Let us begin with the obvious thing that just happened: This morning, Donald Trump threatened to summon a mob—for the second time in two years—to his defense. The former president of the United States and a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the White House in 2024, facing a possible indictment in New York, claimed to know the exact day on which he would be arrested and then called on his supporters to “protest.” Trump and his cult know what a call for “protest” means: The last time he rallied his faithful supporters this way, they stormed the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in death and destruction and many, many prison sentences.
Spokespeople from the former president’s office have already walked back Trump’s statement, noting that they have not been told of any specific date for an indictment or an arrest. Indeed, any attempt to book Trump is unlikely to happen as soon as Tuesday, for many reasons. But that’s not the point. Trump’s message today to the American people has already come through loud and clear: “I am too dangerous to arrest.”
Despite my political feelings about Donald Trump, I am agnostic on whether he should be indicted and arrested for possible financial violations involved in the payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels. Personally, I have no doubt that he broke the law, and part of me is now growling that if you can get Al Capone for tax evasion instead of murder, file the tax case already. But as my colleague David Frum noted, juries tend to be forgiving of personal misdeeds by political leaders (shown, for example, by the 2011 acquittal of former Democratic Senator John Edwards), and the hush-money scandal is not the strongest possible case against Trump.
That said, Trump himself today upped the ante by saying, in effect, that it doesn’t matter what’s in the indictment. Instead, he is warning all of us, point-blank, that he will violate the law if he wants to, and if you don’t like it, you can take it up with the mob that he can summon at will. This is pure authoritarianism, the flex of a would-be American caudillo who is betting that our fear of his goons is greater than our commitment to the rule of law. Once someone like Trump issues that kind of challenge, it doesn’t matter if the indictment is for murder, campaign-finance violations, or mopery with intent to gawk: The issue is whether our legal institutions can be bullied into paralysis.
This is not to say that Trump should now be indicted out of spite, as some kind of test of wills in which prosecutors go after Trump just to prove that he cannot intimidate them. But if an indictment is in fact pending, our legal institutions and the people who serve in them should proceed with stoicism and determination. Trump, once again, is stress testing our institutions, and if he can scare off a state indictment by threatening a riot, he’ll do it again. After all, he thinks he got away with it on January 6, 2021—and so far, he has.
Trump, for his part, seems to think that being the GOP presidential front-runner should matter, and both Trump’s friends and enemies alike seem to think that an indictment would seal his nomination. That would certainly explain the silence from leading Republicans about Trump’s implied threat to summon another mob.
Well, not exactly silence. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose entire career is bound up in a handful of extremist votes in his own caucus, has Trump’s back. “Here we go again,” he tweeted after Trump’s call to action, “an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA who lets violent criminals walk as he pursues political vengeance against President Trump.” This is the same Kevin McCarthy who once, for a fraction of a second, held Trump responsible for nearly getting him killed. But the amalgam of ambition, fear, and opportunism that holds McCarthy’s skeleton together is, apparently, a powerful epoxy.
I am not so sure that this panicked, all-caps call from Trump will be to his benefit. It’s possible that Trump, finally, is approaching his Joe McCarthy moment, although many of his critics (including me) have seen such moments come and go. Nevertheless, one riot might be explained away. Two riots, with the promise of more to come, might be intolerable.
But if this is what the Republicans want, so be it. If an indictment secures Trump the nomination, it will likely also cost him the election.
Regardless, the administration of justice should not be dependent on polling. This, again, is part of Trump’s innate autocratic instinct, his sense that justice can be thwarted by making his political opponents feel the cold pit of fear in their bellies. But make no mistake: Trump feels that same fear. He is reportedly “anxious” about being arrested, which is why he is willing, yet again, to bring a mob to his defense.
Perhaps Alvin Bragg’s case isn’t all that strong, and perhaps Trump will beat him in court. But that is for a judge and jury to decide, not a bunch of short-fused cultists toting bear spray and wearing blue Trump flags like superhero capes. Trump’s entire political career has been an attack on the Constitution and the rule of law, and he is telling us yet again, in the clearest terms, that the law does not apply to him, and never will.
What happens next with his case is up to the legal system, but whether this lawless and deranged authoritarian returns to Washington is up to all of us.