"This was his campaign plan": Trump has flipped the stolen documents case into "a farce"

Experts reflect one week after Donald Trump's historic indictment

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 20, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Former president Donald Trump arrives for an event at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, following a first court appearance at Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, in Miami, FL. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former president Donald Trump arrives for an event at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, following a first court appearance at Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, in Miami, FL. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Another chapter has now been added to the horrible and interminable saga that is the Age of Trump and the rise of American neofascism. He is now the only former president to have been charged with federal crimes. These alleged violations of the Espionage Act are so severe that, if convicted, Donald Trump may spend the rest of his natural life in prison.  But as Trump is not just a man but a leader of the tens of millions in the MAGA movement — a movement with a proven propensity for violence and terrorism — America's democracy crisis continues.

One of Trump's biographers told me that the former president imagines himself as the main character in a comic book or superhero story – that he himself is the author of. But now Trump's fate is, quite literally, in the hands of Attorney General Merrick Garland, Special Counsel Jack Smith, the Department of Justice, and a larger American legal and court system that is finally holding him accountable for his decades of law-breaking and utter contempt and disregard for societal norms and rules.

To describe this moment as challenging, unsettling, and unprecedented for the nation, the American people, and Donald Trump personally would be an extreme understatement. In an attempt to make sense of his truly historic moment, I asked a range of experts for their reactions to last Tuesday's arraignment in a Miami courthouse and predictions for what comes next in the Age of Trump.

Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Public Policy, and the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications. Schnur previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns.  

As historic and as tumultuous and as earthshaking as the 37-count indictment filed against Trump last week will be for all of us, it actually is just the prelude for an even more cataclysmic legal and political battle that will soon follow. Legal action against Trump for his role in the January 6 Capitol riots is likely to be even more explosive.

The confidential documents that Trump took with him from the White House are undoubtedly of enormous military and diplomatic import. But even though their potential impact on the nation's safety is tremendous, that possible danger has not yet been realized (at least to our knowledge). So the impact is still theoretical and therefore less tangible for most of us. The violence of January 6, on the other hand, has left a much more visceral imprint on the country's psyche, and although many of Trump's most loyal supporters now dismiss the import of the events of that day, most of the American public does understand the nature of the threat that was posed to our government by those who stormed the Capitol.

"This current fight is merely the undercard for the even more bruising one to follow."

By contrast, this current battle is about… paper. Important paper and top-secret paper, but paper nonetheless. The potential damage that could occur should any of the confidential information stored at Mar-a-Lago have fallen into the wrong hands is catastrophic. But at this moment, the consequences of Trump's recklessness with those documents are still unknown. On the other hand, the harm done by the mob that invaded the Capitol is something that most Americans have seen and felt. For most of us, those scars have never fully healed, and a prolonged public clash over Trump's culpability for the events of that day will reopen those wounds. As hard as it might be to believe, this current fight is merely the undercard for the even more bruising one to follow.

Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M, and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."

Donald Trump saw the nation's secrets as the spoils of the office of the presidency, refusing to relinquish them and lying to authorities in order to keep them. It was an odd choice, and it is illegal. That he now stands accused of violating the Espionage Act seems warranted, but it's also bizarre that after all of the illegal things that Trump has done (including inciting an insurrection) that he is brought up on federal charges for stolen paperwork. Perhaps we'll learn that Trump had a scheme in mind to profit from selling the nation's secrets or to use those secrets for political leverage of some kind (which wouldn't be surprising), but at this point—the nation is left to wonder "why"? Why did he do it? Without the answer to that question, the stolen papers seem like a farce.

Not only do they seem like a farce, but they're being treated like a farce. Trump kept the papers in his bathroom. The nation had jokes. Trump defiantly planned a victory lap and campaign event for his arraignment day—the media complied by covering him as insouciant. If folks were hoping to see him brought low by the arraignment, that didn't happen. Trump is the demagogue of the spectacle and he put on a show for the media to cover.

The worry, of course, is that while Trump played the arraignment scenes with defiance, his fascist language (they're not after me, they're after you—the rule of law doesn't exist or apply to me) may lead to actual violence. Trump is playing a dangerous game. He would lead the nation into civil war before he would admit to wrongdoing. This is why Trump has always been a dangerous demagogue who uses language as a weapon to prevent himself from being held accountable.

Mark Jacob is the former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune.

The federal indictment of Donald Trump is an encouraging sign that the most obvious criminal in our politics might finally face justice. But the Republican reaction to Trump's indictment is a most discouraging sign.

Some prominent Republicans twist themselves in knots to justify Trump's theft of secret documents. Others realize that the evidence is so damning that they don't dare defend his conduct. Instead they resort to "hey, look over there" deflection in which they pretend Hillary Clinton's emails are still a live issue and spread reckless, evidence-free allegations against Joe Biden.

If it weren't so dangerous, it would be laughable to hear House Speaker Kevin McCarthy defend Trump's placement of classified documents in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom by saying, "A bathroom door locks." Sure, Kevin, it locks from the inside. Did the documents lock the door themselves?

As serious as these charges are, I look forward to even more serious charges against Trump regarding his assault on the public's right to choose its leaders in free and fair elections. Trump and his co-conspirators tried to overthrow our democracy. They belong in court and, if convicted, in prison.

Kenneth F. McCallion is a former Justice Department prosecutor who also worked for the New York State Attorney General's office as a prosecutor on Trump racketeering cases. As an assistant U.S. attorney and special assistant U.S. attorney, he focused on international fraud and counterintelligence cases that often involved Russian organized crime. McCallion is also the author of several books, including "Profiles in Cowardice in the Trump Era" and "Treason & Betrayal: The Rise and Fall of Individual-1."

It's about time.

Trump has been flouting the law his entire career and largely getting away with it, which is why his crimes have escalated to this point. He thinks he is above the law and by using tactics of deflection and painting himself as an unjustly persecuted man, he uses his loyal followers to help sway public opinion in his favor. But the facts are the facts. The facts, in this case, are that he knew full well that these documents were top secret and that they never should have been taken from the White House. Of all the recent cases being built against Trump, this one seems to be the most solid and will be difficult for him to weasel out of. It feels good to know that even someone as rich and powerful as Trump is not above the law and that he may be held accountable for his actions in this case. And ultimately, that might prevent him from becoming president again, which is crucial for the security of the United States.

As I discuss in my book, "Saving the World One Case At A Time", I was one of the federal prosecutors investigating labor corruption during the construction of Trump Tower. Trump and his then-lawyer, Roy Cohn, entered into a "sweetheart" deal with John Cody and Local 282 of the Teamsters (which was mob controlled at the time) whereby Trump bought "labor peace" i.e. a guarantee of no strikes, in return for putting some Working Teamster Foremen (no-show mob members) on his payroll. We successfully prosecuted Cody and other Teamster leaders, but the Department of Justice denied my request to indict Trump, who refused to cooperate with our investigation. History would likely be different if I and other Organized Crime Strike Force prosecutors were given the green light to indict Trump.

"He would lead the nation into civil war before he would admit to wrongdoing."

I am cautiously optimistic as to what happens next. Although Trump has a knack for letting others take the fall for his misdeeds and I'm sure that will be the way he approaches these new charges. In this case, he may try to shift all the blame onto his aide, Walt Nauta, who has also been charged in the case. Trump's lawyers are also expected to file a motion to dismiss the case and there are a variety of reasons they will cite in order to do so. Even if this motion does not succeed, it will be at least a year before the trial takes place, which means we may have already gone through the 2024 presidential election cycle. With so many moving parts, the only thing for certain is that Trump is going to do whatever he can to get out of facing the music in this case but the court of public opinion will ultimately find him guilty regardless of what his legal team manages to pull off on his behalf.

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It's important to understand that Trump does not have any regard for the law and has built his entire career and persona on disregarding rules and laws. This was the case when he was just a New York-based businessman, and his contempt for the law continued uninterrupted when he stepped in the political ring. When a wealthy and powerful person like Trump believes he is above the law, he will pretty much do whatever he wants without any fear of being held accountable. The sad truth is that the criminal justice system in this country is not equal for everyone. Trump can and has used his power and wealth to get out of many criminal charges throughout his career. While it's too soon to tell if he will be able to do that yet again, we can be certain that these charges will at least help to reveal the truth about who Trump is to the American people who are torn about who they will vote for in the next presidential election. Let's all hope that's enough to keep a criminal from once again taking the highest position in the U.S.

Cheri Jacobus is a former media spokesperson at the Republican National Committee and founder and president of the political consulting firm Capitol Strategies PR.

For Trump's direct victims, and for many in the country at-large, the indictments, while welcome, are somewhat anti-climactic. We are tired. These indictments and the expected additional coming indictments are at least a year too late. So much damage has been done and so many Trump criminal allies still roam free, inciting violence, fomenting fascism, and spreading disinformation. The national security ramifications of this massive breach are almost too frightening to comprehend. The cottage industry surrounding Trump — on both sides — media, superPACs, pundits — are largely repeating the mistakes of 2015-2016 that got us here in the first place. There is big money in promoting Trump, covering Trump as "news", and "fighting" Trump. To be clear — Trump understands this at a granular level.

We know Merrick Garland resisted the Mar-a-Lago raid for weeks. In fact, we might never have known that Trump stole (and let's be honest — likely sold) our nation's secrets, and the shared intel from allies, had he not announced the Mar-a-Lago raid, himself.  He'd gotten away with refusing to return the stolen documents for a very long time, maintaining the upper hand. And Garland may have very well allowed him to skate. Which begs the question:  Just why DID Trump go public?  He knew it meant big media attention, big MAGA drama, big controversy where he could play victim and create chaos.  And let's not forget the sweet fundraising boost it provided the pretend billionaire.

It's entirely possible that this was his campaign plan. He's succeeded in burying Ron DeSantis already, his poll numbers are strengthened, and he dominates and controls the TV coverage. Trump has always monitored when others eventually blink.  House Democrats blinked and backed away from impeaching him on obstruction in the Mueller Report. That was critical information for Trump. Garland blinked by going soft and polite on the stolen classified documents crime, and it was only made public at a time of Trump's choosing — by Trump. In fact, at every step along the way, those who could have stopped him (or at least could have tried) — blinked. Just think how delighted Trump must be at the coincidence of his hand-picked MAGA judge, still wet behind the ears. Aileen Cannon, landing the case. Things could not be going better for Trump.

So yes — while there is satisfaction in watching the circus around Trump's indictments and arraignment, there still that nagging little voice in the back on my head reminding me that Trump is still in control, and that it simply may not be a realistic expectation that he ever spends a day in even the most luxurious of white collar crime country club prisons.

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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