The Jan. 6 Trump indictment is traumatic — and cathartic: We may be free of him at last

Reading Jack Smith's indictment brought it all back. But there's a cure for our Trump PTSD: Send him to prison

By Brian Karem


Published August 3, 2023 9:17AM (EDT)

Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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

I cannot say this more bluntly: Donald Trump is going to prison — and I don't think he'll be on the ballot next year.

Or, perhaps: Donald Trump is going to prison and could be sworn as president at Leavenworth in January of 2025 while wearing an orange jumpsuit. Then he'll pardon himself, change into his expensive suit, jump into Air Force One and fly back to D.C., where his satanic reign of terror will commence.

Just kidding. He won't win the election. 

Let us recap. 

I walked away from the Capitol on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, silent.

I kept my head on a swivel. Rioters were climbing the walls, beating police, charging the Capitol and screaming that they wanted to hang Mike Pence.

I had been physically threatened. Other reporters had been assaulted.

Earlier, before I had walked to the Capitol from the White House, I had been among the many reporters asking the White House press office if President Trump would come out and denounce the violence. 

He never went to the Brady Briefing Room to do so. It was more than three hours before he issued a video statement in which he professed his love for the rioters and asked them to go home.

By then the damage had been done.

I watched the rioters urged on by the president who claimed he would march with them up Pennsylvania Avenue, but didn't. I heard Rudy Giuliani scream, "Trial by combat." I saw thousands of people with anger in their hearts and minds try their best to keep the November general election from being certified.

I have been to several conflict zones, and on that day in Washington I felt more at risk than in any conflict zone I'd ever visited.

For the last two and a half years, a narrative has emerged among Trump's supporters: The insurrection I witnessed, according to those who weren't there or who choose to ignore the facts, never occurred.

For the last two and a half years, a narrative has emerged among Trump's supporters, one that he encouraged from the day of the insurrection onward. It has repeatedly been echoed by those who are gullible or ignorant, or who have a stake in defending him. The insurrection I witnessed, I am told either by those who weren't there or those who choose to ignore the facts, never occurred. It was, according to some like Joe Rogan, a "false flag." To others, like Tucker Carlson, it was a tourist picnic or a peaceful protest. Some have produced video footage from the sidelines, showing people milling about and protesting without violence or mayhem.

Yes. That did happen, along the fringes of the riot. But that doesn't reflect what I saw closer to the Capitol, and it ignores the testimony of Harry Dunn and other Capitol Police officers who put their lives on the line and suffered that day. That picnic narrative ignores reality.

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As for a false flag, well that's just another case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. It's the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. approach to life – when the facts don't fit the narrative, change the facts. Those in the Rogan camp say that the U.S. intelligence community didn't like Trump, so it incited the rioting to make Trump look bad. That's garbage. While it's true that many in the intelligence community didn't trust Trump, and thought he had roughly the integrity of a rabid coyote and the intelligence of a paramecium, they had no reason to start anything. Trump had just two weeks left in office, once the election was certified. Stopping the certification benefited no one but him.

All these ridiculous narratives, while they have no relationship to the facts, are unfortunately consistent with a widespread mindset across the country.

I know the facts. I was a first-hand witness, not just to the events of Jan. 6 but the four years preceding them, because I covered the Trump administration on a daily basis. But there are many who don't know the facts, or who simply don't believe them. 

Thus there are two competing beliefs to this day about Donald Trump:

The first is that Donald Trump is the biggest criminal ever to inhabit the White House. He is a slovenly and craven man with the appeal of a carnivorous sloth, and he has thus far been able to waddle his way through life without accountability. He lacks any empathy or decency and has just enough self-awareness to stubbornly and tenaciously survive against the odds. He is darkly appreciated by his worst enemies for his survival instincts.

Those who believe that welcome Jack Smith's latest indictment. They believe Trump may have finally run out his string of luck, and that the facts will lead to a reckoning.

Then you have those who believe Donald Trump is a modern-day saint, a man of the ages. Deemed by the Lord to be used for his will, this sinner is a tool of the Most High and is impervious to the criticism of mortal man. After all, no one among us can understand the workings of God. (Except for those most loyal to Trump, of course.)

Others acknowledge that Trump may be a con man, but rationalize it: "He's our con man!" And: "He deserves his First Amendment rights!" (Pro tip: None of the charges against him have anything to do with the First Amendment.)

Then there are those who say, "I got me a 'collectible' MAGA hat for only $47. That's a whole dozen now!"

Since Trump left office, he has been investigated in New York, Florida, Georgia and the District of Columbia. So far, every empaneled grand jury has returned indictments against him — except the one in Georgia. We'll hear from them soon.

Some believe that Donald Trump's innate ability to skate through by the seat of his pants means that the large and growing number of criminal charges against him actually play in his favor. Katie Phang, writing for MSNBC, suggests that he may be able to postpone and delay all these criminal cases, run out the clock and skate once again: "And the irony is that because Trump is a gold medal crimer and does not cease in his persistent criming, he is actually creating heightened criminal exposure for himself while simultaneously creating credible support for his arguments for a delay in proceeding to trial."

In the New York Times, Randall D. Eliason, former chief of the fraud and public corruption section at the U.S. attorney's office in D.C., believes that Jack Smith's recent indictment reflects "smart lawyering," and will present a "compelling case" while avoiding some "potential land mines that could be lurking in other charges," including the potential for a First Amendment defense.

The facts show that for two and a half years, since Trump left office, he has been investigated in New York, Florida, Georgia and the District of Columbia. Grand juries composed of ordinary people have heard evidence and so far every empaneled grand jury — we're still waiting to hear from the one in Fulton County, Georgia — has returned an indictment against Trump. Georgia is likely to do so by the first week of September.

This isn't politics. This isn't the weaponization of the Justice Department. This is the American justice system working. It's grinding it out slowly, but it's working. 

The latest indictment of Trump brings his current count of felony charges to 78, with more to come. I hear that Vegas is giving even odds on him reaching 100 felony indictments before the end of summer.

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In the Jan. 6 indictment, special counsel Jack Smith (who also filed felony charges in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case) relies heavily on the House select committee report spearheaded by Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two former Republican legislators. It also relies heavily on Trump's own employees, staff and political consultants. 

Some of the documentation in the 45-page indictment (it's merely a coincidence that our 45th president had a 45-page indictment) is not only damning, but bizarrely comic.

As early as mid-November of 2020 an unnamed "senior campaign advisor" had informed Trump that his claims of a large number of dead voters in Georgia were lies. That person also wrote in an email, "When our research and campaign legal team can't back up any of the claims made by our Elite Strike Force Legal Team, you can see why we're 0-32 on our cases. I'll obviously hustle to help on all fronts, but it's tough to own any of this when it's all just conspiracy shit beamed down from the mothership."

Worse yet, nearly two dozen lies told by Trump are outlined in the latest indictment. For any other person, that might seem like a lot. But those of us who covered Trump often heard that many lies come out of the administration on a daily basis. The Jan. 6 indictment begins by noting the egregious lie that election fraud had changed the outcome and that Trump "had actually won." It ends with the lie about dead voters in Georgia.

Trump lied that his fake electors were legitimate. He lied that the Justice Department had "concerns" about the legitimacy of the election, even after Bill Barr told him that the fraud claims were untrue. He lied about vote dumps in Detroit, about Pennsylvania's "205,000 more votes than voters," about Nevada's "double votes" and about 30,000 "non-citizen" votes. He lied about voting machines in swing states switching votes. He lied about Dominion voting machines being involved in "massive election fraud." He lied about voting irregularities in Arizona. He lied about ballot stuffing in Georgia. He lied about fraud in Wisconsin. He lied that he won "every state" by hundreds of thousands of votes. 

Only one Republican has so far come out since this indictment to publicly chastise Trump for his lies and the insurrection: Mike Pence, his former vice president. A lot of good that's done him. Pence is polling below the margin of error in the 2024 race right now. Still, give him some credit. He's late to the party, but at least Pence is trying to carve out a lane independent of Trump. He knows what's coming. 

On MSNBC Wednesday morning, attorney George Conway said of Trump, "I just don't see how he survives all of these cases," because "he's played Russian roulette with the law." 

Right sentiment. Wrong analogy. The facts show that Trump put a fully loaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger, after threatening to for years. 

This journey for all of us began six weeks before the 2020 presidential election. 

I asked Donald Trump in the White House briefing room whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power,"win, lose or draw." He wouldn't commit to it.

Everything that has occurred since, up to and including the latest indictment in D.C. federal court stems from the fact that Trump said he would only accept the election results if he won. "If you get rid of the ballots, you won't have a transfer of power," he said.

He didn't care then and doesn't care now about the rule of law, majority rule or our democracy.

That's why he must stand trial and, if found guilty, go to prison. No one is above the law.

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 Jan. 6 Mike Pence Ptsd Trauma