“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits— despotic in his ordinary demeanour— known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty— when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity— to join in the cry of danger to liberty— to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion— to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
After Adam Schiff’s prescient and very powerful closing statement at Trump’s impeachment trial, Wisconsin’s fascist senator, Ron Johnson, said “I don’t trust Adam Schiff.” In November we’ll find out if Wisconsin voters still trust Ron Johnson. By the way, this is what Johnson didn’t trust:
Today Trump— and the Republican Party— are tap dancing like mad trying to explain the stolen top secret papers the FBI seized at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Everything from denying there were any papers, insisting Obama did it too, claiming it was all “a hoax,” to swearing the papers were planted by the FBI to announcing the papers were declassified and— this morning— “As we can all relate to, everyone ends up having to bring home their work from time to time. American presidents are no different. President Trump, in order to prepare for work the next day, often took documents, including classified documents, from the Oval Office to the residence. He had a standing order that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken into the residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them.”
Yesterday Wired’s Garrett Graff wrote about what kinds of documents Trump seems to have stolen. “Broadly speaking, the US intelligence and defense communities would possess four different categories of files that might be considered “nuclear documents”: nuclear weapon science and design; other countries’ nuclear plans, including the nuclear systems and command of allied nations (UK, France) and adversaries (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran), as well as countries whose nuclear programs exist in a more gray zone (Israel, India, Pakistan); details on the United States’ own nuclear weapons and deployments; and details on US nuclear command & control procedures, known in Pentagon parlance as NC2. Each category of these documents would carry with it some unique classification peculiarities. And all of them exist at the so-called Above Top Secret level, because a simple Top Secret clearance on its own isn’t enough to access the files.”
This morning author and Trump quasi antagonist/full-fledged asslicker Michael Wolff shared a narrative about a visit to Mar-a-Lago in the spring on 2021. When Wolf was trying to leave, Trump grabbed his arm for one last entry into his catalogue of grievances: “What if they stormed in here to search the place? Mar-a-Lago! Here! Do you believe that’s possible? Well, I wouldn’t put it past them!”
When it did happen, earlier this week, the first word came from Trump himself on his social media network: “My beautiful home, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents.” He rushed out front as the narrator of events. This was his story, part of his him-against-everyone tale he had been telling for decades. Of course he was going to continue to own it.
Here again was not only his instinctual story sense, but the ratings rule he had learned in 14 years of reality television: the only thing that matters is conflict.
Since 2016, a grateful Republican party— otherwise muddled, out-of-touch, and hopelessly perplexed by its own angry voters— has adopted his vibrant script. And they eagerly took up its latest chapter. This was war. This was the deep state. This was the Gestapo. Even Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, a man who may despise Trump more than any other in his party, was forced, in the excitement of this new storyline, to take up the defence of the man whose political end he was spending much of his behind-the-scenes energy working to secure.
…On Monday, when it all went down, this issue of proper record retention was suddenly joined in reports by the issue of classified material. The law prevents anyone, even with security clearance, from removing classified material from its proscribed place. People have gone to jail for this. This, then, was suddenly the charge that liberals were salivating over: Trump purloining national secrets and illegally stashing them at Mar-a-Lago— a jail sentence surely.
But among the complications here, which, by the week’s end, had become a leading and far from incorrect Right-wing talking point, is the unique relationship a president has with national secrets. A president can declassify secrets at will. Other than nuclear secrets, covered under a different specific statute, a president can declare any secret not secret. At several points in his presidency, aides and others feared Trump would do this inadvertently or, even, by mendacious design. Some saw it as his ultimate threat: if you corner me, I’ll tell all our secrets. Nor does there seem to be precise procedure for presidential declassification, although the Left-wing rushed to try to nail one down. If a president utters a secret, it’s declassified. Does a president, taking classified papers with him even in the last moments of his presidency— and Trump was often grabbing handfuls of papers and waving them about, or flushing them down the toilet— constitute declassification? At any rate, it’s a hard case.
…In the days after the search, there were rumours (Democratic rumours, of course) of a secret source at Mar-a-Lago directing the search not just to mishandled documents but to incriminating ones, a smoking gun related to his election plot or, even, nuclear secrets. This was credible — or at least not incredible — because Trump tends to command the opposite of loyalty even among his closest staff. Others described the search as characteristic of the ever-cautions Attorney General, Merrick Garland. He was testing the waters for an indictment and taking careful measures of the potential backlash. Or, already moving towards an indictment of the former president, he was softening up the public for it.
In traditional politics, a politician under this sort of siege would see among his supporters and even in his inner circle a certain winnowing of options. The outlook, everyone would understand, was grim. At best, you could only look to limit the damage. In most instances, the FBI showing up at your door would, alas, mean end of story.
But what has confused liberals for the whole of the Trump era is that almost every mortal legal arrow they have shot at him has had the opposite of its intended effect. They haven’t even hobbled him. They have only ever enlarged the Trump story, creating new options for him, more dedicated supporters, and an ever-grander battlefield.
Most immediately, the FBI search— the “assault” in Trump terms— has become for Trump’s family, inner circle, and MAGA-aligned candidates, a prod to get him to declare his presidential run. It is the persistent state of even the closest Trumpers to know no more about what he will or won’t do or when than anyone else— “the king of optionality,” said one aide recently, with both admiration and annoyance.
Indeed, to their frustration, Trump has reverted to his long history of toying with presidential runs. Perhaps, most honestly, he has told various aides he wants to put off an announcement for as long as possible because he doesn’t want to work as hard as he’d have to with an immediate declaration. (Trump’s fundamental laziness has never received its rightful due as a political consideration.) But their futures are also on the line (and they are hungry for the money to start flowing). Plus, they are worried, in a way that Trump is not, about Florida’s upstart governor, Ron DeSantis, who has been climbing in the polls. In a way, the search is what they have been waiting for. Story-wise, “fuck you” is an irresistible element for Trump. Running, and running now, is the counterpunch from his Roy Cohn handbook.
The relentless push against him, from Mueller to Stormy Daniels, to impeachments one and two, has not only failed to bring him down, but continued to fuel the outrage of his mighty base. He is attacked, he responds— mostly in the kind of head-smacking asymmetrical fashion that confounds procedure-bound liberals and delights so many of his anarchic-leaning followers.
Then, with name-calling, counter-insults, and in the ensuing chaos, he declares that he has prevailed. Arguably, his stolen election plot line has bogged the story down— even he can’t figure out a credible way to declare victory. But shadowy forces in the government coming after him, and, at the same time, him daring them to as the big man standing in the Mar-a-Lago doorway… Well, that’s good. It’s the state against the individual. The Man against our man. It’s violating someone’s home! It’s nasty! Goddamnit, it’s civil war. Victory is him running again (pay no attention to whether he will win). And, as well, it’s all a very sweet money-raising pitch.
In the nearly eight years now since the Trump campaign began, neither the Democrats, nor that stubborn core of anti-Trump Republicans, have managed to find their own storyteller, or to recognise that the language, assumptions, and honour of politics may have changed. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, they have continued to act with the conceit that this is a country of laws not of men, no matter how many times this approach has disappointed them. In this, Merrick Garland, in his opaque, almost lugubrious, fair-mindedness and incrementalism, like Robert Mueller before him, seems to be a perfect representative. Politics is the business of lawyers and not of showmen, Democrats continue to believe, and the law happens at its own pace without vulgar publicity. As the week went on, Garland, in evident frustration, was forced into a brief public justification for the search. Simultaneously, there were more or less official leaks that it might be “nuclear documents” the FBI was looking for.
Finally, the release of the actual search warrant spelled out some of the possible charges against him, including violating the Espionage Act (which is not spying or treason, though it sounds like it), giving liberals a sudden burst of the kind of hope they have harboured since the long-ago Russian investigation.
But while for others in the public eye an FBI search would be a great humiliation and fearful reckoning, when Trump returns to Palm Beach next month from his summer redoubt at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and greets club members on the Mar-a-Lago terrace, he will regale them with tales of this attack. He will tell them that this not only represents the end of the republic unless he protects it, but also the stuff of Trump legend— a story of his heroism and his opponents’ impotence.
“Let them come,” he said to me, as my visit ended, a little more than a year ago. “If they think they can get away with that. They probably think they can. How stupid can you get?”
My twitter followers don’t believe in the death penalty.