"The first of a series of indictments": One week after historic Trump indictment, experts reflect

It has been one week since Donald Trump was arrested and arraigned in a Manhattan courthouse

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 11, 2023 6:22AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump attends the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 287 mixed martial arts event at the Kaseya Center in Miami, Florida, on April 8, 2023. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump attends the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 287 mixed martial arts event at the Kaseya Center in Miami, Florida, on April 8, 2023. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been one week since Donald Trump was arrested and arraigned in a Manhattan courthouse for crimes connected to hush money payments he made to his mistresses during the 2016 presidential campaign.

How has Trump behaved during this last week? With apparent public mental decompensation, fabulism, lies, bluster, rage, claims of victimhood, and threats of violence and menace against his "enemies" — including the judge, and his family, who is presiding over the hush money trial in Manhattan. To that point, Trump unleashed the following foul fusillade on his Truth Social disinformation platform Monday morning:


Uncowed by the litany of charges against him and the possibility, however unlikely, that he will be incarcerated for his crime spree, Trump has been selling t-shirts and other paraphernalia emblazoned with his "mug shot". This fascist carnie move has proven to be very lucrative: it has been reported that Donald Trump's followers have given him millions of dollars in "donations" since he was indicted and then arrested and arraigned in Manhattan on felony charges.

Because Trump is addicted to narcissistic energy, he made a surprise appearance at last Saturday's UFC 287 mixed martial arts pay-per-view event in Miami, where he was greeted by cheers, sustained applause, and chants of "USA! USA!" by the many thousands of people in attendance. Trump was in his glory.

In an attempt to make sense of Trump's arrest and arraignment in Manhattan, what it reveals (or not) about the country's democracy crisis, and how Trumpism and ascendant neofascism continue to poison America's political health and political culture, I asked a range of experts for their insights and concerns about this next chapter in the Age of Trump.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity

Norm Ornstein is emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor for the Atlantic. He is also co-author of the bestselling books "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

I know there are many respectable lawyers and former prosecutors dubious about the New York indictment of Trump, but I have been persuaded by former top Manhattan Assistant DA Karen Friedman Agnifiilo and all-star lawyer Norm Eisen that the case, under New York law, is stronger than many think.

Is this the most shocking and despicable set of actions that may bring Trump repeatedly to the bar of justice?

Of course not. Lying to his lawyers to obstruct justice and retain illegally top secret documents for his own financial gain tops that. Trying openly to overturn election results in Georgia tops it. And the incitement to violent insurrection, threatening the lives of the Vice President and members of Congress, tops that. But this action coming first, blasted with anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric by Trump and his acolytes in the GOP, will make it much harder for the lickspittles like Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz to condemn using the same tactics when these other serious charges are filed.

"Trump wants to turn the normal work of justice into another episode a civil war he fantasizes about and even wants to create."

The media coverage of the arraignment and the spectacle that surrounded it showed yet again how feckless our mainstream media is, and how inflammatory is the tribal right-wing media. The breathless coverage of every minute of Trump's journey to New York, followed after the arraignment with commentary about how weak the indictment was, did not serve the country well. And the wall-to-wall coverage ignored other key stories as they unfolded, including the elections in Wisconsin and the party switch in North Carolina, both cases where GOP supermajorities will be used to stymie Democratic governors, and the unspeakably evil action by the Tennessee Republican legislature to expel three members because they spoke out for gun control.

Dave Neiwert is an investigative journalist and an expert on right-wing extremism and terrorism. He is also the author of several books including the forthcoming "The Age of Insurrection: The Ongoing War on American Democracy".

A central element of any kind of autocratic rule is a degraded and corrupt, two-tiered version of the rule of law, in which the authoritarian rulers are by nature exempt from all legal constraints, while the people they rule over are subject to draconian and often discriminatory enforcement of laws. That's what Donald Trump's defenders have been working toward since the day of his election in 2016, and it's what they're battling for in court now.

Like all good authoritarians, they're trying to convince the public that this kind of de facto immunity from accountability, legal and otherwise, is the birthright of powerful men like Trump, the natural state of things. And until the advent of democratic rule, that probably was more or less the case.

This is what we'll hear from the neofascists who are out there preparing once again to man barricades on Trump's behalf—and not just the Proud Boys and Three Percenter types, but the Tucker Carlsons and the Jim Jordans as well. This is about undermining and ultimately demolishing our democratic institutions—among which the rule of law is probably the most fundamental.

Federico Finchelstein is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of several books, including "From Fascism to Populism in History." His most recent book is "A Brief History of Fascist Lies."

Wannabe fascist leaders like Trump often enter a maelstrom of self-destruction, but they always have an impact on the lives of others in a negative way before leaving the scene. They have a very negative effect on citizens in a democracy.

Trump wants to turn the normal work of justice into another episode a civil war he fantasizes about and even wants to create. This is predictable in terms of how such demagogues and fascistic and fascist leaders respond to being held accountable under the law for their crimes.

One of the most common mistakes in how the public and the media and political elites understand – or fail to actually – Trumpism is by how they focus on the minutia such as the optics, his plane, the theater criticism, his antics without actually critically engaging what Trumpism and fascism more broadly mean for the country. That is a grave error.

Of course, an emphasis on the rule of law and justice are central to confronting and stopping antidemocratic leaders. But that is not enough if there is not a more holistic and broad intervention made across society to root out the deeper cultural and political problems that have generated the aspiring fascist politics that Trumpism represents and embodies.

Andrea Roth, Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. She is an expert on criminal law and criminal procedure and a former federal public defender. 

These charges are typical in some ways - a prosecutor takes one group of related transactions and charges them under as many laws, and with as many counts, as they can. Prosecutors do this frequently because multiple counts gives them more leverage in plea negotiations; more chances to secure a conviction if some counts have proof problems; and gives jurors a sense that the defendant must surely be guilty of something if there are so many counts ("where there's smoke there's fire").

What is notable is that (1) these counts are for conduct that is less serious than the conduct alleged in Georgia and with respect to January 6, but is the only conduct that occurred in New York and the Manhattan DA was the fastest to charge; and (2) the counts are unusual in that they are felonies only because of the allegation that the conduct was intended to further another crime, and there is a question as to whether a federal campaign finance law can be that "other crime."

Some reports seem to suggest that the sheer number of counts or vagueness as to some of the underlying conduct or underlying "other crime" is unusual in an indictment. On the contrary; prosecutors often charge numerous counts for one transaction or a related series of transactions (which generally doesn't violate double jeopardy); and indictments and other charging documents are often somewhat vague as to the precise theory of prosecution. It's true that under the 6th Amendment you have a right to know the nature and cause of the accusation, but the defense can file for what's called a "bill of particulars" to learn more about the precise allegations.

Overall, the arguments as to why this prosecution seems unfair or an overreach apply to numerous federal and state prosecutions brought every day and the complaints that this prosecution is unusual in these respects seem to reflect an unfamiliarity with American criminal justice.

On the other hand, the commentators who are saying "if he committed a crime, he should therefore be prosecuted for it" are not really acknowledging the vast amount of discretion prosecutors wield every day around the country in declining to bring charges even when they think they can prove a crime. The Alameda County DA, where I live, didn't charge possession of marijuana cases for years even when it was a crime. Here, prosecutors could have chosen to bring these cases as misdemeanors; could have brought fewer counts; or could have chosen to pursue administrative remedies instead of a criminal prosecution. Many variables go into a decision to prosecute other than simply whether a crime can be proven, and that's true in all prosecutions, not just this one.

Eric Schickler is a political scientist and co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at UC Berkeley. He is co-author of "Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power."

Much of the discussion of the Trump indictment and arraignment has understandably focused on the details of the New York case and questions about whether it will hold up given the partial reliance on federal election law to upgrade the offenses to felonies. However, it seems increasingly likely that this is just the first of a series of indictments, each focused on very different conduct -- and on allegations that are more closely related to his conduct as President. Given the intense polarization today, those additional indictments may still not do much to move Republican voters away from Trump. But they will likely generate a more concerted push by Trump's rivals to persuade Republicans that his nomination would be bad for their party and help Joe Biden's reelection.

I would not trust any confident predictions about whether those efforts will work or fail. On the one hand, the party base has so far stuck with Trump through a number of events that, in the past, would have been devastating to a candidate. On the other hand, nominating a candidate who is a defendant in multiple criminal cases might give just enough Republican primary voters pause, particularly when there are alternative candidates working hard to demonstrate that they can promote Trumpism more effectively than the original.

Jason Van Tatenhove is a former member of the right-wing paramilitary group the Oath Keepers, where he served as their media spokesperson for two years. He also testified before the House Select Committee on Jan 6th. His new book is "The Perils of Extremism: How I Left the Oath Keepers and Why We Should be Concerned about a Future Civil War."

The news coverage of Trump's arrest and arraignment made me feel like I was having a flashback to the late 90s. It reminded me of the OJ Simpson chase, which interrupted the NBA Finals and drew an audience of almost 95 million viewers. While this week's coverage was less dramatic than a murder case, it still points to something insidious: the normalization of threats of violence, racist rhetoric, and calls for disregarding the rule of law. This normalization of bad behavior by those who are white, wealthy, straight, and powerful is one of our generation's Pandora's boxes. The criminals who open this box and shred our democratic systems do not care about our country's future. They only care about themselves.

The barely veiled threats of violence and dehumanizing language against those attempting to hold criminals accountable are just the beginning. As these tactics become more normalized, we can only expect things to get worse. We must hold tight to the moral belief that no one person is above the law in America - especially those who have abused our democratic systems. We need to cry out not for the privileged few but for the masses victimized by these same systems. We must strive for equality for all.

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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Andrea Roth Dave Neiwert Eric Schickler Federico Finchelstein Interview Norm Ornstein