As former President Donald Trump left Washington after answering charges of trying to subvert democracy, it felt like all the previous trauma and divisions of his eight-year journey into the nation’s psyche were just the start.
America now faces the prospect of an ex-president repeatedly going on trial in an election year in which he’s the Republican front-runner and is promising a new White House term of retribution. He is responding with the same kind of extreme rhetoric that injected fury into his political base and erupted into violence after the last election. Ominous and tense days may be ahead.
Trump spent the afternoon at a federal courthouse within sight of the US Capitol that was ransacked by his supporters on January 6, 2021. He pleaded not guilty in the gravest of the three cases in which he has so far been indicted – on four charges arising from an alleged attempt to halt the “collecting, counting and certifying” of votes after the 2020 election.
Live video of Trump motorcading to an airport and sweeping into yet another city for yet another indictment on his branded jetliner has become part of a sudden new normal. But if the arraignment of a former president seems routine, it’s a measure of the historic chaos Trump has wrought since he bulldozed into politics in 2015.
Wearing his classic dark suit and long red tie, Trump on Thursday rose to his full height in court and slowly and clearly elucidated the words “not guilty” in a hearing in which his fall from president to defendant was underscored when he had to wait silently for the judge to arrive. He was irked, sources familiar with his mindset told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, that the judge referred to him simply as “Mr. Trump,” rather than with the presidential title he still used at his clubs.
The 45th president and special counsel Jack Smith – who has also indicted him for the alleged mishandling of classified documents – shared several glances, before a proceeding that, unlike when he was president, means Trump’s fate is now out of his control.
The entire day was surreal, but given its historic implications – after Trump became the first ex-president formally charged in relation to alleged crimes committed in office – also sad.
Thursday was a day when the country crossed a point of no return. For the first time, the United States formally charged one of its past leaders with trying to subvert its core political system and values.
It was Trump who forced the country over this dangerous threshold. A man whose life’s creed is to never be seen as a loser refused to accept defeat in a democratic election in 2020, then set off on a disastrous course because, as Smith’s indictment put it, “he was determined to stay in power.”
Trump is steering a stormy course to an unknown destination. If he wins back the White House, the already twice-impeached new president could trigger a new constitutional crisis by sweeping away the federal cases against him or even by pardoning himself. Any alternative Republican president could find themselves besieged by demands from Trump supporters for a pardon that, if granted, could overshadow their entire presidency. And if Trump is convicted, and loses a 2024 general election, he risks a long jail term, which would likely become fuel for him to incite his supporters to fresh protest.
Conservative legal scholar J. Michael Luttig tweeted after Trump’s latest indictment on Tuesday that it was a day made “all the more tragic and regrettable because the former president has cynically chosen to inflict this embarrassing spectacle on the Nation – and spectacle it will be.” Luttig warned that the world would no longer consider American democracy to be the same inspiration as it has been for almost 250 years.
Trump, behaving in the same way he did after the 2020 election, insisted again Thursday that he – and not the country – was the victim, further turning up the temperature in a tense and divisive summer.
“If you can’t beat them, you persecute them, or you prosecute them,” he said from under a black umbrella as a rainstorm swept across the airfield before he flew back home to his New Jersey golf club.
Trump doubled down defending himself. See what he said when leaving Washington
His comments struck Geoff Duncan, the Republican former lieutenant governor of Georgia, as reminiscent of the rhetoric that put his home state on edge after the last election.
“I was sitting watching the proceedings today, and I started feeling this uneasy feeling and this deluge of misinformation and it brought me back to a moment in time leading up to January 6,” Duncan said.
“This is scary, (these are) really, really scary times for us,” Duncan, now a CNN political commentator, said.
The ex-president is pushing his personal quest further, and with more corrosive consequences than other politicians felled by scandal. Even President Richard Nixon, after the humiliation of Watergate, professed in his resignation speech to be thinking of something other than his personal goals and humiliation.
“I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved … but the interest of the nation must always come before any personal considerations,” Nixon said.
Trump is determined to carry through to the finish, wherever it may be.
But if Trump dragged the country across this Rubicon, Smith and the Justice Department followed, with an implicit argument that the national interest demands accountability for what happened after the 2020 election. Those who support the indictment argue that a failure to protect democracy from a historic assault would cause its downfall.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served under George W. Bush, told CNN: “I think what happened today had to happen, quite frankly, given what we saw on January 6.”
But putting a former president on trial multiple times would create a wave of shock even in a unified nation. In America’s current state of estrangement, it is a significant risk and seems sure to worsen polarization and political tumult, even if it is what the law demands.
Some optimists, while not downplaying the ordeal ahead, believe that showing that American institutions can work through the detritus of the worst attack on democracy in modern times is a service to the country and the world.
“I think this is sad and, unfortunately, this is a situation that could have been avoided. Trump forced this on the Department of Justice,” said Ty Cobb, a former White House lawyer for the ex-president.
Speaking to CNN’s Erin Burnett, Cobb referenced Luttig’s comments, saying that “the star that America has been for the rest of the world for the past 250 years has been dimmed greatly by Trump.” But he added: “It is a little brighter tonight because we have shown that as a country we are going to stand up for the Constitution. … This could be an inflection point – I hope it is.”
Cobb’s optimistic view may be validated by history.
Yet there is little sign that it will prevail in the short term, given Trump’s success in convincing millions of his supporters – with the help of a sympathetic conservative media and genuflecting GOP politicians – that he won an election he lost. A New York Times/Siena College poll released on Friday morning found Trump retaining a massive lead among likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa.
CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams took a more downbeat view of the nation’s capacity to defend its democratic heritage than Cobb.
“January 6 was a sign that we do tolerate unconstitutional behavior based on the fact that number one, there are millions of Americans who believe that Donald Trump did nothing wrong, and that number two, January 6 was a tourist event and so on.”
“The rule of law and this idea that we submit to courts only works if people, starting with former presidents and their supporters, believe that we are subordinate to it in some way. And that is not a prevailing view among many, many Americans.”
A new CNN poll released Thursday showed just how questionable support for the constitutional system has become, even as it affords Trump the right to a robust defense and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in all his cases. Some 69% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said Biden’s win in 2020 was not legitimate, up from 63% earlier this year and last fall, even with no evidence that the election was swayed by fraud.
This finding is explained by a comment by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday, which also underscores how Trump’s influence causes a perpetual cycle of political mistrust.
The California Republican compared Trump’s behavior to the complaints by supporters of past Democratic presidential nominees Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, who complained of electoral irregularities.
“Were any of them prosecuted? Were any of them put in jail? Were any of them held with no response to be able to get out? The answer is no,” McCarthy said.
His comparison is not apt since although Gore challenged his narrow defeat through the courts, he gracefully conceded when the Supreme Court effectively handed the election to Bush. A few Democrats objected to certifying Trump’s election in Congress is 2016, but Clinton did not challenge it in the courts. And Smith’s case is centered in the fact that when all of Trump’s legitimate legal challenges to the 2020 election were thrown out, he then embarked on new and allegedly illegal efforts to stay in power anyway.
‘Oh my gosh’: Kinzinger reacts to McCarthy’s criticism of Trump charges
Republicans also claim that the indictments against Trump are merely an attempt to deflect from their accusations that Biden and his son Hunter illegally enriched their family through the younger Biden’s business links with China and Ukraine. Republicans have every right to investigate Biden and his family and to take action if they find corruption, although they have yet to provide any proof of wrongdoing by the president.
But their blind spot on Trump’s far worse, Constitution-threatening conduct shows just how far he has changed their party.
After he returned to his Bedminster golf resort, Trump, with a phone to his ear, stepped out of his Secret Service SUV and glanced up for several seconds at a news helicopter filming his every move. Then he ducked into his luxury lodge, for now, out of sight.
But not for long. America’s long, exhausting journey with Trump is far from over.