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Thursday, April 06, 2023

Trump, the Incredible Shrinking Defendant

Trump, the Incredible Shrinking Defendant

Three people, their backs to the camera, face Trump as he speaks at Mar-a-Lago.
Damon Winter/The New York Times

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Donald Trump captured one thing correctly on Tuesday: It was “SURREAL.”

His arraignment on felony charges was an anticlimactic spectacle, much of it conjured by ratings-starved television news, and the rest created by Trump himself.

The wall-to-wall coverage of his movements — from motorcade to tarmac to a Manhattan courthouse and back again — complete with aerial shots and breathless narration, were supposed to underscore the day’s events as an “I remember where I was when” moment in American history. Over and over, this was described as a sad day for the country.

It didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like the arrival of justice long delayed — like someone in the criminal justice system finally gathering courage and sidestepping all the thumb-sucking about the political implications of bringing charges.

It was finally evidence of the justice system doing its best to operate as normal, to treat a former president as it would any other defendant, trying to firmly establish something resembling fairness and honesty ‌in this country.

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At the time the indictment was unsealed, the consternation commenced about the validity and efficacy of the charges: Were they grave enough to charge a former president with? To what degree would they be seen as politically motivated? To what degree would they help Trump rather than hurt him as he embarks on another presidential campaign?

The chatter wasn’t so much about whether he had actually done what a grand jury and District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged him with, but whether the charges had the heft to merit the national moment and the strength to survive a vigorous defense.

Senator Mitt Romney said charging Trump in this case “fit a political agenda.” Senator Marco Rubio called it “poison” that crossed a line America might not come back from. But the reality is that Trump is the line-crosser — he’s the aberration from the norm and the stain on our politics from which the country must recover. Some Republicans are trying to straitjacket those seeking to hold Trump accountable when they argue that prosecutors are somehow breaking convention when they charge that Trump has broken the law.

That, to me, is the saddest part.

But if the political is to be given the same weight as the legal and the moral, then we also need to consider how completely Trump fumbled that side of things. Instead of enlarging himself before American voters, he shrank himself, becoming a tiny, egocentric ax grinder.

As the day ended Tuesday, Trump made his way back to Mar-a-Lago to address a throng of supporters, with much of the country watching on TV.

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A smart political use of that opportunity would have been to project an image of dignified defiance, of someone resolute amid a storm of persecution, of someone like any other citizen in a position where no one wants to be.

Instead, his speech was a boring recital of his long list of grievances, full of lies and replete with personal attacks directed at the prosecutors in various cases being brought against him.

Even those were predictable: Bragg, who brought the hush-money-related charges; District Attorney Fani Willis of Fulton County, Ga., who might charge Trump with interfering in her state’s 2020 election; and Attorney General Letitia James of New York, who is suing the Trump Organization, are all Black.

Trump has labeled them as racists, and he repeated the claim in his Mar-a-Lago speech.

It’s not the first time he’s called Black people who challenge him racists, but he now seems to be leaning all the way into that smear, and it’s all of a piece: Last week on Truth Social (Trump’s poor man’s Twitter) he called me a “sick degenerate” — a reference, I assume, to the fact that I’m queer — claiming that I wrote that he should be prosecuted because he’s white.

I never wrote that, of course. It’s classic Trump projection: taking the thing for which he is guilty — racism, in this instance — and accusing others of it.

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Trump has nurtured in his base the idea of white victimization, and identifying purported Black racists further incubates that view.

The whole exhibition reinforced just how stale Trump has become and how much of a one-trick pony he always was.

You could say Trump’s indictment so strengthens him among his base that it might guarantee him the 2024 Republican nomination — and if so, that this could be the best-case scenario for Democrats.

But he’s wounded and limping, regardless of how much his supporters gather to defend him. Trump isn’t what he used to be, and neither, it seems, is the country.“

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