Trump thinks he can MAGA his way out of jail

On January 6, Trump thought MAGA passion would overcome a lost election — now he thinks it will save him from jail

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 26, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas. The day in Waco also marked the 30-year anniversary of the week's deadly standoff involving Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas. The day in Waco also marked the 30-year anniversary of the week's deadly standoff involving Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Donald Trump's legal team sent a letter to the Department of Justice, asking for a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland to discuss an investigation being run by special prosecutor Jack Smith. Initially, the widespread assumption was this letter indicated that Trump's lawyers fear indictments are coming soon and are hoping to negotiate a deal. Soon, however, it became clear that this letter was not written in good faith. The intended audience is not Garland at all, but the MAGA base, particularly those with open wallets. 

"No President of the United States has ever, in the history of our country, been baselessly investigated in such an outrageous and unlawful fashion," the letter reads. It goes on to cite right-wing conspiracy theories falsely accusing President Joe Biden of crimes.

As Tatyana Tandanpolie of Salon reported, legal experts swiftly pointed out that this was not a serious request for an audience with Garland. The letter was written in Trump's voice, not that of his lawyers. It doesn't just avoid the professional tone of most legal language, but insults the integrity of Garland and his staff — not something you usually do when trying to negotiate with someone. 

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Trump's team may not be the best and the brightest, but it's a mistake to write all this off as mere stupidity. Instead, the strategy seems to be guided by Trump's belief that the only thing that matters is power and force, as it seeks extralegal means to keep Trump out of prison. Or, put more bluntly, Trump is doing something similar to what he did on January 6, 2021: invoking the MAGA base and betting that their often violent passion will exert enough pressure to break the legal systems that ways that he otherwise cannot. 

The MAGA method makes even less sense now.

On January 6, of course, Trump incited an insurrection, in hopes that would deliver him the presidency that he failed to win in an election. Here, the specific goals are a little hazier — probably also to Trump — but the general idea is the same: rally the MAGA base enough to scare Garland and Smith away from indicting Trump. Maybe Trump hopes just the fear of political backlash will do it. Likely, he is wagering that the ongoing threat of violence is also intimidating. And, of course, he's looking to create the fear that he will win in 2024, giving him the power to punish his enemies and pardon all those people who went to prison for rioting on his behalf before. 

To be clear, it's not a good strategy. Despite Trump's now-regular crowing about how proud he was of January 6, it's worth remembering that throwing a MAGA mob at the Capitol to steal an election didn't work. The MAGA method makes even less sense now. At least on January 6, there was a somewhat tangible goal (stop the electoral vote-counting) and the mob's role in it was well-defined. This is more about vibes, and guessing that Garland will blanch when reminded that Trump is loved by millions of delusional conspiracy theorists. But this tactic is just as likely to backfire, especially as both Garland and Smith are experienced prosecutors who likely have a poor opinion of criminals who resort to threats and intimidation. 

But, as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Despite being a lifelong conman, Trump's toolset of manipulation is surprisingly limited. Most of the time, all he really knows how to do is bully people. We see this with his response to losing the defamation and sexual abuse lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll. Even though he's already been fined $5 million for assaulting Carroll and then lying about it after the fact, Trump's response is to just do more of the very thing that got him in trouble: Hectoring Carroll. He lied about her on CNN and has kept up a steady patter of abuse aimed at her on Truth Social, leading her to amend her complaint and ask for much more money.

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This is all very dumb on Trump's part, especially since shutting up is right there as an option, one that was recommended by Carroll, her attorneys, and the court. But Trump doesn't have the cognitive flexibility to change tactics. He has a problem — a woman speaking publicly about how she victimized him — and the only way he knows how to deal with such women is to persecute them into shutting up. It's worked for him before, and even on Carroll, who stayed silent for decades out of fear. But now that it's not working anymore, he's at a loss. He just trying the same terrorizing method, praying that if he keeps it up long enough, it will finally work. 

Trump's limited imagination isn't the only factor in play with this attack on Garland, however. There is, always, money. Trump is famously bad with money, perhaps more than any other person in history. His campaign keeps outspending what he's raised, buildling on the epically bad money management of his 2020 campaign. As Politico reported last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., appears to have nearly twice as big a campaign war chest as Trump, despite having a fraction of the polling support. And Trump isn't just trying to fund a campaign with this money. He's also using it to stay out of jail. 

That Trump uses other people's money to pay his legal bills is well-established. The Republican National Committee, for instance, footed the legal bills accured as Trump fought off New York investigations into his company's extensive tax fraud and other economic crimes. Last year, CNN found that over 60% of Trump's leadership PAC spending was paying his legal bills. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that Trump spent $16 million of his campaign donations on paying legal fees to fend off accountability for his various crimes. 

Those bills are only going to get worse, and Trump's fundraising has weakened considerably. Indeed, it seems the only reliable way for him to get donors to open their wallets these days is to send out fundraising appeals about how the "deep state" is out to get him with "phony" investigations. His indictment in March was the first real boon he's had to fundraising in awhile, which is why his campaign was desperately hawking $47 T-shirts commemorate the event. 

This goes a long way towards explaining why Trump's lawyers are going along with his preferred strategy of publicly bullying prosecutors, judges, and juries, usually by leveling false accusations. From a legal perspective, that's just a bad idea, because it tends to make those people less inclined to show mercy. But it is a good way to raise money.  Trump's lawyers very much want to get paid. Trump's big mouth may land him in jail, but as long as the donor wallets are open, his legal team will make a fortune in the process. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Jack Smith Merrick Garland Trump Indictments