Are the "walls closing in" on Donald Trump? Don't hold your breath

Mainstream media is way too eager to claim that justice is coming and Trump is toast. That's how he likes it

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 3, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Have you heard the good news? The walls are finally closing in on Donald Trump!

Attorney General Merrick Garland and the feds have Trump cornered, like a fascist rat in a trap! He's going to jail at last, and the good guys will win in the end because it is the American Way!

Such reactions were triggered by a series of supposed bombshell reports last week. In a much-discussed interview last Tuesday, Attorney General Garland told Lester Holt of NBC News:

We intend to hold everyone, anyone who was criminally responsible for the events surrounding Jan. 6, for any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another, accountable. That's what we do. We don't pay any attention to other issues with respect to that.

Holt tried to press him further, asking whether, if Trump announces another presidential campaign, "that would not change your schedule or how you move forward or don't move forward?"

Garland responded: "I'll say again that we will hold accountable anyone who was criminally responsible for attempting to interfere with the transfer, legitimate, lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next."

In a story that dominated the news for the remainder of the week, and deservedly so, on that same day the Washington Post reported that Garland's Justice Department was in fact "investigating President Donald Trump's actions as part of its criminal probe of efforts to overturn the 2020 election results":

Prosecutors who are questioning witnesses before a grand jury — including two top aides to Vice President Mike Pence — have asked in recent days about conversations with Trump, his lawyers, and others in his inner circle who sought to substitute Trump allies for certified electors from some states Joe Biden won, according to two people familiar with the matter. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The prosecutors have asked hours of detailed questions about meetings Trump led in December 2020 and January 2021; his pressure campaign on Pence to overturn the election; and what instructions Trump gave his lawyers and advisers about fake electors and sending electors back to the states, the people said. Some of the questions focused directly on the extent of Trump's involvement in the fake-elector effort led by his outside lawyers, including John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani, these people said.

In a recent conversation with Salon, Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump's first impeachment, offered these personal insights about Garland's temperament and how it may impact his investigation of Trump:

Garland fears no person. I've known him for years and he is a great American jurist and lawyer. He has said that he's going to follow the evidence where it leads and apply the law without fear or favor. He's going to let the chips fall where they may.  I believe him. He's very methodical. He's very deliberate.

There's some element of not bumping into the Jan. 6 committee's work. There are strong norms at work here: You don't stampede into prosecuting a president.

Garland also needed to restore another kind of norm — and that was the norm of a properly functioning Department of Justice. He's only a year and a half into his tenure, if even that long. He needed to get things settled down in the DOJ before he made such a momentous move. I have a lot of confidence in Merrick Garland's decision-making.

Of course that is encouraging news. But it pays to be cautious when attempting to decipher what may or may not be happening in the perpetual tempest of the MAGAverse and its leader. The following facts should be kept in mind in any and all discussions about Trump, the law and criminal consequences.

Donald Trump has been declared politically dead many times. He's been involved in thousands of lawsuits and accused of serious crimes — and has never faced any serious consequences.

Trump has been declared politically dead on several previous occasions. He has been involved in thousands of lawsuits but has never been charged with a crime nor faced serious consequences for his evident wrongdoing. He has also been credibly accused of sexual assault and rape by numerous women without facing criminal charges or any other significant form of accountability.  

Mental health professionals have repeatedly warned that Donald Trump is a sociopath (and perhaps a psychopath) with no regard for human decency, the rule of law or other norms and societal limits on his behavior. These pathologies, in a very real sense, are among his greatest strengths as a fascist leader who is plotting his return to power.

Is Donald Trump really at imminent risk of being indicted or prosecuted for his likely or apparent crimes related to the Jan. 6 coup attempt and Capitol attack? In the midst of all that breathless coverage suggesting that the answer was clearly "yes", NBC News offered this important qualification last Wednesday:

The Department of Justice is investigating then-President Donald Trump's actions leading up to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as part of its criminal probe of efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, an administration official familiar with the investigation said.

The inquiry is related to the department's broader probe of efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and not a criminal investigation of Trump himself, the official said.

Adding further caution to any narrative that Trump now faces imminent or inevitable prosecution, NBC News further reports that the Department of Justice may lack the resources necessary to properly investigate Trump, his confederates and the larger Jan. 6 coup conspiracy.

It's the "most wide-ranging investigation" in Justice Department history: the unprecedented manhunt for hundreds of rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Donald Trump's behalf on Jan. 6, 2021, and the criminal inquiry into efforts to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

It's also a logistical nightmare.

As cases against Capitol rioters work their way through the court system and a federal grand jury hears testimony about Trump's role in Jan. 6, some federal officials are raising concerns that it could bring the already stretched investigation of Jan. 6 to a breaking point.

In conversations with NBC News in recent months, more than a dozen sources familiar with the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation expressed varying degrees of worry about whether the resources the Justice Department has allocated to the effort are sufficient for such a vast criminal investigation.

This is not the first time that Donald Trump supposedly faced legal peril for his conduct as president. As bestselling crime writer and activist Don Winslow has repeatedly pointed out on social media and elsewhere, over the course of the last six or seven years, Trump has faced numerous damning allegations and serious investigations — and has escaped them all. 

Trump became the first president to be impeached twice — and only the third to be impeached at all — and was acquitted at trial in the U.S. Senate on both occasions, suffering little or no long-term damage to his power or popularity within the Republican Party or among his cult followers.  

For much of Trump's presidency, the media was obsessed with Robert Mueller's investigation, and kept telling us he would expose a massive web of lies and corruption and bring down the entire Trump regime.

For much of the Trump presidency, the mainstream news media was obsessed with Robert Mueller's investigation of the 2016 presidential campaign, with almost daily TV segments, interviews, reporting and commentary suggesting that Mueller was on the verge of exposing a massive web of treason and corruption that would bring down the entire Trump regime. But "Mueller time" was a bust, and the special counsel's report landed with a damp thud rather than an earth-shattering boom (at least partly due to the intervention of Attorney General Bill Barr).

In fact, Mueller's investigation conclusively showed that Trump's inner circle colluded with Russia, a hostile foreign power, during the 2016 campaign. Trump then obstructed justice on a grand scale to conceal those actions -- and also to hide his own culpability. After Congress did nothing to hold him properly accountable for the Russia scandal, Trump almost immediately tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into launching a fraudulent investigation of Joe Biden, then the leading Democratic candidate for president. That led to Trump's first impeachment — and after he survived that, he moved toward inexorably toward the Jan. 6 coup attempt meant to keep him in office after losing the 2020 election to Biden.

So what will Trump do if Garland finally moves forward with criminal prosecution relating to the Jan. 6 coup attempt? The answer is obvious: As the leading student and protégé of right-wing fixer and dirty trickster Roy Cohn, Trump will go on the attack.

He has already previewed his strategy in public. Throughout his presidency, Trump repeatedly said that he possessed "special" or secret executive powers that effectively placed him above the law. He has also repeatedly told his followers that he and they are the victims of a grand conspiracy involving the "deep state," the "liberal media" and the "socialist Democrats." In that context, any and all means of "self-defense," including law-breaking and political violence, are understood to be reasonable and righteous options.

In essence, Donald Trump and his confederates in the Republican-fascist movement seek to hold the American people hostage in order to prevent Garland and the Justice Department from enforcing the law.

In a new Rolling Stone report, Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley describe Trump's legal defense strategy:

"Members of the Trump legal team are quietly preparing, in the event charges are brought," says one person familiar with the situation. "It would be career malpractice not to. Do the [former] president's attorneys believe everything Cassidy [Hutchinson] said? No. … Do they think the Department of Justice would be wise to charge him? No. But we've gotten to a point where if you don't think criminal charges are at least somewhat likely, you are not serving the [former] president's best interests."….

In their preparations, Trump's team has discussed strategies that involve shifting blame from Trump to his advisers for the efforts to overturn the election, per the three sources, reflecting a broader push to find a fall guy — or fall guys. "Trump got some terrible advice from attorneys who, some people would argue, should have or must have known better," says one of the sources with knowledge of recent discussions in Trumpland. "An 'advice of counsel' defense would be a big one."

Other potential strategies include defenses based on the First Amendment and the right to petition the government over a political grievance. Such arguments are viewed internally as potential defenses against charges related to the "fake elector" scheme….

Trump also seems keenly aware of the blowback that could result from a federal indictment — and is telling supporters it could be politically advantageous. Early this year, the former president told fans at a Texas rally that if prosecutors go after him, "we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had … in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta, and elsewhere."

Trump has repeated versions of that line to confidants and longtime pals, including at casual gatherings this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the matter says. "He says," the source recalls, "it would make the crowd size at [Jan. 6] look small by comparison."

Anticipating such violence, Malcolm Nance, an expert on terrorism, extremism and military intelligence, outlined this scenario in a recent interview with me for Salon:

Trumpism is moving beyond Donald Trump. Trumpism is the embrace of the conspiracy against all of them. I believe that maybe half of them, 40 million or so of his voters, would take to the streets.

I'd say an easy 10 million would come out with arms. Here's the second component of that scenario. Republican governors and state legislatures refuse to do anything about the armed Trumpists. They refuse to bring out the National Guard. They refuse to allow the National Guard to be federalized. Now you're in pre-Civil War 1860 territory.

Here is a scenario from my new book. Terrorists bomb a parade using high-technology drones that are synced together and drop mortar bombs, just like ISIS does. The president of the United States starts getting these reports. It's not one city, it's 10 cities right here in the United States. Armed men are taking over federal armories and National Guardsmen are not stopping them. The president of the United States, in a matter of moments, has to do several things. The president has to federalize state troops. The U.S. military would have to be mobilized to fight state troopers and recalcitrant National Guardsmen who refuse federal orders.

There will be a fiefdom down in Mar-a-Lago. There will be civilians with long rifles. The governor of Florida endorsing them, calling out the state National Guard to resist the president of the United States. This is not as farfetched a scenario as many would like to believe.

It is both premature and irresponsible for the news media and other public voices to treat the prosecution of Donald Trump and his confederates as a fait accompli or an inevitable outcome. It undoubtedly feels good for the professional centrists and hope-peddlers to write such stories. Hope-starved liberals, progressives and Democrats will feel good reading such stories about Trump and his co-conspirators finally getting their just deserts and going to prison for their abundant crimes against democracy, American society and human decency.

It is important to remember that many of the public voices now crowing the loudest about Trump going to jail are the same voices who insisted that Trump was not planning a coup on Jan. 6, that the "institutions" would surely defeat Trump and his movement, that Roe v. Wade would never be overturned, that the Republican Party would eventually get tired of Trump's antics and drive him out, that "moderation" and the "adults in the room" would vanquish evil, and that Robert Mueller was an avenging superhero. At almost every key juncture, these voices have been catastrophically wrong about the extreme peril that Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the larger neofascist movement represent to America's present and future.   

There may be a time to celebrate the downfall of Donald Trump — after he is prosecuted, tried, convicted and then sent to prison for a very long time — and even then, such celebrations will be premature. Donald Trump is an idea, not a man. The dark political possibilities he symbolizes and made real have empowered the Republican Party to fully embrace fascism and white supremacy. Trump's followers will worship him as a political martyr and figurehead, no matter what happens to him. Trump the man is getting older, and is not immortal. But his most important role is not as president, or even potential dictator for life, but as prototype or proof of concept for an even more dangerous authoritarian leader in the near future.

In fact, Trump could become an even more powerful and compelling figure for the neofascist right, both in America and around the world, if he is prosecuted or imprisoned for his crimes. It is far too early to proclaim that the dark sorcerer is dead. He counts on such proclamations as his pathway to resurrection and revenge.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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