June 15, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Don’t confuse Trump dodging indictment with him getting off scot-free. Consequences are coming

We just can’t see, in the present moment, what they will be.

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If US Attorney General Merrick Garland does not bring an indictment against the former president, he will greenlight future White Houses to commit widespread crimes, said Kimberly Wehle, a professor of law and ABC News legal analyst. There will “literally” be no more checks and no more balances.

She isn’t alone.

Others have made the same case. Together, these seekers of justice are getting louder, as they anticipate the possibility of Donald Trump getting away with his serial acts of sedition, mutiny and treason. 

But let’s not let our hopes for tomorrow (if and when Donald Trump is behind bars) overtake our understanding of today. If anything, future White Houses will be finely attuned to the law, as the people working in them will fear what happened to predecessors under Donald Trump.

If the former president is not indicted, I think we can expect the Justice Department to move heaven and earth to show the American people they can still have faith in the promise of American exceptionalism. In order to make sure the public still believes the rule of law applies equally, we can expect federal prosecutions to track down, arrest, indict and prosecute every person who came within farting distance of seditious conspiracy.

If Trump is not indicted, I think we can expect the Justice Department to move heaven and earth to show the American people they can still have faith in the promise of American exceptionalism. In order to make sure the public still believes the rule of law applies equally, we can expect federal prosecutions to track down, arrest, indict and prosecute every person who came within farting distance of seditious conspiracy.

Back to the underground
More than 840 people have been indicted in connection with J6. Some pleaded guilty. Some said they were only following Trump’s orders. Some said they felt betrayed by the former president on account of his promising to join the sacking and looting of the US Capitol but instead going back to the White House to watch it all on television.

The Department of Justice was already in the process of rending asunder the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, two of the most notorious white-power terrorist groups. They led the J6 attack. Justice will no doubt ramp up that process after last week’s spectacular first hearing by the J6 committee. If there were misgivings about their intentions to find and murder members of the Congress, there are now no more misgivings. 

That Trump planned to sacrifice his paramilitary is clear, according to J6 committee member Jamie Raskin. During a talk in April, the Maryland congressman said Trump and his coup plotters expected “Antifa” to show up January 6. The plan was for the two sides to brawl, creating fantastic television images over which the president would return as the “conquering hero” who invoked martial law to restore “law and order.” 

Antifa didn’t show up. But that didn’t stop Joe Biggs, a high-profile figure in the Proud Boys, from leading his gang in chanting “F-U-C-K Antifa,” according to Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards. During testimony last week, Edwards said the mob’s attention quickly turned from Antifa to her and fellow officers. She was thrown back and knocked unconscious.

Over the weekend, police officers arrested more than 30 members of the Patriot Front, a white nationalist group. They were taken into custody on suspicion of planning to riot during a Pride event in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. According to CBS News, the FBI, which is part of the Department of Justice, is assisting in the investigation by local law enforcement. 

During the Trump years, funding of and recruitment by white-power terrorists groups grew sharply and then soared in the run-up to the J6 insurrection. (That’s according to information revealed last week by the first J6 committee.) Even if the former president dodges prosecution, do you think these goons are going to think it’s OK to be out in the open? 

Lackeys won’t survive
No matter what happens to Trump, the violent faction of his constituency is almost certainly heading back underground. Attention-getting is how they grew, but only the right kind of attention (from, say, a sitting president who says, during a national debate, that they should “stand back and stand by”). The wrong kind – from polite white society, which puts greater demands on law enforcement to act – is the beginning of the end of their time above ground. Once there were criminal consequences to face, flashing the white power sign to own the libs stopped being fun.

This is likely regardless of what Garland decides to do about Trump.

But what about the respectable white people who work for presidents and who presumably recoil from violence. The same can be said of them, too. There will be checks and balances in the form of the fear of the risk involved in following a criminal president down the road to perdition.

Take Trump’s campaign and legal teams. 

Once it became clear to them that the president really was going to take Rudy Giuliani’s counsel seriously – and continue to claim he won though he lost – they left, with Attorney General Bill Barr leading the way, even though the final days of the administration were on the horizon.

Am I saying they did the right thing? Not really. Barr was for voter fraud claims before he was against them. But Barr’s hypocrisy illustrates my point. He and others in Trump’s circle calculated risks, legal and political. In short order, self-interest and self-preservation made them to flee.

As for those who stood by Trump’s side all the way to the end, I don’t see how they escape accountability. None of them are as political toxic as Trump. Like Richard Nixon’s henchman, they’re likely to go down.

The FBI has been investigating Giuliani. (It raided his residences.) Peter Navarro has been indicted. Steve Bannon, too (on an unrelated charge). John Eastman, the mastermind of the idea that Vice President Mike Pence could send electors back to the states, is surely in hot water. Same for Sidney Powell. She’s embroiled in a defamation suit related to her allegations that Dominion voting machines were rigged. And there are dozens of other ghouls and grifters less well-known and more likely to face prosecution as a result of being less well-known.

The takeaway? 

Trump might survive, but not his lackeys. 

Future lackeys will think twice.

Ordinary hell-raising
Our political discourse, more often than not, treats the Constitution as if it were a rule book. Deviation from the book (such as failing, possibly, to hold a criminal president accountable) is seen as opening the door to future criminal presidents – as greenlighting future White Houses to commit widespread crimes, according to legal analyst Kimberly Wehle.

The Constitution isn’t a rule book, as Wehle well knows. It’s a document to interpret. Interpretation is informed by politics. Politics, then, is where to find immediate and practical forms of checks and balances. It’s in politics, not the Constitution, where citizens can exercise their political power. The Constitution is a fine topic for a civics lesson. Better, in terms of establishing the acceptable and unacceptable, is ordinary hell-raising.

I don’t know why, but white liberals often dismiss this. During his four years, Trump was the subject of intense criticism by his fellow Republicans. That hurt him, as it hurts all presidents when party members censure them. White liberals said, yeah, yeah, so what. But from that criticism came swing voters who joined Joe Biden’s winning coalition.

Consequences are coming
After the 2016 election, Richard Spencer was the white-power intellectual. He spoke at a gathering in Washington during which he shouted “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory” in the vein of German Nazis saluting Der Führer. Spencer was a key figure in the Charlottesville massacre during which fascists marched and chanted “the Jews will not replace us.”

Well, consequences came for him.

Laura Bassett is the editor of Jezebel. She got a tip about Richard Spencer using Bumble, a dating app, where he described himself as “a moderate.” 

“I’m not a white supremacist leader anymore,” Spencer told Bassett via text. “The entire right generally hate me. The feeling of [sic] mutual. On basic issues, I’m pretty much a liberal: gun control, abortion, etc. I don’t lie or deceive anyone. The notion of listing my politics as ‘conservative’ makes me cringe. It’s complicated. I’m not a white nationalist.”

Donald Trump is almost certainly going to get away with treason. Garland won’t touch him. That will hurt those of us who believe in American exceptionalism, the idea that everyone is treated equally under law. In fact, there are rules for the powerful. There are rules for everyone else.

That should not be surprising.

But let’s not confuse dodging indictment with getting off scot-free. As they come for the little people, so will consequences come for Trump, too. We just can’t see, in the present moment, what they will be in the future.

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

1 Comment

  1. John on June 15, 2022 at 9:00 pm

    I find this argument weak, baffling and self destructive. Trump must be held legally accountable if we expect to salvage democracy.

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