Donald Trump still thinks he can escape this — but Jack Smith has him cornered

For all his bluster, Trump is almost out of options. This will be the last chapter of his lifetime grift

By Brian Karem


Published June 15, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Special Counsel Jack Smith and Former U.S. President Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Special Counsel Jack Smith and Former U.S. President Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

According to Donald Trump, he won't quit the presidential race even if he's convicted of the felony charges he now faces in Miami federal court.

That leaves open, for the moment, the interesting possibility that the next president of the United States might take the oath of office in Leavenworth before springing himself with a pardon, hopping on Air Force One in Kansas City and flying back in glorious triumph over the rule of law and putting in motion a revenge act fueled by rage and violence.

That's the horror show many people fear — and Trump doesn't mind if you do. Less than an hour after his arraignment in Miami on Tuesday, on a 37-count indictment, he was headed back to Bedminster, New Jersey, on his private jet and sending emails to his faithful followers urging them once again to fill the coffers of a supposed billionaire fighting for his imaginary noble cause.

This is typical Donald Trump. 

Nothing is more Trump than this indictment and his reaction. As if penned by a movie writer out on strike, the final act of Donald Trump's political life is unfolding in state and federal criminal court, even as he traverses the country speaking at rallies and effectively digging his own grave. On Tuesday night, Trump tried to cite the Presidential Records Act to defend his actions in a public speech carried on C-SPAN. "I had every right to have these documents," he claimed. But the act doesn't say that. It specifically excludes classified documents. Here's a tip: Look for that statement to be replayed on a video screen in court to help convict him.

The details about the records Trump kept at Mar-a-Lago are chilling, and the actions he took with them are both darkly comic and terrifyingly dangerous. A former president of the United States stored secret government documents, which he wasn't supposed to keep and initially denied having, in a bathroom with a now-infamous chandelier. They were also stored on a ballroom stage in his resort that was easily accessible to anyone. There was no guard or lock on the doors.

In one case, sensitive national security information "releasable only to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States," was found spilled on the floor in a storage room.

Our enemies, and even some of our allies, have spent significant sums trying to find out our government secrets. They could've saved a lot of money by just booking a room at Mar-a-Lago. 

Maybe that's exactly what they did. 

After you check in to Mar-a-Lago, whisper the code word "chandelier" in the concierge's ear for full access to government secrets — in the bathroom with the cheap plastic shower curtain and chocolate brown fixtures.

This is real Three Stooges stuff. The indictment exposes Trump as a clown and fool desperate for attention. Book a room at Mar-a-Lago; after you check in, go to the concierge and whisper the code word "chandelier" in his ear for access to the bathroom with the cheap plastic shower curtain and chocolate brown fixtures. Once there, you'll have full access to U.S. government secrets, including but not limited to documents from: 1. the CIA, 2.the  Department of Defense, 3. the Department of Energy, 4. the National Security Council, 5. the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and 6. the National Reconnaissance Office. For the amazingly low price of $29.99, you can also see reports from the State Department and the Bureau of Intelligence Research. The next code phrase, "copies please," gets you into a storage room with a high-speed copy machine. Say nothing and you'll still get access to whatever is in the ballroom. Stick around and Trump will brag about our military plans to you later.

Is Donald Trump's goose finally cooked? Well, it has been for some time. He put himself in the pot long ago, but like the cartoon Daffy Duck that he seems to be, he keeps blowing out the match as the hunters try to start the fire under his pot. He uses his natural inert gasses and noxious aroma to do it. But now comes the blowtorch-wielding Bugs Bunny — or at least Coach Beard, or rather special counsel Jack Smith, straight out of central casting. He looks like dead-eye Marshal Earp, descending on Trump like the angel of death. He just needs the hat.

Cold, calm and completely unimpressed by the former president's ability to bully and sell baloney, Smith came to the podium following the unsealing of the indictment, made a terse statement to the press, took no questions and left one reporter obsequiously trying to get one in. Smith's message was clear — he's coming for Donald. 

His dark, empty eyes reminded me of the scene in "Jaws" when Quint describes sharks: "You know the thing about a shark, he's got ... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes."

Donald Trump's frenzied screams and the threats from the GOP mean nothing to a man who looks like Coach Beard, acts like Columbo and will devour you like a great white shark. 

Trump now faces serious charges in federal court in addition to the state charges previously filed in Manhattan. Those two criminal cases, plus at least two others that may follow, have finally led some of his closest supporters to shake their heads publicly — in private, they've been doing so for some time. Then again, many people are still in stunned disbelief. They never thought this day would come. Those of us who believed otherwise are refraining from saying "I told you so" — OK, we're definitely not.

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Naturally, some of the critics of the Justice Department, consumed by the "will he or won't he" and "taking too long" musings on the action (or inaction) of Merrick Garland and Jack Smith, are now focused on the federal judge assigned to the case. Judge Aileen Cannon has limited judicial experience and an apparent case of Trump worship. He appointed her and she infamously made decisions earlier in the Mar-a-Lago investigation that were promptly overturned by a higher court. If Cannon wishes to be taken seriously as a jurist, the stakes have never been higher for her than they are now.  

Trump claims he will fight to the bitter end and afterward, but he doesn't have a lot of options no matter what he says. His lawyers know this too. How do you defend a case where your client's recorded words taken in context will be used against him? His "best case" scenario, according to some, is to negotiate a plea deal under which he retires to Mar-a-Lago wearing an ankle bracelet for the rest of his life and cannot run for office. He gets to sell the rest of his presidential papers at an exorbitant fee and make money off his speaking tours, while continuing to bilk his base with an endless bombardment of emails selling cheap souvenirs and asking for donations. 

Trump is trying to sound confident as he protests that he's only being prosecuted because he's running for office. Actually, it's the other way around: He's running for office to save himself from being prosecuted. 

Trump will still have a base, no matter what, and I'm sure he's thought about how much he can charge for them — and who the probable highest bidder might be. Someone, probably his longtime aide Jason Miller, is putting together the first draft of that letter now, while those with any sense in Trump's camp try to get him to face facts. Then again, there's probably no one working for Trump at this point who's capable of carrying out such a mission, or has the stones to do it. Surrounding himself with sycophants at the highest levels, and gullible kids who just need a job at the lowest levels, Trump has nothing but fumes left in his tank — and he's trying to coast into a safe harbor on those.

Trump may actually believe that the best-case scenario involves winning the election and issuing himself a pardon, or rigging the trial with a friendly judge. He's certainly trying to sound confident as he protests that he's only being prosecuted because he's running for office. Actually, it's the other way around: He's running for office to try and save himself from being prosecuted. 

You have to wonder if dear Donald has even considered the worst-case scenario: spending the rest of his natural life behind bars. Who are we kidding? It haunts his every thought.

Most of Trump's critics believe it won't come to that — and plenty of his worshippers don't believe it will happen either. However, look deep into Jack Smith's eyes and tell me you don't start singing, in Quint's voice, "Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies ..."

Meanwhile, Trump prattles on and most of the Republican Party continues, at least on the surface, to support the idea that this historic indictment is evidence of a "two-tiered" justice system. But the noteworthy exceptions are proof this strategy is doomed. Former Attorney General Bill Barr, who is highly skilled at bending the law to suit his own purposes, has declared that Trump's in the cooking pot. Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado — a former Trump warrior and right-wing extremist — said he had no intention of supporting "a convicted felon for the White House." Trump has yet to be found guilty, of course, but Buck said the prosecution has a strong case.

Buck even quoted Trump from the campaign trail in 2016 about the absolute need to hold people accountable for mishandling classified information. Back then, he famously said Hillary Clinton was "unfit for office" due to her handling of such material.

"I think his words will set the standard that America will look at in determining whether he is fit for president," Buck said.

Trump is about to find out that the nonsense he spouts outside the courtroom could have calamitous results for him inside the courtroom, particularly in a criminal trial this unprecedented and this notorious. He will be exposed as the traitorous, incompetent, callous buffoon and charlatan that he really is.

Trump may still have to face his toughest criminal challenges ahead, in the Georgia election-interference case and in Smith's Jan. 6 investigation. As much as he keeps on crying that his political opponent is bringing him down, his real nemesis is himself. 

It always has been.

So now the end is near and this much is certain: Donald Trump is writing his own last act as he faces his final curtain. He's done it his way. A lifetime of flying by the seat of his pants with no care for anyone but himself is finally catching up to him, even as he scrawls his plans in the dust — trying desperately to write his way out of his latest misadventure. 

Trump remains a stain on the presidency, and a stain that has spread across the globe. Part of the fallout of his latest debacle is that our nation will have to earn the trust of our allies all over again when it comes to sharing sensitive information. That could take years. Trump has compromised intelligence gathering, compromised his country and compromised the lives of his most fervent supporters.

He has used them, screwed them over and made their lives infinitely more painful and difficult — even as they defend him. Some of them will never learn that, and some of them don't care. 

He is a stain on humanity, and he doesn't care. Or, if you prefer the words of the government on page 39 of the indictment, he did "knowingly and willfully falsify, conceal and cover up by any trick, scheme and device the fact that he hid and concealed from the grand jury" his continued possession of classified documents.

Maybe Trump has deluded himself into thinking he can beat the rap — whatever the rap — because he will do whatever it takes. If all else fails, he'll get his supporters and his opponents riled up and ready to rumble, and then sneak out of the bar when the fight breaks out.

It won't work. Dead-eye Jack Smith is waiting in the doorway.


By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Donald Trump Indictment Jack Smith Mar-a-lago