You think I’m joking? Trump has already suggested it.
Zonked out of his mind on steroids and other COVID-fighting drugs whose side effects include impaired judgment, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur (we’ve all heard the joke: who can tell the difference, ha ha, cough cough), Trump called into to Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox Business Network last week and said that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden all ought to be arrested for unspecified crimes against the state….which is to say, against Trump himself.
Let’s quote him verbatim:
“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re gonna get little satisfaction unless I win. Because I won’t forget it. But these people should be indicted, this was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. And that includes Obama, and that includes Biden; these are people that spied on my campaign, and we have everything. Now they say they have much more, and I say Bill, you got plenty. You don’t need any more.”
“DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY)!!! BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN – GOT CAUGHT!!!”
(For you right wingers who might have stumbled on this headline and pumped your fist in agreement, you’ve probably realized by now that you’ve come to the wrong blog.)
Trump’s remarks were duly reported in the mainstream media, where they were treated with the same snickering condescension as many of his other batshit affronts to democracy over the past five years. Yet time and time again Trump has floated ideas that no one thought he would carry out for real, like trying to build a wall on our southern border, or refusing to turn over his tax returns, or suggesting that he might not leave office even if he loses in 2020 and that he deserves instead to be president-for-life.
You know. Small stuff.
So I suggest we take this latest threat/promise both seriously and literally.
Yes, the idea of ginning up some transparently excuse to arrest and jail a political rival is the sort of thing that characterizes an autocracy, and was until recently unthinkable in the US. Even now it is hard to imagine, and would be an order of magnitude worse than almost any of the other atrocities Trump has perpetrated. (Except, perhaps, stealing children from their mothers and caging them in concentration camps. Oh yeah—we’ve done that too.) But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
It is not much of a leap from 2016’s chants of “Lock her up!”, aimed at his last electoral rival, to actual attempts to do so with his current one.
Donald Trump is desperate to stay in office for many reasons, including sheer ego, but above all because the presidency is the only thing protecting him from criminal and civil prosecution by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the New York State Attorney General, and the Manhattan District Attorney. The power of the presidency is also his best hedge against imminent foreclosure on some $421 million in debt he owes to unnamed—presumably foreign— creditors, some of whom very likely come from the land of Alexander Ovechkin (and Alexander Litvinenko).
In the interest of keeping his mailing address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump has already shown that he will do everything humanly possible, legal and illegal, no matter how underhanded or despicable, or how much it violates the most basic tenets of American democracy, or how much damage it does to the republic. He’s spent untold hours trying to undermine public confidence in the vote, especially mail-in balloting (even as he uses it himself); starved the USPS; encouraged his supporters to engage in voter intimidation; fomented domestic terrorism; courted foreign interference; dispatched an army of lawyers to try to hobble turnout in places where opposition is strong; and suggested that any Biden victory would be by definition fraudulent.
If you don’t think that will include trying to gin up charges against his presidential rival less than four weeks away from Election Day, and pressure his today Mr. Barr to act on them and find a way to indict and arrest that rival, you’re kidding yourself.
PAGING JEFF GILLOLY
Would it work?
Who knows? It would be an absolutely shameless maneuver that any sane person would see for the hamhanded charade that it is. It is the kind of thing that happens in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Peronist Argentina. But since when has that ever deterred Donald Trump?
It would also kick off a shitstorm of protest, even from some on the right, I suspect. But again: how many divisions does the Pope have?
I don’t doubt for a second that he might try it. Such is his level of desperation.
Trump, if nothing else, has a visceral instinct for the political zeitgeist. Well before the Democratic primaries began in earnest he knew that Joe Biden was his greatest threat….enough that he was willing to commit high crimes and misdemeanors with Kyiv to try to stop him. Now down badly in the polls with just over three weeks to Election Day (and some seven million mail-in ballots already cast), Trump is a cornered rat now, and we should put nothing past him.
Keen observers have long been awaiting some sort of October surprise designed to undercut Biden the way Jim Comey’s pre-Halloween announcement put a knife a Hillary’s heart in 2016. A lot of the speculation centered on Bill Barr’s bespoke “investigation of the investigators” regarding Russiagate, an inquiry headed by Republican US Attorney John Durham. Now we are told that the much-anticipated Durham report won’t be released before Election Day…..but not out of respect for our electoral integrity, more likely—it appears—because Durham acted on principle and turned up none of the dirt the administration craved, despite intense political pressure from the White House and main Justice to do so.
So if John Durham won’t wield the pipe Nancy Kerrigan-style, is a blunt arrest of Biden such an outrageous thing to imagine that the Trump White House would do?
Consider Trump’s other recent actions.
Last week he yet again opined that he deserves more than two terms in office, as in this recent tweet:
NOW THAT THE RADICAL LEFT DEMOCRATS GOT COUGHT [sic] COLD IN THE (NON) FRIENDLY TRANSFER OF GOVERNMENT, IN FACT, THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN AND WENT FOR A COUP, WE ARE ENTITLED TO ASK THE VOTERS FOR FOUR MORE YEARS. PLEASE REMEMBER THIS WHEN YOU VOTE!”
At this point, in the heat of a historically ugly election battle and in the context of the actions listed above, no one can still plausibly claim that these are mere “jokes.”
Last week the FBI also arrested a baker’s dozen of domestic terrorists in Michigan who were planning to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and put her on “trial,” inspired by Trump’s tweets of last spring to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” (Note that it was a woman they went after, not the male Democratic governors of Virginia or Minnesota whom Trump also tweeted about.)
The arrests elicited not a word from Bill Barr, while Trump himself took to the airwaves……to further attack Gov. Whitmer.
THE COLUMNISTS WEIGH IN
In his New York Times column this past Sunday, titled “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” conservative Ross Douhat pooh poohs the idea that Trump will be able to steal the election, deriding him as a faux autocrat at best with none of the actual muscle that the real McCoys like Putin, Erdogan, Orban, and Duterte have. Maybe so. But since Douhat has been a consistent apologist for this administration cloaked in the clothing of “moderate conservatism,” I’m gonna pass on such sunniness.
(For example, Douhat also claims that Trump’s “biggest defiance of Congress involved some money for a still-unfinished border wall.” Uh, I seem to remember some wanton obstruction of Congress during impeachment that was considerably more serious than that.)
For five years now we have been told over and over again by conservatives like Douhat that Trump would never do such-and-such outrageous thing, only to turn around and watch him do precisely that. I hope that three weeks from now Ross’s column proves correct, and not bitterly ironic.
The Atlantic’s George Packer takes a more gimlet-eyed view, noting that “The Trump administration is using the last weeks of the campaign to soften up the country for a repudiation of democracy itself.”
Every time (Trump) talks about “massive fraud” and sending the election to a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, he’s preparing you to have your vote taken away—to make that shocking prospect a little more normal, even inevitable. Each new controversy, each norm broken, each authoritarian pose makes Trump’s intention to nullify the election results clear.
The Washington Post’sPaul Waldman notes that with his angry, incendiary tone (but only since, oh, 1986, let’s say), Trump is not pursuing a conventional strategy for a candidate who is so far behind so late in the game, that of trying to court new voters over to his side. Waldman is 100% correct of course—which only lends credence to the theory that Trump is not trying to win the election at all, knowing that that’s a lost cause, but merely trying to gin up his fans for when he eventually claims that the vote was fraudulent.
And they seem to be totally down with that.
Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, writes:
By telling Americans in advance that he intends to stay in power regardless of the vote count, Trump is implicating his supporters in the action as it unfolds. He is giving them notice that they are siding with someone who intends to work hard to see that votes are not counted. He is giving them to understand that they are participants in the unravelling of American democracy. They might not want to face this reality squarely, which would be a normal reaction. This is a lesson of modern tyranny: authoritarianism need not be a conscious project of those embraced by it. They need only sleepwalk through the roles assigned to them. When democracy lies in the dust, they will find rationalizations for what they have done, and will support the authoritarian regime that follows, because they are already involved. No argument from emotions or interests can stop that process.
Lest we think such appalling behavior is unique to the sui generis cretin that is Donald Trump, consider also the recent actions of his running mate, a man who—like Barr—embodies the lie of grandfatherly “old school” Republicanism (Reagan-era evangelical division) almost to the point of parody.
During last week’s vice presidential debate, when directly asked by moderator Susan Page, Mike Pence pointedly refused to say that the Trump ticket would respect the results of the election. In fact, he took the opportunity to spread even more fear and disinformation about the integrity of mail-in voting.
That’s a softball question almost as easy as the one Trump deliberately whiffed on the week before, “Do you condemn white supremacy?” But that’s the country we now live in: one where the ruling party openly cozies up to white nationalists and brazenly rejects free elections.
I have to believe that Pence had been explicitly told by the White House not to commit to respecting the results of the vote. Before Trump, no American politician, not even Richard Nixon—not even a toady like Mike Pence—would think to violate such a fundamental norm of American politics. But thanks to Trump, it’s a norm no more.
It felt very much like Trump had also instructed Pence to interrupt and hector the infinitely patient and restrained Kamala Harris, and Page as well: Mike’s own low-energy, Midwestern, faux “reasonable” version of the bullying approach Trump took in his own debate. (Like the Whitmer incident, the misogynistic subtext was also apparent, and surely did Team Trump little good with the female voters it desperately needs…..if it is depending on a fair vote, that is.) The lies and lowblow attacks came fast and furious from the Republican side of the stage as we saw just how loathsome and hypocritical Mike Pence truly is, playing primarily to an audience of one. Afterward, Trump himself called Kamala Harris a “monster,” a “communist,” and “totally unlikeable,” not necessarily in order of disdain.
The fly stole the show, but Pence’s rejection of the sanctity of the ballot box was the evening’s most consequential moment, and one we would do well to heed.
WHY TRUMP NEEDS THE BIG LIE TO BE EVEN BIGGER
With all these maneuvers Trump is of course frantically trying to distract the American people from his own horrific incompetence, malevolence, and criminality over the past four years, with his unconscionable non-response to the pandemic as the crown jewel.
Per Bob Woodward, Trump has understood how lethal the novel coronavirus is since at least last January, yet vigorously told the public that it was a hoax. His inexplicable refusal to take the actions necessary to combat the threat have led to an American death toll that is racing toward a quarter of a million—far and away the most of any country on Earth, and one of the worst per capita, with no end in sight.
Yet even contracting the virus himself was not enough to shake Trump out of this dereliction of duty. Practically speaking, It was probably also his last chance to stanch the political fallout and turn it around, with a Damascene eleventh hour announcement that he has seen the light. But that would require an admission that he had erred in the first place, which is completely beyond him: in his sociopathological toolkit, his ego and lack of empathy are far stronger than even his skill at deceit and manipulation.
Anyone who expected Donald Trump to emerge from this ordeal chastened—any more than he was chastened by surviving the special counsel investigation, or impeachment—has simply not been paying attention. (Looking at you, Susan Collins.)
Instead, Trump now needs the Big Lie to be even bigger. He needs to use his own survival from the virus as “proof” that COVID-19 really is no big deal (and simultaneously, a lethal plague that he conquered through sheer force of will).
That sort of prevarication he is adept at.
As part of that performance, since his premature release from the hospital last Monday, he has engaged in his Evita moment on the White House balcony, recklessly exposed his own staff to infection, held a new superspreader event on the White House lawn (Hatch Act, are you keeping count?), suggested he caught COVID from a bunch of Gold Star families (those losers and suckers!), and gone on a batshit crazy media tour with Bartiromo, Limbaugh, et al in which he doubled down on his denialism, insulting those who have suffered and died from the pandemic on his watch, including claims that he could have beaten the virus without any medical intervention at all. All that was missing was a literal Superman impression, and we’re now told he considered that.
This after he was the undeserving beneficiary of more experimental and aggressive blue chip medical treatment than any other COVID patient on the planet, treatment that is estimated to have cost about $100,000, if he had to pay out of pocket, as many of his countrymen do for their health care. Trump got it for the low low price of $750 in federal income tax last year.
Oh, and among the treatments he received: stem cell therapy using fetal tissue, a practice his own party and its adamantly anti-choice fan base ferociously opposes…..for other people. But IOKIYAR, right “pro-lifers”?
DEATH CULT 2020
It is very fitting that the White House is now a hot zone itself, responsible for more COVID cases last week than the entire country of Taiwan (pop. 23 million). Until recently, comparisons of Trump to Jim Jones have been mostly metaphorical. Now they are becoming literal.
How homicidal has Team Trump been? Tim Miller of The Bulwark writes:
(I)f you told me in December 2016 that in the waning months of the first term, 210,000 people would be dead from a contagious virus and that President Trump would pretend it wasn’t happening, contract the virus himself, personally transmit it to thousands of others while he covered up his sickness, and that while he was still possibly contagious thousands of people would pack into the White House lawn while he held a tinpot-dictator-style balcony rally on breaks from his in-home care . . . that would have turned my head a bit.
Vice President Pence held an event at The Villages in Florida yesterday, the site of the infamous golf cart “White Power” video that the president tweeted earlier this year. What we have here is 3000 high risk seniors packing into a tight space to see the vice president TEN DAYS AFTER the president held a superspreader event at the White House and on the same day that Chris Christie checked out of a week long hospital stay after attending a similar event. The president’s spokespeople bragged about the high number of attendees.
Do these people realize that this is becoming a death cult? Did it not faze the staffers when their colleagues became vectors for this virus just last week?
Are the attendees risking contracting COVID of sound mind? Have they convinced themselves it’s not real? Or do they think that listening to Mike Pence do a community theater Ronald Reagan impersonation is just worth the risk?
Trump’s estranged niece Mary, a clinical psychologist, informs us that in their family, illness was seen as weakness. For Donald, a lifelong germophobe to boot, being laid up with the ‘rona—and unable to campaign—was his nightmare. Therefore, it comes naturally to him to frame his survival as triumph, and engage in behavior that supports that charade, even as it puts his own supporters, staff, and even family members at personal risk of disease and death.
Could there be a more perfect of the monstrousness of this man?
But the fact is, try as he might to avoid it, Trump’s illness is forcing his criminal mishandling of the coronavirus into centerstage for the final phase of the presidential campaign, which is the last place he wants it to be. Short of the aforementioned 180, his only hope is this massive misdirection in which he portrays his own survival as vindication of his “nothing to see here, folks” approach. But the relentlessly rising death count says otherwise, and the American people seem not to be fooled.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
If Trump can’t pull off this misdirection when it comes to the pandemic—and the polls say he’s not—he will become more and more desperate about Joe Biden in the next three weeks.
To be clear, I don’t seriously expect Joe Biden to be arrested, much as Donald Trump wishes he would be….but not because it’s beneath Trump to try. It remains an absurd and extreme possibility. But neither would I be entirely surprised. The mere fact that we’re even contemplating it is a shocking measure of how far our country has fallen in four short (long?) years.
Mirror image wise, I do fully expect Trump to use the powers of his office to try to protect himself from the long arm of the law.
Andrew Weissman, one of the lead prosecutors on the Mueller time, recently opined that, should he be forced out of office this winter, Trump will almost certainly try to self-pardon, given the raft of criminal and civil cases hanging over him. It’s an outrageous idea, totally unprecedented and legally untested, and one that would surely wind up in the Supreme Court. But as Weissman notes, what’s Trump got to lose by trying? Worst case, the SCOTUS slaps him down and he’s back where he started, none the worse for wear. In the best case, a 6-3 right wing majority, including three justices he put on that Court, blesses his claim on that get-out-of-jail-free card.
(The alternative, equally odious, is that Trump lays up and goes the safer route, by resigning 24 hours before Biden’s inauguration and having Pence pardon him, Gerry Ford-style.)
So we have that to look forward to.
It’s madness that we are in a stage when such banana republic maneuvers consume us.
As for the immediate crisis, here’s George Packer again, expressing guarded, almost Douhatian optimism that Trump and the GOP will fail in their attempts to steal the election and keep Trump in power:
Having chained their party to Trump, Republicans will follow him in his frantic effort to delegitimize the coming election. But I don’t think it will work. The vote remains too powerful an idea in the minds of Americans. They are already standing in long lines to cast the ballots that Trump claims are fraudulent. The word democracy might not be found in the Constitution, but Senator (Mike) Lee (R-Utah) is right to be frightened by it.
I hope he’s right. But I ain’t holding my breath.
Vice President Biden: please have a bail bondsman on speed dial.
Photo illustration: TKN
Source photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images