the power trip

A Terminal Case

Trump and the country are both in a bind, but the spectacle just gets bigger.

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar

Time collapses into itself in a place like this.

If you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all, give or take an insurrection. The crowd is not representative of humanity and not representative of the voting public. It is a carnival for those with several hours to kill in the middle of a workday. The unemployed, the retired, the superfans, the super-freaks, and the super-curious. A tour bus pulled up to the corner to release dozens of star-spangled elderly people from Orlando, hunched over walkers and carrying banners and flags and assorted paraphernalia that read TRUMP and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and 45 and SAVE AMERICA AGAIN and I STAND FOR THE FLAG, I KNEEL FOR THE CROSS.

I heard my name. Not something I especially wanted to hear in this crowd, if I’m being honest. “’Sup, Olivia?” It was Anthime Gionet, a far-right personality known as “Baked Alaska.” I’d last seen him in 2016 when he was chasing me around a press conference in Las Vegas to harass me on his livestream. Since then, he had documented his unlawful occupation of the Capitol on January 6, a crime for which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 60 days in federal prison. I’ve got this primal aversion to being followed around by unstable men, and as I tried to shake Baked Alaska, he told me and his viewers not to worry, he wouldn’t “troll” me this time.

Across the lawn, I saw another familiar face. Bob Kunst, a longtime activist and Trump supporter I first encountered in Cleveland in 2015 outside the first Republican debate, the one where Trump refused to pledge his support for the eventual nominee and accused Megyn Kelly of having “blood coming out of her wherever.” Back then, Kunst would wear a shirt that resembled the COEXIST logo but in fact read INFIDEL and he’d carry around a rubber Hillary Clinton mask, which he sometimes donned to complete the look. Today, he seemed a lot older and a little more understated, seated on a folding chair on the grass with a hand-drawn sign that read, DISHONEST DESANTIS, THE PROBLEM NOT THE ANSWER. He dismissed the charges against Trump as a distraction, merely the latest tactic from the Establishment to keep him from power. Kunst was concerned with existential threats to the Republic coming from China and elsewhere, and he did not much care about the particulars of Trump’s alleged wrongdoing, since, as he sees it, Trump is the only one who has any chance against America’s adversaries.

This being the great outdoors, a few feet away, a live rooster roamed among the forest of television cameras and a man waved a dead pig’s head aloft on a spear.

And who’s to say what year it is anymore? In the Starbucks across from the courthouse, a group entered in shirts that read BLACKS FOR TRUMP 2020.

Meanwhile, Trump’s motorcade took off from Trump National Doral and snaked through the streets of downtown Miami. A camp parade of police hogs and big SUVs flashed under the billboards for personal-injury attorneys — 1-800-FL-LEGAL and STEINGER, GREENE & FEINER GOT ME $800K (RESULTS BASED ON THE UNIQUE FACTS OF EACH CASE) — into hordes of fans and haters lined up in 90-degree heat and 69 percent humidity to catch a glimpse of the day’s spectacle and, if they were feeling contemplative, grapple with the legitimately dire situation the American Republic now faces.

On the eve of his 77th birthday, the former president and current 2024 GOP front-runner arrived at the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Courthouse as a criminal defendant facing 37 federal charges for mishandling classified materials cribbed from the White House and stashed haphazardly in odd corners of his Palm Beach estate and for the alleged obstruction of the investigation into the matter.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s 44-page indictment detailing the government’s case against Trump and an aide, Walt Nauta, was made public earlier in June, weeks after Trump was first indicted and arraigned in New York on separate charges related to hush-money payments made by his campaign during the 2016 election.

In photos included as evidence, boxes and boxes of documents are stored in the basement, on the ballroom stage, and, most memeably, in a bathroom at Mar-a-Lago. Another shows a box overturned, its highly sensitive contents spilled onto the floor.

The materials “included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack,” according to the indictment. The irony was rich and obvious. This from the “law and order” president, the guy who wanted to “Lock her up!” over emails. The federal charges, including that Trump’s actions violated the Espionage Act, carry with them the threat of serious jail time, which Jonathan Turley, a conservative legal scholar, called “a terminal sentence.”

In the courthouse on Tuesday, Trump’s lawyer told the judge, “Your honor, we most certainly enter a plea of not guilty.” Throughout the proceeding, Trump sat stoically, his arms crossed, as Smith stared him down.

The SUVs emerged from the garage under the courthouse to roars from the crowd. Motorcycles revved. The caravan lingered. Members of Trump’s entourage rolled down their windows to snap photos of the scene. Trump traveled with his deputy communications director for his presidential campaign, Margo Martin, whom Fox News mistakenly identified as his third wife, Melania. As the motorcade began rolling, a man dressed in a black-and-white-striped prison uniform and holding a sign that read LOCK HIM UP jumped in front of the vehicles and was tackled by Secret Service.

The crowd followed into the streets. On a speaker, a man began to chant, “We have to put Jesus back in the classrooms! We have to put Jesus first if we want to save America!” Even for those of us disagreeing with the prescription, it was hard to argue with the idea that the country is in a real fix. Not long ago, all this would have felt over-the-top in a political satire: the story of a former president — and political cult leader of sorts — whose flagrant misconduct left the Justice Department with no reasonable choice but to act, but also a story about the state prosecuting the likely presidential nominee of one of the country’s two main parties, functionally America’s political opposition leader. There are many countries in the world where opposition leaders are prosecuted. They tend to be places with very serious political problems. Or, as a New York Times editorial from the calmer days of 2007 had it: “Putting political opponents in jail is the sort of thing that happens in third-world dictatorships.”

Watching the generic courthouse circus, I found it easy to forget about the remarkable particulars of the circumstances. Trump is seemingly on track to either be elected president or go to prison for the rest of his life. But because nearly every day of the past eight years the pundit class has cried rapture, most people don’t seem capable of feeling different, or acting differently, this time. The specifics do not interest them. The facts do not sway them. Their allegiances are practically religious. As the event wrapped up, a man in a MAGA hat recorded a TV interview a few feet from me. “I love him,” he told the host, “because I love him.” So the show goes on.

Later, Fox News ran a mocking supercut of liberal pundits referring to Tuesday’s events as “sad.” But even if you’re inclined to absorb any Trump misfortune with utter glee, surely the dark implications of what’s transpiring cannot be lost on you.

A short drive away, the crew stopped at Versailles, a legendary Cuban restaurant. There, supporters sang “Happy Birthday” to the defendant-candidate. Trump came close to a laugh. “Some birthday,” he said.

The members of his legal team are expected to fight the charges on technicalities, searching for a foothold to argue that prosecutors working for the special counsel engaged in misconduct with the grand jury or during interviews with Trump’s lawyers. In particular, they will dispute as evidence the damaging notes and recordings collected from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran, which the New York Times characterized as “a roadmap” for the prosecution. For his part, Trump is fighting these charges with the familiar cry “Witch hunt!” and with his claim that the Espionage Act, which he has mocked as antiquated (“Wasn’t meant for this,” he said), could not possibly apply to him because the documents belonged to him when he took them and belong to him now, statements that are categorically false.

Hours later, at his private club in Bedminster, Trump said, “This day will go down in infamy.” The story of his arraignment was a story of political persecution carried out by “corrupt” President Biden, he said. “Threatening me with 400 years in prison for possessing my own presidential papers, which just about every other president has done,” he said. “The Espionage Act has been used to go after traitors and spies. It has nothing to do with a former president legally keeping his own documents. As president, the law that applies to this case is not the Espionage Act, but very simply, the Presidential Records Act, which is not even mentioned in this ridiculous 44-page indictment.” (The act states that when a president leaves office, these records become the property of “the Archivist of the United States.”)

As Trump spoke, he was egged on by staff and donors in town for a candlelit fundraising dinner the campaign claims raised $2 million. As this crowd broke into “Happy Birthday,” Trump looked on approvingly. “Great birthday,” he said. “Nice birthday, isn’t it? Nice birthday, wonderful birthday. They were saying, ‘Happy Birthday.’ I was with Eric and Laura and the kids — ‘Happy Birthday, Grandpa.’ And I said, ‘Oh, great. I just got charged with, they want 400 years, approximately. If you add them all up, a fake 400 years. Oh, thank you, darling. That’s so nice. It’s a wonderful birthday.’ But we’re going to make it into the greatest birthday of all. We’ll make it into the greatest of all. I will.”

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