This week, Ron DeSantis announced he would ask the Florida Supreme Court to form a grand jury to investigate makers of the COVID-19 vaccine, charging it with “investigating cardiac-related deaths tied to the mRNA vaccine” and bringing “legal accountability for those who committed misconduct.” It was perhaps inevitable that DeSantis’s war on COVID vaccines would escalate to the point that he would finally threaten to bring the power of the law down on his adversaries.
DeSantis’s threats against the pharmaceutical industry are almost certainly going to fail. Producing an extraordinarily effective vaccine and then updating it to keep pace with a rapidly mutating virus — in the face of a global pandemic that has killed millions of people — is not a crime. If anybody ought to be held accountable for misinforming the public about vaccines, it would be DeSantis, who has promoted kooky claims about the dangers of the jab.
During his appearance announcing the grand jury, DeSantis asked a doctor appearing with him, “If someone came up to you and just said, ‘Hey, doctor, are mRNA COVID shots safe and effective, how would you respond?” The doctor dutifully reported that such language is “a lie.”
This is not the first time DeSantis theatrically announced he would be locking up some of his favorite political targets. In August, he held a splashy news conference to announce the arrest of 20 Floridians on voting-fraud charges. The indictments have since collapsed as DeSantis’s targets turned out to have been victims of mistaken advice by election authorities — but not before he was able to turn his stunt into a wave of gushy coverage in conservative media. And even though his legal case fell apart, the mere threat of arrest surely served as a deterrent for voters, legal or otherwise.
Of the many ways DeSantis has mimicked Donald Trump’s political style, the most chilling may be his enthusiasm for using legal power as a naked political bludgeon. Trump thrilled Republican voters in 2016 by describing Hillary Clinton as a criminal. The pretext — her disregard for executive-branch email regulations as secretary of State — is retrospectively a grim joke in light of Trump’s own flagrant theft of government documents.
But the specifics of the regulations was never the point. The point is that the right’s enemies are presumptively a criminal class. Over the years, Trump’s rally attendees easily transferred their “Lock her up!” chant to a series of targets without even bothering with a legal pretext. In office, Trump repeatedly ordered trumped-up investigations into his political rivals. One of those episodes, his extortion of Ukraine, led to his first impeachment. Others produced results like the investigations of Democratic lawyer Gregory Craig, a farcical counter-Mueller investigation by John Durham, and other gestures of appeasement.
The key thing about all these events is that they generated virtually no pushback within the Republican Party. Only Mitt Romney deemed Trump guilty of abusing his power by trying to gin up an investigation of Joe Biden; none of Bill Barr’s acts of cooperation with Trump’s corruption of justice met with series resistance from the GOP.
The Trumpian tool of ordering up legal investigations of your political targets may be limited, at least for the time being, by the capacity of the legal system. Barr’s efforts to convict Craig and the Russiagate targets met with acquittals in court; DeSantis’s voter-fraud charges had the same fate, as will his anti-vaccine campaign.
But even failed prosecutions create a terrible burden for their targets. And they send a thuggish, corrupt message about the rule of law. Trump’s presidency marked a moment Republicans abandoned the idea that the law could or should be enforced in an ideologically neutral fashion. DeSantis’s eager mimicking of those maneuvers is a sign the party isn’t going back.