Trump’s trials and the battle for the truth

There are reasons to believe that the coming months, which will be ugly, debased and charged with anxiety about the future of this republic, will not necessarily end badly.

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FILE - Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023. A Georgia prosecutor is expected to seek a grand jury indictment in the coming weeks in her investigation into efforts by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the former president’s 2020 election loss. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) ORG XMIT: WX221

Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023.

AP

It’s a little hard to recall now, but last year, Donald Trump was in eclipse. In July 2022, half of GOP primary voters expressed a desire to move on from Trump. His anointed candidates fared poorly in November, and even some of his most ardent backers, including the Murdochs, were eyeing other options. If he could be relegated to the rearview window, I reasoned, even if it meant that he escaped liability for his crimes, it would be the best available outcome. An indictment, I feared, would spark a rally-round-Trump effect that would revive his fortunes among Republicans and thrust this viper back into our national life.

I was also concerned that, considering Trump’s modus operandi, his response to indictment would be a thoroughgoing assault on the rule of law.

Perhaps Merrick Garland had similar worries. He certainly seemed to drag his feet — until Trump’s florid criminality forced the DOJ’s hand. In the matter of the stolen classified documents, Trump defied a subpoena, attempted to conceal evidence (textbook obstruction), and displayed such contempt for national security and law that, in the words of former Trump Attorney General William Barr, “What is unjust is not prosecuting Trump at this stage.” Once Jack Smith was appointed to investigate the Mar-a-Lago documents case, it was untenable not to give him authority to look into the Jan. 6 offenses as well.

As feared, the rally-round-Trump effect has happened. The GOP base is once again glassy-eyed with zeal for their martyr/hero. This emphatically does not reflect poorly on the prosecutors (though the Alvin Bragg prosecution was ill-considered), but only on the Republicans whose instinct is to adore the most despicable human to hold high office in our lifetime, or maybe ever.

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Also, as predicted, the discrediting of our legal system has shifted into overdrive. The cowardly and cynical among Republican presidential candidates have cast aspersions on the Department of Justice. Ron DeSantis, though claiming not to have read the document, calls the latest indictment a “weaponization of federal law enforcement” that “represents a mortal threat to a free society.” Tim Scott leaped to whataboutism, citing the Hunter Biden case, and suggesting that “We’re watching Biden’s D.O.J. continue to hunt Republicans while protecting Democrats.” And from what used to be the fever swamps but are now the MAGA influencer ranks comes this from the Federalist’s Sean Davis: “The Department of Justice is a domestic terror organization.”

The party of law and order is now the party of nihilism and chaos.

So in some ways, this is a sum-of-all-fears moment. But there are reasons to believe that the coming months, which will be ugly, debased and charged with anxiety about the future of this republic, will not necessarily end badly.

There are four and a half Republican presidential contenders who are telling the truth about Trump. Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Chris Christie and Will Hurd are solid. Nikki Haley, characteristically, is hedging, but she also sometimes stumbles into honesty. That is a departure from the norm during the 2016 primaries and during the Trump presidency. And it matters that these Republicans are making the case now, during the primaries, that Trump is unfit for office because some in the party will automatically tune out any critique of Trump if it seems that the beneficiary will be a Democrat in the general election.

Now, some will object, reasonably enough, that all of the Trump-critical candidates account for only about 11% of the primary vote according to recent polling. But in our time, politics is a game of inches. If just a small fraction of Republicans, to say nothing of independent voters, are dissuaded from supporting Trump because of the pending trials, it would make all the difference. A recent New York Times poll showed that 25% of the GOP electorate is not open to supporting Trump. Among that 25%, 49% think Trump is a criminal, and 29% (or about 7% of all Republican respondents) would vote for Biden over Trump in 2024.

Is that enough to keep the disaster of a second Trump term at bay? Probably not, because the structure of the Electoral College requires that the Democrat score at least a four-point victory to prevail.

In our polarized information world, with millions getting only news that is politically palatable, it’s excruciatingly difficult to convey basic facts. But trials, especially trials that will dominate every single news outlet, are probably the one way to penetrate those hermetically sealed bubbles. Through the trials, some who are currently in ignorance will learn facts that will disturb them. There will be testimony from Republicans and cross-examination and sworn oaths. Our justice system is by no means perfect at revealing truth, but it’s far superior to social media or cable TV. If just a few tens of thousands of Americans in key states have their minds opened to new information, it could be enough to avoid an unthinkable outcome in 2024.

So we must strap in and prepare to play our part, mindful of the stakes, and welcoming a new ally in the battle for truth — the courts.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.

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