Trump's downfall is coming: Now the Democrats must use his crimes to finish him

An expert panel agrees that Trump's moment of reckoning is finally here — but Democrats must show strength

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 25, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It now appears that Donald Trump, a criminal mastermind who has spent decades evading serious responsibility for his behavior, may finally have met his match. The doubly-indicted ex-president — with a third and fourth indictment likely to follow soon — now faces multiple felony trials and criminal investigations across the country for violations of the Espionage Act, financial fraud and other serious crimes connected with his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Last week Trump confirmed that the Department of Justice has sent him a "target letter" indicating that special counsel Jack Smith may soon charge him with defrauding the United States and "deprivation of rights under color of law" in connection with the Jan. 6 coup plot. Trump also faces potential charges related to tampering with witnesses and "obstruction of an official proceeding."

Experts have noted that one statute cited in the target letter (Section 241 of Title 18) was created during Reconstruction in an attempt by federal authorities to protect the rights of newly freed Black Americans from the Ku Klux Klan and other Southern white terrorist groups.

Trump still has a vast war chest of money and considerable resources of other kinds, but those are being depleted by his growing legal expenses. In all probability, he will still be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. But his latitude of action and his ability to escape the law appears, at least for now, to be diminishing. The "Trumpocene" era may be drawing to a close, but what may happen next in this truly unprecedented historical period remains unclear. 

Are we truly witnessing Trump's downfall — and if so, why did it take so long? Where would the country be now if Attorney General Merrick Garland had moved faster?

What about Trump's tens of millions of MAGA followers, the largely subservient Republican Party, the right-wing news media and all the other tools he has at his disposal? Can those resources help him escape justice and accountability once again? In an attempt to make sense of the road ahead for Donald Trump and the fate of American democracy, I recently asked a range of experts to offer their thoughts and insights.

Rachel Bitecofer is a political analyst and election forecaster.  

The idea that former President Trump and his co-conspirators might get away with their plain-sight crimes, as serious as attempting to seize permanent power via disrupting the transfer of power, has haunted many of us over the past two years. So it is a big relief to see we have moved past this corrupting idea that American presidents cannot be prosecuted, a concept I feel certain even the Federalists would have found horrifying.

Finding out that the FBI was actively involved with trying to prevent search and seizure in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, despite a year of theft, lies, and concealment of important national security documents — combined with reports that Garland and the Department of Justice remained inert on investigating the principals behind the Jan. 6 insurrection until the House select committee forced them into it — does not exactly inspire confidence in the system. The fact is, if the Department of Justice had led, and not followed, on the Jan. 6 investigation we would be living in a very different legal reality than we are now, where we are likely to see a criminally convicted Republican nominee running in the fall general election.

"I would like to believe that Trump will be neutralized, and won't be on the ballot in November of next year. But my experience and instincts tell me this crisis is far from over."

I would like to believe that Trump will be neutralized, and won't be on the ballot in November of next year. But my experience and instincts tell me this crisis is far from over and that many twists and turns and dangers remain. The fact is, Trump continues to receive preferential treatment from the federal justice system, and that should concern every law abiding American. The "two-tiered system" of justice that Trump and his MAGA allies like Speaker McCarthy decry is actually this: There is one standard for someone like Jack Teixeira, a National Guardsman recently indicted for stealing classified intel who is being held in custody as a risk to national security, and another for Donald Trump, who despite allegedluy committing similar crimes, is free on bond. Few defendants facing charges of classified info disclosures receive bond, let alone release without any conditions or seizure of the defendant's passport. So, the jury is still out, so to speak, as to whether our federal judicial system can meet this moment.

That said, my assumption is that as indictments stack up across multiple federal and state venues, less committed Republican voters who are currently inclined to vote for Trump will start to conside giving Joe Biden a second term.

Look for the Trump campaign and their allies to flood the zone on polls, as they did during the run-up to the 2022 midterms in an attempt to disguise the failure of their "red wave" to materialize. Keep in mind that the bulk of primary voters do not follow the daily news, and will not start doing so until this fall. I think that state-level "fake elector" charges that tap into the people who powered the conspiracy are likely as important as the prosecutions of Trump himself.

Much of Trump's power hails from his "supporting cast" of MAGA Republicans, who to this day continue to perpetuate the lies at the heart of the criminal conspiracy. If there are criminal penalties for illegal actions taken by these people, we may start to see Trump's echo chamber fracture. That is key to breaking the mass psychosis behind the MAGA movement.

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

It is frankly a relief that Trump now is finally going to be charged with the ultimate crimes: direct attempts to destroy American democracy and instigate a violent insurrection. Of course, I would have preferred that this had happened earlier — and I wish Jack Smith had been given the case much earlier to expedite it. But I also know that a case that was not complete and had not tied up every loose end might have ended with a dismissal or an acquittal — or at least with a hung jury because of one diehard Trumpist who would be fine with him shooting someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight. We will have to wait to see what the charges are, and who is cooperating. But I doubt that people like Mark Meadows or former Arizona Gov. Ducey would have been willing to cooperate if the ask had come a year or more ago.

The fact that other prosecutors, including Fani Willis, have not brought charges yet shows that this is a common feature of complex and highly charged cases, not simply Merrick Garland dragging his feet. To be sure, nothing would have altered the disgraceful reactions of the Kevin McCarthys and Elise Stefaniks.

"Merrick Garland has afforded Trump the luxury of time to build, fundraise, agitate, organize, propagandize, blackmail, brainwash, bribe, threaten, energize, incite, strengthen his hold on his base —and possibly grow it."

The bad news is that even after charges are brought, it will take months before they result in a trial. Some of the delays will no doubt be driven by the bias of Judge Cannon in Florida, but cases involving a lot of classified material inevitably take longer. It is possible we will have one or more trials during the primary stage, or even later than that. And it remains true that none of this seems to be changing the Republican primary voters in their attachment to Trump. He may be a presidential nominee facing multiple criminal trials during the campaign and after the election. That's nightmarish, to be sure. But what would be more nightmarish is if he were not held accountable for multiple offenses against the United States and all of us.

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

While a target letter implies indictments are coming, it's well over a year late. Possibly too late. Merrick Garland has afforded Trump the luxury of time to build, fundraise, agitate, organize, propagandize, blackmail, brainwash, bribe, threaten, energize, incite, strengthen his hold on his base and possibly grow it. Trump's appointed judge, Aileen Cannon, has set a trial date for the stolen classified documents case for May, 2024, likely ensuring further delay as the GOP primary will be underway and likely showing Trump as the presumptive nominee. This calendar is fraught with peril for justice and democracy. Had Garland not inexplicably sat on his hands for so long, we'd be in trial stage by now, and the GOP donors and candidates would have plenty of reason to move on from Trump and lead his cult followers away from the cliff.  

The reality is that Trump will likely be the GOP nominee and has a very good chance of becoming president again. He can run and serve if he is indicted, prosecuted, found guilty and even if he is serving time in prison. There is nothing in our Constitution forbidding it.  

It is becoming apparent that our only hope may be the 14th Amendment, which bars an insurrectionist from office. Section 3 of the amendment — the Disqualification Clause — bars any person from holding state or federal office who took an oath to support the Constitution as an "officer of any State" and then "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" or gave "aid and comfort" to insurrectionists. It would have to be brought to court in each state. A "test" case brought by CREW in New Mexico was successful, as an officeholder who was on the Capitol steps on Jan. 6 was removed from office by a judge. If Trump is properly convicted for his role in the insurrection, the path to keeping him off the ballot (at least in enough states) and out of the White House will be the 14th Amendment. 

David Pepper is a lawyer, writer, political activist and former elected official. His new book is "Saving Democracy: A User's Manual for Every American."

I'm pleased the walls look to be closing in, and that the special prosecutor appears to be pursuing this aggressively. Accountability here is desperately needed. No one who leads an insurrection against the peaceful transfer of power should be allowed to run for office again. If Garland had moved faster, we might have lived up to such a foundational and crucial principle. The delayed pursuit also sent a message across the country that undermined the seriousness of what happened. If you're a less partisan voter trying to make sense of all the clamor and rhetoric about Jan. 6, the lack of early movement by the attorney general signaled that it must not have been that bad. That false narrative has shaped perceptions ever since, and will likely do so as any trial proceeds.

Trump will win the Republican primary, and I think Biden remains in a strong position to beat Trump in the general election. The extremism of the far right, made so real by the Dobbs decision and what's happened since, continues to be the prime driver of voting behavior.

My primary anxiety is whether those on the side of democracy take advantage of this opportunity by competing and winning up and down the ballot, including state legislative races. With democracy in the balance, it's no longer good enough to simply win federal races in a few swing states, leaving untouched most of the places where extremism is advancing and democracy undermined. To reverse the downward spiral, those fighting for democracy must widen and deepen their battle plan for both '23 and '24.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Rich Logis, a former member of the Republican Party and right-wing pundit, is the founder of Perfect Our Union, an organization dedicated to healing political traumatization, building diverse pro-democracy alliances and perfecting our union.

Irrefutably, Trump is partly responsible for the insurrection; the justification of politically motivated violence was one of the reasons I left behind the politically traumatic world of Trump/MAGA/GOP. Jack Smith's Jan. 6 charges are going to be bad, and I will not be surprised if he charges Trump with seditious conspiracy or treason; Smith knows he must show evidence that Trump knows he lost the 2020 election, and I am certain Smith will provide such proof. We still really don't know what Trump was doing for three hours, once the insurrectionists breached the Capitol. Privately, the GOP, as well as Trump's primary opponents, are beyond ecstatic over Trump's legal problems, but they are grossly incorrect in their likely assumption that such problems weaken Trump: The more he's indicted, the stronger his support grows with the GOP's primary voting base.

I fully appreciate that many are dissatisfied with the speed at which Attorney General Garland moved. In fairness, he is not only in an unenviable position but an unprecedented one. I am a staunch defender of Garland: He has never lost a case he has tried, is a man of granite integrity and would not have taken the job had he thought he'd be coaxed into doing anyone's bidding; this was proven by his prosecution of Hunter Biden. If Trump committed crimes, Garland will win at trial. Holding Trump legally accountable is mandatory, if we, as a nation, are going to overcome the mistake of Trump's election. 

One immense benefit that Trump, DeSantis, etc., have is that most of the American electorate isn't political; most only pay attention a month, or two, before an election. The Democratic Party needs to stop worrying about Biden's age and the polls, and start worrying about how to reach the tens upon tens of millions of Americans who are apolitical.

"Privately, the GOP, as well as Trump's primary opponents, are beyond ecstatic over Trump's legal problems. But they are grossly incorrect in their likely assumption that such problems weaken Trump."

Because of the Electoral College, Trump was much closer to winning in 2020 than the Democratic Party wants to acknowledge. Biden's re-election is not guaranteed. America has survived one Trump presidency. But another? It is a risk we must not take. The most beneficial outcome for the country is to electorally mercy-kill the GOP. We must be patient in affliction, simultaneously bringing the good news of conserving democracy to the afflicted.

Wajahat Ali is the author of "Go Back to Where You Came From." He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and MSNBC Daily and co-host of the democracy-ish podcast.

The target letter by Jack Smith reveals that Trump's numerous criminal transgressions are at the very least catching up to him. Whether or not this will result in any form of accountability remains to be seen, but it is certainly a troubling development for the leading GOP presidential candidate, whose 2016 campaign included the chant, "Lock her up!" Karma, thanks to Merrick Garland and the Justice Department, was slow and late to respond, but this is certainly bad news for Trump and his MAGA minions. Over in Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced felony charges against 16 Michigan residents for their role in the alleged false electors scheme. This is in addition to the two existing indictments against Trump.

We still haven't heard from District Attorney Fani Willis of Georgia, who has Trump dead to rights thanks to his phone call asking the secretary of state to "find" him the votes he needs. For normal people who aren't protected by whiteness, wealth and the GOP, all of this would be enough to send a person to jail for years. However, everything is skewed to mollify the radicalized anger of white rage and MAGA, so I won't hold my breath for Trump's incarceration. I remain cynical, because he is a former president and I recall that Richard Nixon never spent a day of his life in jail and went on to a lucrative speaking and writing career. Still, we need more accountability, and this will only increase the pressure on Trump's minions, such as Meadows and others, to play ball with law enforcement.

These people are brittle and weak porcelain dolls who won't last a day in jail. They'll sing like birds. None of this will dampen MAGA support for Trump, and we already see the GOP leadership rallying around him. Even Megyn Kelly, whom Trump mocked and ridiculed, has made amends with her former tormentor. Masochism is the price to pay when you're in a political cult. I do believe this will weaken Trump and Republicans leading up to 2024, however, and build up the rich narrative of his awesome corruption and the GOP's utter, craven complacency and complicity. 

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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Elections Indictment Jack Smith Jan. 6 Law Merrick Garland Trump Crimes