Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with a $130,000 hush money payment made in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign to prevent an adult film star from disclosing an affair she says she had with him. Trump’s arrest and appearance in a New York courtroom begin a long legal process, and District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s legal theory of the case remains unclear.
But Fox News propagandists and other Trumpist commentators have predetermined that Trump is the victim of a politicized persecution that threatens the American justice system — and they're suggesting that Republicans respond in kind.
Some argue that Trump will explicitly order politicized prosecutions if he wins the presidency in 2024. “If Donald Trump runs and wins, he's going to indict Joe Biden and the entire Biden crew,” Fox host Jesse Watters said on Tuesday night. “So Biden might have to run and win because if he doesn't, you know those indictments are coming. It's not like Trump's going to let this thing go.”
Others think the retaliatory prosecutions should begin sooner. “Here’s what I hope happens next,” former Bush White House press secretary and Fox contributor Ari Fleischer told Sean Hannity later that night. “I earnestly hope that conservative prosecutors in rural areas of America indict Bill Clinton, indict Hillary Clinton, indict Hunter Biden."
“If this is allowed to stand and continue, then, you know, watch out, because there's going to be a time and a place where Republicans, they'll get their revenge, too,” Hannity said on his radio show. “And there'll be some Democrat and they'll be going after them for spitting on the sidewalk and jaywalking, because that's basically what this is.”
Trumpist influencers have similarly suggested on social media and other outlets that Joe Biden, his family members, and other Democrats should face legal retribution. Others called for “action” against Bragg and other prosecutors investigating Trump’s actions.
There’s something deeply perverse about claiming that a Trump prosecution is a political assault on the rule of law while simultaneously calling for explicitly political prosecutions in retaliation. But this is just another step in a long path for the Trumpist right.
Trump has been demanding for years that his political opponents and investigatory foes be locked up. He said during the 2016 campaign that if he were elected, his opponent Hillary Clinton would “be in jail.” Once in office, he echoed his Fox advisers by frequently calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of his perceived foes.
Those demands came not only publicly, through his Twitter feed and other public channels, but in private meetings with high-ranking government officials. “He was always telling me that we need to use the F.B.I. and I.R.S. to go after people — it was constant and obsessive and is just what he’s claiming is being done to him now,” former Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly told The New York Times.
At times, Trump succeeded in forcing the issue and getting federal investigations into what he was seeing on his television. But Fox’s conspiracy theories have flopped when they encountered the legal process, from the review of the Uranium One deal to the probe of so-called “unmasking” of Trump transition officials to John Durham’s special counsel investigation into the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It is not normal — in fact, it is extraordinarily corrupt — for a president to seek to directly influence criminal investigations in this manner.
But Trump’s supporters seem to have convinced themselves that his behavior is acceptable, to the point where they now criticize Biden for not finding a way to make Trump’s legal problems go away.