Donald Trump is igniting his White House bid at a moment of unprecedented peril in the criminal investigations against him – a confluence that could send America into a new political and legal collision.
Trump’s wild rhetoric at his first official 2024 campaign rally Saturday previewed the divisive national moment ahead should he be indicted in any of multiple criminal probes. As he whipped up a demagogic fervor in Waco, Texas, to try to secure a new presidency dedicated to “retribution,” Trump’s extremism – laced with suggestions of violence – left no doubt he would be willing to take the country to a dark place to save himself.
Yet Trump’s chilling warnings that the Biden administration’s “thugs and criminals” have created a “Stalinist Russia horror show” by “weaponizing” justice against him also spelled electoral danger for a GOP hurt by his authoritarianism in recent elections. An extraordinary prolonged character attack on Ron DeSantis, in which Trump depicted his biggest potential rival of 2024 tearfully begging for his endorsement in 2018, demonstrated the political firestorm the Florida governor will have to deal with if he jumps into the White House campaign.
Even with the ex-president’s reputation for hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric, such demagoguery has never previously been heard in the first official rally of any modern American election campaign.
Meanwhile, House committee chairs eager to appeal to the Trump base are increasing their efforts to use the power of their Republican majority to thwart Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s inquiry into Trump – even before it releases any possible indictment or evidence. House Oversight Chair James Comer told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the GOP moves were justified because the investigation into Trump’s alleged role in a hush money scheme to pay an adult film actress was based purely on politics.
“This is the, for better or worse, leading contender for the Republican nomination of the presidential election next year, as well as a former president of the United States,” the Kentucky Republican told Jake Tapper.
Many legal experts have questioned whether the potential Bragg investigation will produce the strongest of cases against Trump, who’s also facing several other probes over his actions around the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents. (Trump, who maintains he’s done nothing wrong, so far has not been charged in any of the criminal probes against him.)
And given the greater national impact of those other investigations, a possible attempt to use a business accounting violation in this yearslong hush money case to suggest a possible violation of campaign finance law could be especially controversial. Yet Comer’s comments also created the implication that an ex-president or White House candidate could be protected from investigation even if they had committed a criminal offense. This gets to the core of the possible cases against Trump: Would failing to investigate him and charge him, if the evidence justifies such a step, mean an ex-president is above the law? Or would some attempts to call him to account risk subjecting him to a level of scrutiny that other citizens might not face?
Comer and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, who were among the three committee chairs writing to Bragg this weekend with intensifying demands for his testimony, won a warm shout-out from Trump at his rally in Texas, reflecting the way the new House GOP is acting as a political tool for the ex-president and his radical campaign. Bragg responded to the chairmen in a statement saying it was not appropriate for Congress to interfere with local investigations and vowed to be guided by the rule of law. He was backed up this weekend by nearly 200 former federal prosecutors who wrote a letter denouncing efforts to intimidate him.
The grand jury in the Trump case is expected to reconvene on Monday, following a week of rampant public speculation over whether Bragg would call more witnesses and whether the case was sufficiently serious to merit the potential first indictment ever of an ex-president. Trump falsely predicted earlier this month that he would be arrested last Tuesday – a move that fired up an effort by his allies to intimidate Bragg. But the week came and went without any indictment news.
CNN reported last week that the district attorney’s office was trying to determine whether to call back Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, to refute the testimony provided by attorney Robert Costello, who appeared at the request of Trump lawyers – or to call an additional witness to buttress its case before the grand jurors consider a vote on whether to indict the former president.
Trump’s worsening legal problems
The escalating confrontation over Bragg’s inquiry came as other investigations around Trump seemed to be nearing their own conclusions.
In a totally separate case on Friday, Trump’s primary defense attorney, Evan Corcoran, appeared before a grand jury in Washington, DC, that is hearing evidence over the ex-president’s handling of classified documents at his home in Florida, including possible obstruction of justice when the government tried to get those documents back. Prosecutors have made clear in court proceedings that are still under seal that they believe Trump tried to use Corcoran to advance a crime.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Friday that Corcoran’s appearance represented a serious development for Trump. “That is an unprecedented thing that we’re seeing, and Evan Corcoran is in a position to provide unbelievably damaging testimony against him,” he said.
Besides looking into the documents issue, special counsel Jack Smith is investigating Trump’s conduct around the 2020 election – which even this weekend the former president again falsely claimed he had won – and in the run-up to the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
In another probe related to the 2020 election, a district attorney in Georgia said at the end of January that decisions were “imminent” in the investigation into Trump’s attempts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the key swing state. CNN reported last week that prosecutors are considering bringing racketeering and conspiracy charges.
Charges in any one of these investigations would test the strength of the country’s political and judicial institutions, given that an ex-president and current presidential candidate is involved. And the fact that Trump is showing such willingness to inflame the country’s politics in his own defense makes this a deeply serious moment for the nation.
Trump takes his extremist rhetoric to a new level
Trump’s fiery rally in Waco pulsated with falsehoods about the 2020 election and his one-term presidency and misrepresented the legal cases against him. Coming a day after he warned in a social media post about “death and destruction” if he is indicted, his speech boiled with conspiracy theories and personal resentments – rhetoric that is especially dangerous in the aftermath of January 6. It wasn’t lost on observers that his event coincided with the 30th anniversary of a law enforcement raid on a cult compound in Waco that’s seen on the far right as a symbol of government overreach, although the campaign maintained the location had been chosen for convenience.
The ex-president has often used extremist speeches to try to get more time in the limelight or more attention, whether from adoring onlookers or outraged critics. It is too early to judge how well his tactic is working in the 2024 campaign and as his legal plight seems to worsen. To date, there have been no big protests of the kind Trump has repeatedly called for. The price his supporters could pay for turning violent has also been demonstrated by the hundreds of convictions of those who invaded the Capitol more than two years ago after his big Washington rally. So there is at least the possibility that while Trump remains widely popular with his GOP base, his angry rhetoric lacks the power that it once did.
But it is also clear after this first campaign rally that Trump, who is still leading the Republican pack for 2024, has crossed a new political line. He is painting a picture of a decrepit and powerless nation – plagued by corruption, rigged elections and the criminal manipulation of the law against his supporters – that is far more extreme than the “American carnage” he invoked in his inaugural address in 2017.
“The abuses of power that are currently with us at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt and depraved chapters in all of American history,” Trump said, lashing the US as a “third world banana republic.”
“Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state,” he said at one point.
And while Trump’s intent is to shock, history suggests that authoritarians seeking power follow exactly the same playbook of populist nationalism – discrediting free elections, demonizing the legal system and taking aim at vulnerable sectors of society – that Trump is pioneering in his new campaign.
His rally was also notable for the fact that it was almost totally dominated by his grievances and complaints, which may well hint at a sense of foreboding over his legal position. “Every piece of my personal life, financial life, business life and public life has been turned upside down and dissected like no one in the history of our country,” Trump said.
This raises a question of whether he’s offering a message, rooted in his obsessions, that a majority of Republican voters would actually want to sign up for, even those who considered his presidency a success. In 2016, Trump emerged as an unlikely but highly skilled vehicle for the conservative grassroots, much of which felt patronized by politicians and left behind in a wave of globalization that sent millions of blue-collar jobs overseas.
DeSantis may be trying something similar in 2024. In the early moves of his yet-to-be-declared campaign, the Florida governor has positioned himself as the champion of conservative voters who believe their way of life is under attack from liberals and multiculturalists pushing a “woke” ideology. One of the key questions of the GOP primary campaign will be whether this approach could appeal to more Republican voters than Trump’s incessant attempts to portray investigations into him as a symptom of a wider attack by a corrupt government on his followers.
But ahead of yet another potentially pivotal week, Trump is proving that he will not turn away from the defining tactic of his political career: subjecting the country’s institutions to ever more intense and unprecedented stress tests.