The Watergate Effect BACK IN COURT, TRUMP REMAINS A MENACE
TRUMP leaving the courthouse. CREDIT: Will Lanzoni, CNN
IT WAS ASTONISHING. IT WAS BORING. It was historic. It was mundane. Donald Trump’s appearance yesterday in federal court on charges that he arrogantly, carelessly, illegally stashed national security documents at his grotesque Florida estate was both unsettling and anticlimactic. In any case, it surely wasn’t fun. It might have been a hoot back in the days when he was first elected and feeling his way through the opening moments of his administration, when people used to fantasize about men and women with FBI stenciled on their jackets leading him out of the White House in handcuffs. But too much has happened. Donald J. Trump has done too many bad things, and justice has been too elusive. It feels he has escaped too many times before, during and after his presidency, to give us any confidence that he will really face the consequences of his treachery. Twice indicted; twice acquitted. The Mueller Report, while it wasn’t the hall pass that many people believe, did not prove that Trump was (and is) Vladimir Putin’s puppet. A civil jury in the E. Jean Carroll case did find that Trump sexually abused the writer and that he defamed her, but weirdly failed to find for Carroll on the most serious charge of rape. Also, Tuesday’s event, felt too familiar, given that that weeks ago, Trump made a similar appearance in New York City, where he was charged with falsifying financial documents to hide an alleged sexual liaison with Stormy Daniels. The Big Apple spectacle had been more dramatic because it was actually the first time the ex-president was forced into a courthouse, and because the photo-ops were better, with pictures of a scowling Trump at the defense table. The Miami appearance – although the first time Trump was charged with federal crimes – was less photogenic, given the federal court’s ban on cameras inside and outside the courtroom. There had been some worries that protests outside the courthouse would get out of hand, Jan. 6 style, but thankfully that didn't live up to the advance hype. Trump himself was nearly invisible. A CNN photo showed a ghostly shadow of him being driven away from the courthouse, hand pressed against a car window.
AND YET . . . The Miami charges are many times more serious than those in New York, and represent a Full Trump assault on responsible, serious stewardship we expect of actual public servants. So we should celebrate the fact that the law was being applied to an ex-president and that maybe, just maybe that it's not a lie that no person is above the law. Also, unlike many legal documents, the 49-page indictment is written with the clarity and detail of a newspaper or magazine story, while seething with convincing examples of Trump’s trickery, lies and abuse of power, along with unstated implications of sedition and treason.
The indictment describes Trump and his co-conspirator, “Walt” Nauta – Trump’s “body man” and valet – playing keep-away with boxes containing national secrets, moving them around the Florida estate to hide them from his own lawyer, as well as the FBI. There are almost hilarious photos of boxes piled up on a ballroom stage, in a bathroom and other non-secure areas of Mar-a-Lago, one picture showing that in one room, boxes had fallen, scattering their contents on the floor.
Still, in today’s hyper-news environment, the eloquent, damning indictment was by now old news. Republicans, as usual, were loudly deflecting attention away from the Trump charges by complaining of an unfair political prosecution, inappropriately evidenced by comparisons to the ancient Hillary Clinton email controversy and more recent discovery of government papers in the garage where Joe Biden keeps his Corvette. The charges against Trump should have produced consensus that, if proven, Trump had done a bad thing, and the fact there is no consensus and it seems there never will be one is depressing.
THERE ARE OTHER REASONS why Tuesday wasn’t any fun. The fear that there’s plenty of room for mischief in the Florida case, and that Trump will wriggle free. Maybe because the Trump-favoring U.S. District Court judge, Aillen M. Cannon, is presiding and is likely to make decisions that will unfairly help the defendant. Or that just one juror from Trump-loving Florida will tank the case; or, the ultimate horror, that Trump will win a second term as president and scuttle that and any other case against him. It’s a disappointment, too, that Trump still hasn’t been indicted with the most serious felonies of his presidency, his multi-front attempt to cheat his way into a second term by overturning the Biden election, culminating in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
I THINK ALSO that I’m not alone in being exhausted by Trump the man and Trump the outlaw and his attack on democracy. Nothing seems to change. Nothing seems to slow Trump, politically. He dominates the Republican Party. He’s likely to be the GOP candidate next year. He could be president again. His Republican “rivals” are scared of him and his cult of faithful followers who control the outcome of primaries. His supposed major opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, distinguishes himself from the 45th president only by trying to outdo his cruelty, authoritarianism and racism. But what really takes the fun of a day like today, even though the law seems finally to be catching up to Trump, is that I and I suppose many others want a far quicker and more definitive end to the terror that Trump has unleashed on democracy. We crave a happy ending – a Watergate ending. Watergate spoiled us. It wrapped things up just the right way, perfectly, permanently. There was the smoking-gun Oval Office tape recording in which the president sinks himself with his own words. Impeachment is looming. A Republican delegation tells the president that the GOP and the nation have had it with him and his squalid ways. Which he acknowledges, sort of, in his TV resignation speech. The next day, standing in the doorway of Marine One, the resigned president waves a last goodbye; the helicopter lifts the awful president from the White House lawn and whisks him away, taking him out of our lives, forever.
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.