reached its abrupt end in his refusal to drink from Trump’s poisoned chalice.
Yet Pence’s embrace of scripture in the form of the constitution has not beatified him to the evangelicals. There is no worldly subject that can grant him absolution from being perceived as Trump’s Judas. His steadfastness is scorned. His blamelessness is derided. “I’m glad they didn’t hang you,” a man said to Pence at the Iowa state fair. That man’s sentiment is the current definition of moderate Republicanism.
The precise source of Trump’s permanent campaign of trials can be traced to before the election of 2016, when his inveterate dirty trickster Roger Stone coined the “Stop the Steal” slogan to claim Trump had been robbed by Senator Ted Cruz in the Colorado caucuses. That falsehood became Trump’s “Stop the Steal” con before the 2020 election, which metastasized into his coup and insurrection, and now the prosecutions. (Last week, a Danish film-maker who has produced a documentary about Stone released previously unseen video of him laying out the details of the fake electors scheme on 5 November 2020, two days after the election. It seems doubtful that Stone was the originator of the conspiracy. The idea was floated in February 2020 at a closed meeting to the rightwing Council on National Policy, whose president, Tom Fitton, later called on Trump to pardon Stone. Fitton sent Trump a memo on 31 October 2020, three days before the election, advising him to declare before the ballots were counted, “We had an election today – and I won.” Fitton has been identified by a number of news organizations as Unnamed Co-Conspirator Individual 1 in the Georgia indictment.)
But Trump’s career in crime is an epic story that antedates his election fraud. The Georgia indictment charging him with operating a “criminal enterprise” is overdue by almost 50 years. His coup d’état is the coup de grâce. But the enormity of his conspiracy to overturn the election ultimately depended upon the weak reed of Pence, who proved surprisingly unpliable. Trump brought the lessons he learned in the demimonde of New York to Washington.
He always wanted his Roy Cohn, his model lawyer and mouthpiece. His credentials were nonpareil. Cohn was born and bred in the clubhouse political culture of graft and favoritism, Joe McCarthy’s vicious counsel, returned to the city as its number one fixer, from the mob to the Catholic archdiocese, who had won his own acquittals in four criminal trials for bribery and conspiracy when the Trumps – father Fred, with his real-estate empire in the outer boroughs, and his son Donald, on the make in the Big Apple – hired him in 1974 to get them off the hook of a federal suit for housing discrimination against black tenants. On advice of counsel, Trump repeatedly perjured himself, Cohn dragged the case out, and the Trumps ignored Department of Justice decrees. Cohn claimed the case was created by “planted malcontents”. Trump, meanwhile, got his real-estate license, and Cohn would set him up with the mob to build Trump Tower.
But Roy Cohn was only one part of what Trump required to operate. He also needed the prosecutors to lay off. He needed his Robert Morgenthau, scion of one of New York’s most distinguished families, personification of civic virtue, the US attorney for the southern district of New York for a dozen years and the district attorney of Manhattan for 35 years, “my friend, the late, GREAT, Robert Morgenthau”, as Trump called him after his death at 100. Morgenthau brought Trump on to the board of the Police Athletic Association, hosted a tribute dinner to him and accepted campaign contributions. He never opened a single investigation into Trump, and always felt there was nothing to see.
Soon after Rudy Giuliani was appointed the US attorney for the southern district in 1983, Trump was bounced out of New York by the bankers. Trump’s profligacy and mismanagement crashed his monumental casino and hotel, the Taj Mahal in New Jersey, built with mob help, and he could not secure his loans. Giuliani was busy elsewhere, prosecuting the five families of the mafia, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico) of 1970, the first time the act was applied in a major case. His pioneering use of the Rico statute made Giuliani’s reputation. Trump and Giuliani circled each other in a strange dance of outsized egos.
Giuliani threw in with Trump late in the game, during the 2016 campaign, when he manipulated his network of FBI agents in and around the New York office to raise the pressure on director James Comey to reopen the already closed investigation into Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails because of the existence of a computer owned by her aide Huma Abedin and accessed by her husband Anthony Weiner. Comey succumbed. His public announcements were decisive in shifting marginal votes in swing states to Trump. (The FBI chief of counter-intelligence in the New York office at the time, Charles McGonigal, closely connected to Giuliani, pleaded guilty this week to money-laundering payments from a sanctioned Russian oligarch.)
Trump’s next task for Giuliani was to troll through the back alleys of Ukraine seeking disinformation on Joe Biden to discredit him as the Democratic candidate in 2020. Giuliani’s efforts were an essential element in Trump’s scheme that prompted him to attempt extorting Volodymyr Zelensky into trading fabricated dirt on Biden for missiles desperately needed to defend Ukraine against Russia. Trump was impeached for the first time.
Giuliani was the master of Rico. He knew better than anyone how the law worked and the mafia operated. The first he used to forge his image as a crime-fighter; the second he emulated on Trump’s behalf. So, the wielder of Rico was ensnared under Rico. He learned first-hand how the mafia did its business. He discovered how to organize a racket into an effective hierarchy. He learned the potential value of intimidating innocents. From this point of view, he saw the Republican party as a racket in the making, from the Republican National Committee to the Republican Association of Attorneys General to the state parties, all constituent families of a mafia, with Giuliani himself as the consigliere to the capo di tutti capi.
“This criminal organization,” stated the Georgia indictment, “… constituted an ongoing organization whose members and associates functioned as a continuing unit for a common purpose of achieving the objectives of the enterprise.” Giuliani was indicted on 13 counts, including racketeering, making false statements, harassment and intimidation of an election worker, and election fraud. The former prosecutor is the prosecuted. He is struggling to meet his attorney’s fees. He complains that he is owed $300,000 from Trump for non-payment for his counsel.
The trials have become Trump’s engine for capturing his third Republican nomination. His celebrity has been transformed into a passion play of victimization. His problem is that the trials are not shows.
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of The Permanent Campaign, published in 1980, and All the Power of the Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln 1856-1860, the third of a projected five volumes. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton
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