Donald Trump’s media allies are denouncing Thursday's federal criminal indictment of the former president as a politically-motivated persecution that marks the end of the American republic. Their frenzied demagoguery flies in the face of everything we know about the probe of Trump’s conduct – as well as their own behavior during the 2016 presidential campaign and his subsequent presidency, when they constantly demanded the investigation and imprisonment of Trump’s political enemies.
Trump is expected to surrender in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday after a federal grand jury charged him with seven counts in connection with his mishandling of federal documents. The charges reportedly include “willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and making false statements.”
Trump’s media supporters responded with fury, denying the possibility that the former president committed crimes and instead declaring the charges to be evidence that, in Fox host Sean Hannity’s words, “Our system of justice has now been weaponized beyond belief and this country is in serious trouble."
While the indictment has not been made public thus far, the evidence that has seems damning. An August Justice Department filing laid out in detail how Trump had improperly retained government documents in spite of a monthslong effort by federal officials demanding their return. Trump’s lawyers turned some documents over in response to a grand jury subpoena and one of them attested that no documents had been retained. The FBI developed evidence that this was not true, leading to officials serving a search warrant at the premises and uncovering a trove of additional documents with classification markings. Trump has publicly acknowledged that he had such documents while claiming for various reasons that he was allowed to keep them – but on Friday, CNN produced audio of Trump privately admitting that he had retained “secret” documents that had not been declassified. Notably, even Trump’s own former attorney general Bill Barr has repeatedly acknowledged that the former president’s own conduct put him in serious legal jeopardy.
Trump and his allies, in describing the indictment as a “political prosecution,” are suggesting that President Joe Biden is chiefly responsible for the case and is trying to imprison his potential opponent in the 2024 presidential race. In fact, the investigation and prosecution have been led by Jack Smith, a career prosecutor and former head of the Justice Department’s public corruption unit. Smith was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, but under the special counsel statute is largely walled off from political pressure.
Special counsel protections are apparently strong enough to have allowed Robert Mueller to prosecute several of Trump’s closest political allies as part of his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and to produce a report detailing potential acts of obstruction of justice by the then-president, even as Trump constantly railed against him.
Moreover, special counsel John Durham, who Barr chose to investigate the origins of the Russia probe during the Trump administration and subsequently named as a special counsel near the end of Trump’s time in office, recently completed his own probe. Durham produced little in the way of successful prosecutions, but Trump’s allies cheered his final report for purportedly uncovering vast corruption. If Garland and Biden were in the business of meddling with special counsel probes, as the Trumpists now suggest, why would Durham have been allowed to do that?
There’s no comparison between Trump’s prosecution and the array of investigations his media allies demanded and sometimes ranted into existence. Trump himself would frequently demand the prosecutions of his political enemies, often in response to the claims he saw on Fox – a fact that did not deter his allies. But when those probes based on right-wing conspiracy theories actually materialized, they generated a lot of headlines and airtime, but collapsed when prosecutors and courts looked at the evidence.
Led by Sean Hannity, a Fox host who also served as a close Trump adviser, Trumpian propagandists spent his administration claiming that former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and numerous top FBI and DOJ had engaged in a criminal conspiracy to launch the Russia probe that should end in “handcuffs.” Trump frequently offered versions of these overwrought claims in his own public statements. But Durham ultimately brought only three cases, all against obscure figures; he lost two of the cases in court, while a judge sentenced the third individual to probation after he pleaded guilty.
Trumpists similarly spent months declaring that the “real collusion” had been between Russia and Clinton, not Trump, citing her purportedly criminal role in the U.S. government's decision not to block the sale of the company known as Uranium One. Under pressure from Fox and the then-president, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed U.S. attorney John Huber to investigate in November 2017. But after a two-year probe, Huber concluded his work without recommending any criminal charges.
Many of the same Trump sycophants filled the 2016 presidential campaign with overwrought claims about purportedly illegal behavior linked to the Clinton Foundation. But while the Justice Department under Trump reportedly continued a probe of the organization “long past when F.B.I. agents and prosecutors knew it was a dead end,” it was ultimately closed without charges in the final days of his administration.
And of course, Trumpists on Fox and elsewhere have never stopped claiming that Clinton should have gone to prison over her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But Clinton was investigated by the FBI. The Obama-appointed attorney general, Loretta Lynch, publicly said she would accept the FBI’s recommendations as to whether to prosecute the case. Then-FBI director James Comey, a Republican, ultimately recommended no charges, saying, “Our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
This did not satisfy the right. Trump promised to put Clinton “in jail” if he were elected, which did not send his supporters running away from him decrying the politicization of justice. And in the days leading up to the election, after Fox reported that an indictment was imminent, they cheered its potential to alter the race in Trump’s favor.
The indictment never materialized. But with Clinton’s server, as with all the other cases, the lack of prosecutions isn’t interpreted as evidence that investigators acted in good faith and still didn’t uncover crimes they could take to court – instead, it is interpreted as proof of their corruption. Indeed, their constant refrain on Thursday was that Trump being prosecuted while Clinton wasn’t is evidence of a two-tiered justice system.
Contrary to what Trump and his media allies would have you think, the only principle at stake here is whether Trump should be above the law or whether, like former leaders in numerous other democracies, he should be subject to it.