Trump Indicted and What That Means

John Scalzi

(Photo by Gage Skidmore (see original), used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0). Additional editing and typography by me.)

The question has never been whether Donald Trump is a criminal. Everyone knows exactly what he is. The question has always been whether he would ever be called to account for any of his crimes. He’s managed to avoid it so far in his life, because he was born rich, was given much, and today has both a phalanx of lawyers, and an entire political party, at his disposal, in order to obfuscate and frustrate the gears of law and of justice. Donald Trump was and is a criminal. The idea that he should ever be called into account for it has never entered his mind, not even before he became President, and his crimes were merely of the “white collar” variety, rather than the sort that existentially threaten an entire nation.

So, what a surprise — for him! And everyone else! — that he, Donald J. Trump, rich guy and former president, has been indicted, likely on dozens of counts, relating to how he paid off a woman he categorically denies having an affair with. These (alleged) crimes are, to be sure, the absolute very least things Donald Trump could have been indicted for. But in the grand tradition of Al Capone getting rung up on tax evasion charges, Trump could get indicted for them. A grand jury decided he should be indicted for them, and here we are.

It is extraordinary for a former president to be indicted on anything; indeed, it’s never happened before. Then again, we have never had a former president like Donald Trump, an unrepentant twice-impeached seditionist grifter who would have rather plunged the country into chaos than accept he lost an election fair and square, who is running for president again largely to outrun this indictment and other possible criminal indictments, rather more serious than hush money to a sex partner, that are waiting for him in the wings. Other former presidents, shall we say, have not presented the same target-rich field of indictment opportunity that Trump offers.

Trump’s defenders, who are now hauling themselves out of the woodwork, groaning at the imposition, will tell you that this is a political thing. Sure, in the sense that one political party is willing to hold Trump accountable for his actions, and one political party absolutely is not. In the perfect world that yet still managed to have Trump, as he is, elected to the office of president, people of good will and a strong sense of justice in both parties would be pursuing criminal indictments of the man, as there are manifestly so many things he could be indicted for. I understand the modern GOP is long past that moment of clarity, however, and continues to purge from its ranks anyone who might suggest such things are possible. So, again, here we are. This is political because the Republican party wants you to think this is political. They have worked long and hard to make it so, and will continue to do so.

But — and here is the important thing — it is not only political, nor, at its heart, primarily so. Trump is and has always been the sort of person who believes that laws are for the little people, and has acted accordingly. If he had been smarter, he would have listened to his lawyers and advisors more than he did, especially once he became president. But he’s not particularly smart, and (again), inasmuch as he’s so rarely ever been called into account for his actions, nor could he conceive of a world where he might have consequences for his actions. He’s a criminal because he’s a bad person; he’s also a criminal because he doesn’t get told “no.” Both of these things are why he kept adding to his criminal ledger, literally into and at every step of his presidency. He could have been cannier and given any hypothetical district attorneys so much less to work with. He did not. That’s on him.

“If they can do this to Trump, they can do this to you” — well, yes. If I were, say, running for township representative here in Darke County, Ohio and paid hush money to an inconvenient sex partner in a way that invited legal scrutiny, and the local DA (whose politics, I assure you, largely run counter to mine) found out, I would 100% not be surprised to be hauled up under an indictment. Because that’s actually how the law is meant to work. You either believe no one is above the law, or you don’t. Former presidents of the United States are no more above the law then I am, or you are, or any of us is.

Trump is indicted now, and it’s important to note that an indictment is all that it is at this point, and perhaps all it will be. Recall that Trump was impeached twice, and relieved of the consequences of his actions by his political party. It’s entirely possible that Trump will wriggle out of consequences here as well. Perhaps the DA’s case is not as strong as he thinks it is and a jury finds Trump, if not exactly innocent, at least not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps there is a mistrial for one of several reasons. Perhaps Trump’s lawyers string things along for years. Perhaps Trump, who, let’s remember, has announced his candidacy for president, wins the election and is thus shielded from consequence for another four years. He could die; he is 77 years old and not, shall we say, as hale as his fans’ hagiographic meme portrayals suggest. And perhaps — extremely unlikely to be sure, but we must allow for its possibility — Trump is genuinely innocent. Indictment is not conviction, and as a matter of law, Trump enjoys the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

I am not the legal system, however, and also I know my own rights with respect to the First Amendment. So: Trump is a criminal, has been for a long time now, and has escaped responsibility for his criminal actions. Yesterday’s news of his indictment doesn’t change those facts. But if he ever is going to have consequences for his actions — any of them — indictments are where we have to start. At least we have started.

— JS

46 Comments on “Trump Indicted and What That Means”

  1. The rich and powerful believe that it’s RIGHT that they are above the law, and some people who are not rich and powerful believe that as well.

    Similarly, bullying persists in part because some people believe it is RIGHT that people at the top of the social pecking order should push around those who are not. The social system refuses to act on it, or acts on it inadequately, because it doesn’t believe that it is its role to do anything.

  2. Christian Nationalists found their hero in Trump. Wall Street found its hero in Trump. Disaffected citizens with few prospects in a future that is leaving them behind culturally and economically found a hero in Trump. Anti-Semites and racists found, if not a hero, someone who would welcome them into the fold or at least tolerate their presence at the edges.

    Here we are, with more to come. Gonna be an interesting handful of years.

  3. Well said. He is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence and he is entitled to his day in court to resolve said presumption. He may yet regret his calls to Raffensburger and his starting an insurrection but for now it is Stormy weather.

  4. A lot of pundits are saying that this will only boost his fundraiser and propel him back into the White House. I’m terrified of this happening – what are your thoughts?

  5. Wow, I bet the mallet is really going to be out on this one.
    All kidding aside, it seems that for the last few years accountability in large ways and small have been lacking in our society. From being able to accuse someone with no backlash if it’s false to anonymous trolls ruining peoples name on social media, Trump was the king. I was surprised when he was banned. Maybe that was a start.

  6. Ellid:

    I don’t think he’s going to get any new voters, even if the old ones give him money, so the question will be if the Democrats can keep the voters they had in 2020.

  7. I am not the legal system, however, and also I know my own rights with respect to the First Amendment. So: Trump is a criminal, has been for a long time now, and has escaped responsibility for his criminal actions. Yesterday’s news of his indictment doesn’t change those facts.

    Somebody here would love, love, love it if representatives of a former office-holder brought a libel action.

  8. Considering his constant criming, this is a bit like Al Capone getting busted for jaywalking. I suspect there are some conspiracy charges in there, too, if there really are 34 counts.

    Hopefully it can be made to stick, and the other indictments for more serious crimes will come along to back this one up.

    The DoJ ignored the 10 or 11 obstruction of justice charges in the Mueller report, so unfortunately it’s on the local DA’s to bust the orange MF.

    This won’t impact his supporters one iota, though, and may actually increase the rabidity of his fans.

  9. I’m not a lawyer or familiar with New York’s criminal code, but it sounds like this could be decided not on paying off a former sex partner, but how the payment(s) was made. I won’t be surprised if brought to trial and if convicted, the crime(s) don’t rise to a level of jail time.

  10. Republicans think everyone is as shitty as they are. Years chanting “lock her up”, demanding we lock up biden, obama, fauci, and countless others, for political reasons, they can only imagine Trump was indicted for political reasons.

    “If they can do this to Trump, they can do this to anyone”

    else who broke the law.

    Good. Thats exactly how the system should work.

    If there is any good news to Trump’s existence, his direct appeal to the fascists and bigots and traitors laid the GOP’s base bare, exposed for all to see. The gop is tearing itself apart right now because of this, and the fault lines appear to be between the “let our bigotry flag fly free” camp on one side and the “cant we go back to being crypto fascists like before” camp on the other side.

    Both camps show total indifference to their fellow man, its just that one side wants to go negative against various minorities, and the other side is like “cant we just hate everyone else equally?”

    And i say let them fuck each other over. Maybe some small good can come out of this.

    Trump push of the election fraud lie sucked Fox News into the same lie, and the Dominion lawsuit is digging up so much dirt of how everyone on the right hates each other, and thats good. If dominion can actually pull off a win and take fox down a peg, thats awesome.

  11. I dearly hope that this goes to trial and the full scope of the charges for this indictment are played out in front of everyone. Would being found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt change any hard-core Trump supporters minds? Probably not, but one can hope.

    Also, being indicted in one district/state does not preclude future indictments from other states (looking at you, Georgia). As John pointed out, these are most likely the least of the charges that could be brought based on what is known and suspected of his past behavior.

    Of course, it will be super interesting to see what the still-sealed charges actually are and how potentially damaging they are to him.

  12. Whatever this turns out to be for him/us/democracy, it is delicious at this moment.

  13. Well said. One thought I would like to add to the stack is that it feels like a large part of the Republican party’s outrage is the fact that he’s being held legally accountable for his actions. They don’t like accountability. Or to paraphrase here,

    “If they can do this to Trump, they can do this to us too.”

    Well, yes. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

  14. Chris: “may actually increase the rabidity of his fans.”

    This keeps coming up. I think it is important to note that his most rabid fans are white supremecist fascists. If you look at who organized the jan 6 rally, who was pushing it from the civilian side of things, it was several white supremecist groups. Proud boys, Nationalist Socialist Club, No White Guilt, Boogaloo, Rise Above Nation, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and the general conpiracy theory nutters supporting QAnon.

    If the argument is “dont prosecute trump, it might rile up his nazi base”, then that isnt a principle of justice or accountability. If the argument is “dont prosecute trump and maybe he will go away”, thats a policy of appeasement. And if Neville Chamberlain has taught us anything, if you give fascists everything they want, if you appease fascists, they only feel emboldened to take more.

  15. It is, perhaps, for the best that the first indictments brought are for the very ho-hum campaign finance violations. This is strictly white-collar financial crime, so there isn’t going to be any perp walk or bail hearing or remand to custody. He’ll be booked on the charges and released on his own recognizance. The lack of drama on the law enforcement end of things is going to let all the wind out his sails sooner rather than later.

    Now that the first indictment has been filed, the next ones won’t be as dramatic, and there will be less frothing at the mouth among his supporters.

    While this action by DA Bragg is significant, I remain convinced that the US justice system is deliberately set up to insulate men like Trump from the consequences of their actions. I’ll believe there will be real consequences when I see them.

  16. My wife (“If they finally got Cosby, they can get Trump”) really wants to volunteer to be an “impartial” juror, but we don’t live in Manhattan, so no. Getting an impartial jury seems unlikely, unless they get twelve clueless morons who are either MAGA lovers or truly don’t have a clue they are alive, let alone the rest of us.

    Personally, I am waiting for the more serious charges in Georgia and D.C.

  17. My prediction is Trump’s lawyers string it along for years until they can claim he’s too old (to stand trial, to go to jail, whatever). My HOPE is that the “target-rich field of indictment opportunity” ends up in something actually sticking at some point.

  18. Even Trump’s supporters know he is a criminal and a lying, boorish, racist asshole. They just don’t think that matters. The ship of the lawn order party has set sail. But Eugene Debs ran from prison. Trump can too.

    Honestly, I think Bragg rushed this indictment because he saw that train coming down the tracks and wanted his name to be the one in the history books as the first to indict a former president, not Fani Willis or Jack Smith. And if that is the case, there’s a reasonable chance it won’t stick.

  19. The whole presumption of innocence thing only applies if you’re the judge or a juror. The rest of us are free to believe that he’s guilty if we want to. I personally have thought he was guilty for years. It’s not a huge surprise he turned out that way. His father was a crooked businessman (and a member of the Klan). His grandfather was a pimp during the gold rush in Alaska. Whether it was nature or nurture, Trump was destined to be a criminal.

    Lock him up!

  20. I’ll believe it when I see it if this guy actually sees the inside of a prison which is what he should see. Considering previous worm-like behavior I’d expect him to start blabbing like a lunatic if his skin really looked to be in danger and there’s a lot of people who would really really not want that. My guess is he’ll die first.

  21. I have to compliment you, John. You said exactly what I have been thinking/feeling with much more clarity than I ever could. Thank you! I have forwarded a link to your posting to some friends who were discussing this issue as the appropriate embodiment of what I could not myself muster in words.

    I don’t look forward to the clown show of the next interminal steps in this sad farce. What a drain on the soul, and resources, of the nation it all is!

  22. This country has a long history of not doing the right thing especially when it comes to inconveniencing or downright punishing the rich.

    The South during Reconstruction

    to name a few.

    I’m not confident anything different will happen this time.

  23. “If they can do this to Trump, they can do this to you”

    Yeah that was never the flex Republicans think it is.

    If the government CAN’T do it to the big people, then they are no longer the government. The big people are then the government, and THEY can do it to you because what we think of as the “government” can’t stop them.

    I feel SAFER knowing the government can in fact do it to the big people when they’re out of line. It means they’re protecting us, which is one of the most important functions of government.

  24. I assume this will eventually go to a trial; no way is the idiot going to plea this one (or any one) out.

    But where are they going to get an impartial jury?

  25. Would love to see him pay a price for all his criminal behavior, but for some reason I think he’ll wiggle out of this one. He broke laws, but it has the feeling of technicalities. (Still illegal of course…)

    I personally would like the grand jury investigation in Georgia on his attempt to overturn the 2020 election there to go forwards. That to me was the larger crime. It later fed right into the Jan 6th events. Overturning a valid election.

  26. It pays to remember that the Trump administration put Michael Cohen in jail for this same offense.

    So there is a legal precedent that makes it a non witch hunt.

    Best of all it opens the door for the more important things to get out, like the Georgia Election Fraud.

  27. I am both looking forward to and hoping I live long enough to see the time when Mr. “Orange is the New Orange” and his ilk (you know you’re not a good person when you have an ilk) is no longer sucking up every particle of energy in the media landscape and our national politics. I want to outlive TFG in the most revengeful way. May his name join Aaron Burr’s in the annals of high American officials who have encountered Legal Consequences.

  28. Legally the case needs to exist on its merits without context. Whether Trump has committed other crimes is a danger to the nation, or an asshole is moot.

    He is the ex-president and a current candidate. A case needs to be clear and compelling, such that it is above the appearance of a political motivation. Using the legal system to frivolously prosecute your political opponents is Putin level stuff, and likely to backfire when the shoe is on the other foot.

    So, does this case meet such a standard? Does it have merit?

    It’s very thin.

    The prosecutor can’t go after Trump for campaign Finance violations because that’s a Federal not a state issue. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor and past the statute of limitations in NY.

    The theory the prosecutor has been talking about is that falsifying business records in order to break a federal law raises the issue from misdemeanor to felony.

    This has several issues. The least of which is that it’s a novel argument with no case history to serve as precedent that I’ve been informed of, or could find. The law runs on precedent. Not insurmountable, but it is a problem.

    The federal government has looked at this already and declined to prosecute. There is a yet no actual proven campaign finance violation. This is not insurmountable either. It would not matter whether the violation was proven or even existed as long as Trump did what he did with the intent of violating campaign finance law. If one can prove that intent one has an argument. But, intent crimes are the hardest to prove.

    A lot of any case is going to depend on the testimony of Trump’s ex attorney, Michael Cohen. He has been disbarred and convicted of perjury, and he has motive against Trump, so there are credibility issues to over come.

    There is precedent for what Trump did. An eerily similar situation occurred with John Edwards who you’ll recall had an affair and a baby with another woman while his wife was dying of cancer, and there were accusations of the same violation of campaign finance laws. There was no prosecution because Edwards had other motives besides running for office to want to spend money to keep it quiet. It would hurt his general reputation and his marriage. It’s the kind of thing that powerful but unfaithful does does even when not running for office. Indeed, Bill Clinton paid hush money in his second term to an accuser.

    I have a feeling that Trump has probably paid a lot of hush money over the decades, probably a lot more than average. Like Edwards and Clinton he has motive besides running for office to do so. Doing it for those reasons means it’s not a campaign expenditure. So, if Trump says “I didn’t want Melania to know.” The prosecutor has to prove that either he didn’t care or she already or otherwise figure out a way to show that this was in fact a campaign payment and not a personal one. That comes down to intent.

    Finally, is the lawyer issue. It is Trump’s lawyer’s job to understand and navigate the intricacies of the law. Unless he knowingly and directly instructs his lawyers to violate the law, it’s going to be the lawyer’s responsibility not Trump’s. Trump can just say “I told him to pay off Daniels. I didn’t want Melania to know” and he’s good. The prosecutor has to show that Trump’s motivation was political not personal, and that Michael Cohen informed him it was illegal and that Trump convinced Cohen to do it anyway. Again Trump can say”I trusted my lawyer to handle the details legally. That’s what I pay him for.” It’s going to be Trump’s word vs. Cohen’s. Cohen again is a disbarred convicted perjuror. Trump just needs to play ignorant. That should be easy.

    In summary, the case itself is weak. It’s way to weak to justify the potential consequences.

    If a pitcher throws a ball at the head of a batter, it is a sure thing the other side is going to bean a player in retribution. This is a bad precedent. Democrats saw something similar happen when they broke the judicial filibuster. Sure enough the Republicans rammed through their nominations when the shoe was on the other foot.

    The adage “if you are going to take a shot at the king, you better not miss.” Applies. In this case the prosecutor’s case is way too weak .

  29. Looking forward to your eloquence in a post on Joe Biden and the Biden Crime Family.

    John, I thoroughly enjoyed your Dispatcher series. Hopefully you will do more of those. In the meantime I will be checking out some of your novels.

  30. I think a very bad precedent was set when Ford pardoned Nixon. True, pardoning him let the country quickly move on in the short term, but in the long term it has seriously hurt our society and created a feeling that the President is above the law. I think a President should always be liable legally, even when in office.

  31. @Just Sayin’

    I’m curious how you can know the prosecutor’s case is “way too weak” when the indictments haven’t been unsealed yet?

  32. I think arguments that the indictment shouldn’t have been made because the case is too weak given how “significant” Trump is miss the mark. If no one is above the law — and no one is supposed to be — then that kind of context is irrelevant.

    Which isn’t to say a DA shouldn’t be held accountable for his/her decisions. That’s what elections are for! The good people of New York City will be given the opportunity to weigh in on the DA in due course (they may even be able to weigh in before the next election; I’m not familiar with the recall statutes in NYC).

    And to the extent people elsewhere in the country don’t like the electoral choices made by the voters in NYC? Well, they don’t live there, so they don’t get a say, at least not directly. Welcome to federalism!

  33. It would do my heart good to see one of the entitled ‘buy their way out of anything’ get theirs. We can only hope.
    Also, love an article where I have to look up a word: ‘hagiographic’. Lol.

  34. My horseback guess is that Trump’s lawyers will plead out to some lesser charges, and Trump will not see the inside of a jail cell (at least not for this indictment).

    He will proclaim himself actually innocent despite any sentence, pay some fines (which will really be paid by his supporters) and the MAGA crowd will eat it up.

  35. “The adage “if you are going to take a shot at the king, you better not miss.” Applies.”


  36. @ Icarus:

    “I’m not confident anything different will happen this time.”

    It doesn’t have to end in jail time for Trump to be effective.

    The 2020 election was won, and the 2022 election drawn, by keeping the 600,000 dead from COVID-19, open support for self-proclaimed neo-Nazis, and the terrorism of January 6th at the forefront of voters’ minds.

    Hardline MAGAts won’t be swayed by any wrongdoing on the part of their Savior, alleged or proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But indicting Trump will continue to chip away, ever so slightly, at that tiny fraction of GOP voters who feel ambiguous about clerofascism and white supremacy.

    Seems pointless in a country as enormous as ‘Murica, but our hopelessly broken electoral system makes it possible for a few thousand votes in a few crucial constituencies to cause a tectonic ripple in an election.

    A Trump mugshot is worth a thousand campaign posters.

  37. @Just sayin’

    “An eerily similar situation occurred with John Edwards who you’ll recall had an affair and a baby with another woman while his wife was dying of cancer, and there were accusations of the same violation of campaign finance laws. There was no prosecution because Edwards had other motives besides running for office to want to spend money to keep it quiet. It would hurt his general reputation and his marriage.”

    What? Edwards was indicted and tried; he was found not guilty on one count and mistrials declared on the other counts. He was, indeed, not REtried after that.

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