Trump’s indictment further polarizes the United States

The case against the former president is spurring far-right talk of a coming civil war, and is set to define the 18 months leading up to the 2024 presidential election

Former US president Donald Trump with his supporters at a Texas airport on March 25.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Miguel Jiménez

A few days ago, a crowd gathered on the steps of the New York Supreme Court, in southern Manhattan. Outside the heavily guarded court, supporters and detractors yelled out at one another over and over again. The situation appeared to be on the brink of turning violent. That is until Todd Phillips, the director of the Joker sequel, Joker: Folie à Deux, had enough takes, called cut and allowed the extras to go.

On that same street, just a little further north, Donald Trump will appear on Tuesday to be formally arrested and arraigned. Trump — who is the first former U.S. president to be indicted in history — has called for mass protests, and warned of potential “death and destuction.” For now, the grand jury’s decision to indict Trump has caused fewer protests on the street than the protests in the scene starring Lady Gaga, but Trump supporters are beginning to mobilize for Tuesday and police will try to secure the area. Weighing heavily on everyone’s mind is the violent assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, which Trump often pays tribute to.

Trump’s indictment marks a before and after in the political and justice system of the United States. Prosecutor Alvin Bragg’s investigation into hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels has further polarized an already deeply divided country, challenged U.S. institutions and will define the next 18 months leading up to the 2024 presidential elections.

Following an indictment by a grand jury, the next step is for the defendant to turn themselves in or be arrested. The prosecutor wanted the former president to turn himself in last Friday, but for logistical and security reasons, the secret service, Trump’s lawyers and the Prosecutor’s Office agreed that this will happen on Tuesday. Trump will leave his Mar-a-Lago mansion on Monday, fly to New York on his private jet and spend the night in his Trump Tower penthouse on Fifth Avenue. From there, a security detail will take him to 100 Center Street, where the criminal courts and the Prosecutor’s Office are located.

Trump is scheduled to be arraigned at 2:15 p.m. in a courtroom on the 15th floor on 100 Centre Street. The judge presiding over the case is Juan Merchan, who was born in Colombia and educated in the United States. Trump has already attacked Merchan, since he was the judge in the case that demonstrated that the Trump Organization had been committing tax fraud for years. Before appearing before the judge, the former president will be processed: his fingerprints and mugshot will be taken, but he will not be handcuffed when he is taken into the courtroom.

Trump will be informed of his rights. The charges against him will be read in court, and he will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Merchan will decide whether to set bail or some other precautionary measure. The former president plans to return to Mar-a-Lago that same afternoon. And will deliver remarks from Florida after his arraignment.

Although the specific charges are not yet known, they are tied to Trump’s role in the payment of $130,000 in the weeks before the 2016 election that took him to the White House, to buy the silence of the porn actress Stormy Daniels about an alleged extramarital affair 10 years earlier. According to the Manhattan district attorney’s accusation, which the grand jury accepted, Trump falsified his company’s accounts to pass off that payment as something else. This is a misdemenour punishable by a sentence of up to one year in jail, which becomes a felony if it is proven that the operation was instrumental in committing another crime: for example, irregular campaign financing or conspiracy to influence or prevent a vote. According to sources cited by the AP agency, there is at least one felony among the thirty-something charges for which the grand jury has decided to indict Trump.

Lanny Davis, the lawyer representing Michael Cohen — Trump’s former lawyer who served time after confessing to paying the hush money — told CNN on Friday that there is “extensive” corroboration in the case, citing documents such as email, text messages, telephone calls and other witnesses.

Unlike jurors who decide guilt or innocence after listening to the defense and the prosecutor, for an indictment, a grand jury only has to decide whether there is sufficient evidence of crime. In this case, the grand jury was made up of 23 people, and a simple majority was enough to indict Trump. The grand jury only listens to the evidence and testimony offered by the prosecution, which gives them a clear advantage. There is a legal saying, coined by a New York judge in the 1980s, that district attorneys can convince a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” Mike Pence, who was Trump’s vice president, used this phrase in a CNN interview on Thursday. Alabama Republican Congressman Barry Moore went further and brought in sandwiches to “indict” at the Capitol on Friday.

Trump received the news of the indictment at Mar-a-Lago. Photos on Twitter and Instagram show him with having dinner with his wife, Melania Trump, at the club’s restaurant. The former president and his team were taken by surprise by the announcement, since it had been reported that the grand jury would not meet again until a few weeks later. In any case, Trump was quick to respond to the news, calling it “an attack on our country,” “political persecution,” “electoral interference at the highest level” and a “witch hunt.” He continued posting messages on his social network Truth Social until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the fact that the charges are still unknown, Republicans have closed ranks around Trump. Among those who have remained silent, the most prominent figure is the Minority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who the former president has declared an enemy. “This is more about revenge than it is about justice,” tweeted Nikki Haley, Trump’s official rival in the Republican presidential primaries.

Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, also came to his defense, even though he is also thinking of running in the Republican presidential primaries. Pence called the indictment an “outrage” and an act of “political persecution.” What’s more, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who seemed to distance himself from Trump when the former president predicted his arrest two weeks ago, not only proclaimed on Twitter that the indictment was “un-American” but even threatened to refuse to assist in any extradition request — perhaps knowing that Trump would appear voluntarily in court.

Marjorie Taylor Greene (known by her initials as MTG), one of Trump’s closest allies, has gone even further and called for U.S. President Joe Biden to be impeached. Other Republicans have called for an investigation into Bragg; Hunter Biden, the president’s son; and Democrats in general. “When Trump wins, THESE PEOPLE WILL PAY,” Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson tweeted.

Far-right talk of a coming civil war

In the right-wing media, Trump’s indictment has spurred rhetoric of a coming civil war. In the same week that it was revealed that the right-wing Fox News would face trial for defamation for airing false allegations about the 2020 presidential election, its star presenter, Tucker Carlson, said that Trump’s indictment was a “greater assault” on democracy than the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He added: “Probably not the best time to give up your AR-15.”

During his show, Carlson also spoke with Glenn Beck, a bestselling author and the founder of the far-right TV and radio network TheBlaze. Beck went even further with his doomsday talk. “I’m going to make a prediction. By 2025 we are going to be at war, we are going to have a new dollar, [...] a currency collapse and we will live in a virtual police state. I know that may sound crazy to a lot of people. It’s not far off. The Bill of Rights is gone.” These are the messages that the leading news network in the U.S. is broadcasting in prime time.

This climate of polarization favors Trump ahead of the Republican primaries. As Charlie Cook, the founder of the Cook Political Report and a political analyst on electoral trends, said a few months ago, “close to 50% of voters in the Republican primary would jump off the Grand Canyon if Trump asked them to.” Trump’s potential are unlikely to use the indictment to criticize the former president, as this would be akin to siding with the Democrats, which explains why Republican have closed ranks around Trump.

Trump knows this and is going to lengths to play the victim and martyr. He spent most of his first campaign rally last week talking about his legal problems, and immediately after being indicted launched a successful fundraising offensive. According to a statement released Friday by the Trump campaign, it raised $4 million in donations in the 24 hours after the indictment, with the average person donating $34.

This indicates that around 120,000 people donated to Trump’s campaign. “This incredible surge of grassroots contributions confirms that the American people see the indictment of President Trump as a disgraceful weaponization of our justice system by a Soros-funded prosecutor,” a press release from the former president’s campaign read. Most notably, more than 25% of the donations came from first-time donors to the Trump campaign, further cementing Trump’s status as the clear favorite in the Republican primary.

But being the favorite in the Republican primaries does not mean he will be in the favorite in the 2024 election. Many Republicans fear a repeat of the disappointing results of the November midterm election, when Joe Biden appeared to be struggling, but ended up retaining control of the Senate and achieving the best outcome of siting president in 20 years. At the time, Trump, his apocalyptic messages and his extreme-right, hand-picked candidates were blamed for scaring away independent and moderate voters.

That’s what Michael DuHaime, who was an adviser to George W. Bush, John McCain and other Republican leaders, believes might happen in the 2024 election. “Being indicted may solidify some Trump supporters, but it wins back absolutely zero voters who left him between 2016 and 2020. None. No independent who voted for Biden thinks Trump is a martyr or victim suddenly worthy of support,” said DuHaime, who is the head of the MAD Global consultancy firm, in a message on Twitter on Friday.

Trump’s indictment will define the 18 months that remain until the 2024 presidential elections. It may be that the real winner will be Biden. The president’s popularity remains very low and his advanced age is of concern to some Democratic leaders. But Biden is willing to run for re-election there are no viable alternatives in sight. Perhaps having Trump as a rival is the best possible scenario for him. The Democratic position is that Trump’s indictment shows that no one is above the law.

Biden hasn’t even made that point. He prefers to stay on the sidelines and avoid anything that could be used to build Trump’s victim narrative. On Friday, he intentionally approached journalists when leaving the White House and they asked him about the indictment up to five times.

— Mr. President, any reaction to the Trump indictment?

— No.

— Are you worried this will further divide our country — the indictment?

— I have no comment on that.

— Are you at all concerned about possible protests in the wake of the indictment?

— No, I’m not going to talk about Trump’s indictment.

— Sir, what does this mean for the rule of law that former President Trump has been indicted?

— I have no comment at all on Trump.

— Mr. President, do you think that the charges against Trump are politically motivated?

— I have no comment on Trump.

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