April 5, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Do prosecutors smell blood now?

Given what we saw yesterday, Donald Trump is no longer capable.

Screenshot courtesy of WCBS.
Screenshot courtesy of WCBS.

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Yesterday, I said prosecutors leading investigations into Donald Trump’s criminal behavior are going to watch his arraignment carefully. He turned himself in Tuesday. He pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts against him by Manhattan’s district attorney. I said they’d watch carefully not because of the law. They’d watch carefully to assess his political weakness.

If he’s politically strong, I said, the other prosecutors, in Atlanta and Washington, will likely remain as cautious as they have been. They will likely avoid bringing indictments. We might never see accountability. 

Then again, Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is investigating Trump’s theft of government secrets and his involvement in the J6 insurrection, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, who is investigating Trump’s interference in Georgia’s 2020 vote-count, might smell blood.

It depends.

As the late Donald Rumsfeld once said: “All I can say is if history has taught anything, it’s that weakness is provocative. It entices people into doing things they otherwise would not do.”

It depends on the public reaction to the criminal former president’s historic arraignment in criminal court. Trump might be seen as strong if he were capable of mobilizing an army of supporters the way he did before the J6 insurrection. But he might be seen as weak if he can’t. 

Given what we saw, and we could not have missed it on account of cameras being everything, Trump is no longer capable. The people who did show up in support appeared to be his most dogged supporters, which is to say, people on the distant edges of respectable society.

The half-life of the Next Big Thing
A recurring theme, from the news reporters covering the event, was that they vastly outnumbered “protesters” for and against Trump.

On the one hand, this can be interpreted as evidence of the press corps’ tendency to manufacture news. More storytellers than story characters tends to result in the former maximizing the latter. One breathless reporter wrote that “the human mass” that “swelled, shifted and seized with tension, teetering at points toward violence” before adding that this violence-prone human mass totaled “hundreds of souls.”

On the other hand, this can be interpreted as evidence of something else. It used to be that Trump drew big crowds. No matter what, he could be counted on to bring attention to himself and, hence, to the newspeople, which gave them incentive to cover him more. That’s what they were expecting. That’s why there were so many of them. 

In a sense, we are witnessing the half-life of the Next Big Thing. It begins nuclear white. No one can get enough of it, even the haters. But time is the Next Big Thing’s next big enemy. Its radioactivity decays. Energies ebb. Attention wanders. Interest fades. The press corps can be trusted to manufacture the news. But it can also be trusted to chase after the Next Big Thing. Given what we saw, Trump isn’t that.

This is not to say that Trump won’t get support. The rightwing media apparatus, currently struggling to determine who to support, will almost certainly, in the end, get behind him. The rightwing media apparatus, like its rightwing media audience, tends to confuse bullying for strength. Trump can’t stop won’t stop. Supporters will see that as “strength.” They’ll see that all the way to the end of the GOP primary.

Congresspeople who have followed his star-trail will also support him. George Santos, the fabulator from Long Island, showed up. So did Marjorie Taylor Greene, the pathological smear-monger from Georgia. They are drawn to spectacle. The more spectacular it is – the more anarchic it is – the better it is for them. (Skittish Republicans will back him, too, at least for now. For instance, US Senator Mitt Romney.)

Santos and Greene are far outside the mainstream. That’s telling too.

Was Trump ever strong? The immediate answer is yes. As president, he received the full faith and credit of the Republican Party. Republican senators twice prevented him from removal. A handful of House Republicans helped Trump plan and execute his failed coup d’etat. 

But in retrospect, was that real strength or cynical opportunism? Was Trump using the Republicans or were the Republicans using him? That might never be answered. What we do know, however, is that the Republicans are not using him now. We are seeing the results of that.

They were once so brave!
That weakness appears to be accelerating. Supporters who had once been mobilized to sack and loot the United States Capitol are no longer as easily mobilized. Trump has called for mass protests, but J6 insurrectionists are being prosecuted. When they believed there’d be no consequences, they were so brave! Then came the consequences. 

Ben Collins said researchers are “keeping a close eye on the varied calls for everything from targeted attacks on the district attorney who brought the case to a new civil war.” So far, Collins tweeted, “there’s a lot of incendiary threats and people daring each other to commit lone wolf terror, but no big organized event on public forums like on Jan. 6.” 

That suggests that Trump and supporters may be on the outside looking in. Trump will keep assailing the Manhattan district attorney. His sons posted photos of the judge’s daughter. (She had worked for some Democrats. They want us to believe that this is a conflict of interest. It isn’t, but that’s not the point. The point is intimidating the judge.) His loyal supporters will do the same. Lots of talk, little action.

(Such weakness can be dangerous. A reporter for a DC-area news station said Tuesday that a former Republican campaign staffer and “Catholic blogger,” who had once warned of “trans radicalization,” was charged with threatening to “put a bullet” in human rights activists in response to the Nashville massacre. The shooter was reportedly trans.) 

Do the prosecutors smell blood?

As the late Donald Rumsfeld once said: “All I can say is if history has taught anything, it’s that weakness is provocative. 

“It entices people into doing things they otherwise would not do.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bennett Graff on April 5, 2023 at 11:57 am

    And don’t forget: Trump didn’t pardon any J6ers, so a lot of air has gone out of his defenders. Even Republicans who believe only in double standards (legal for me, not for you), watched in real time their philosophy at work when Trump skipped over them (legal for him, not you, J6er). 4Chan must struggle mightily to keep that QAnon fire burning now that MTG has gone mainstream, even with her grooming talk (instead of Jewish space lasers). All that’s left is selling supplements, seeds, gold, and Trump NTFs.

  2. Bern on April 5, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    Hey John –
    The lack of mass fascisti in the streets is not the point. Every mass shooting in the last few weeks killed more people than Jan6. We are well into Civil War 1.5 with the constant attacks. We may never get to Civil War 2 proper, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering the body count.

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