The general takeaway from Donald Trump’s ill-advised interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier is that Trump added to his legal peril by admitting he withheld subpoenaed documents while instructing his lawyers to deny he had them. This was, arguably, an admission of guilt to charges of both mishandling classified documents and obstruction of justice. And that’s aside from the fact that a man facing a felony indictment should never ever go on television and discuss the case without legal counsel whispering in his ear.
Trump may not be that worried about undermining his defense on national TV. It seems his broader legal strategy is to delay the various criminal legal proceedings against him until he gets back in the White House, where he can simply pardon himself. It’s sort of obstruction of justice on a grand and invincible scale. If so, though, he’s going to have to make sure he handles the various charges and proceedings in a way that pleases Republican-primary voters without reinforcing his rivals’ implicit claims that his act, like Trump himself, is getting very old and weak.
In that respect, the Baier interview was unfortunate for Trump. In the pitiless gaze of the country’s most influential conservative media outlet, the 45th president does not come across as a cunning predator avoiding the snares of his fearful liberal prey and plotting his revenge. He’s more like a weak, confused old man worried about grubby law-enforcement personnel touching his golf clothes.
As my colleague Jonathan Chait observed, this interview depicted Trump as self-destructively stupid and weird:
Trump, by his own account, is facing felony charges because he didn’t want to hand over boxes that might contain his golf duds. He had to hold the boxes and search them all, lest he part with a cherished pair of pants. This is a very, very bad reason to go to prison.
It’s also a very bad look for a politician that many voters only support because he poses as their undefeated champion in a pitched battle against their own enemies, from “woke” union teachers to baby-killing feminists to swarthy refugees and their first cousins, the criminals and rioters in the streets of newly menacing cities.
A related aspect of the Baier interview is that, for once, Trump could not deflect unwelcome questions by tossing a quick word salad and changing the subject. Baier wouldn’t let incoherent answers stand unchallenged. So Trump had to wallow in his incoherence for a longer time than he likely wanted. His future debate rivals and potential moderators surely noticed.
The bigger picture here is that Republicans, regardless of which candidate wins the primary, plan to run a general-election campaign focused on Joe Biden’s age and alleged incapacities. In 2024, Trump, of course, would be the oldest presidential nominee ever if not for Biden. At 78, he’d be six years older than 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, whose age and ability to adjust to fast-breaking events were a constant campaign issue. Trump has been lucky to avoid scrutiny of his own position on the morbidity tables given his less than healthy lifestyle, along with a pattern of erratic behavior that does not provide much evidence of the “very stable genius” he has professed to be. If he seems to be on the defensive in the wave of the dire litigation facing him as he runs for president, the sense of solidarity Republicans have felt as the indictments rolled in could change to something far less sympathetic, and it could happen pretty fast.
Biden aside, obviously the top beneficiary of any sudden realization by Republicans that their old man has lost a few steps is his sturdy young rival Ron DeSantis, a robo-pol with his own claims to be the God-appointed champion of the victims of liberalism. Indeed, if Trump conspicuously stumbles, DeSantis could find new traction with both culture warriors who prefer field marshals still able to mount a horse or ride a tank and less belligerent Republicans who just want a winner. It hasn’t happened yet, and it isn’t guaranteed; Trump’s Teflon characteristics have been underestimated more times than one can count. But he should beware a pratfall, or a whine that starts sounding pathetic rather than self-righteous.
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