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The GOP’s Trump Choice
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The GOP’s Trump Choice

Defending him is morally reprehensible—and a political liability.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Trump National Golf Club on June 13, 2023, in Bedminster, New Jersey. Earlier in the day, Trump pleaded not guilty in federal court in Miami on 37 felony charges, including illegally retaining defense secrets and obstructing the government’s efforts to reclaim the classified documents. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald Trump was arraigned in federal court Tuesday. The 37 counts he is charged with were detailed in a devastating 49-page indictment released late last week. The former president is accused of keeping highly classified documents after his presidency ended and thwarting the efforts of federal investigators to have them safely returned. The evidence is compelling and overwhelming. While Trump deserves a proper defense, no serious person who has read the indictment and lived through the last eight years believes he is innocent.

Tuesday’s embarrassing spectacle, broadcast live for hours in the U.S. and across the world, follows a similar court proceeding in April in New York, where Trump was charged with falsifying business records related to hush money payments to a porn star with whom he allegedly cheated on his third wife. Last month the New York real estate tycoon was ordered to pay $5 million in a civil case for sexually abusing a woman in a department store in 1996 and later defaming her.

That’s just the past two months. The former president also invented an elaborate and quickly discredited conspiracy theory meant to convince his supporters that he didn’t lose the 2020 election. When his opponent was to be certified anyway, Trump fomented a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol—an attack for which even some of his most diehard congressional supporters held him responsible. He was impeached for those actions (and once before for holding congressionally appropriated funds hostage in an attempt to get dirt on his political opponents). He may well face additional federal charges related to the January 6 attacks and state charges in Georgia for his attempts—caught on tape—to bully the Georgia secretary of state into cheating in his behalf.

There are many reasons to believe he will be—and ought to be—a convicted felon. And if current polling holds, he will also be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. It’s a thoroughly depressing prospect.

We say that not as supporters of Joe Biden or his party. To the contrary, we believe Biden has been a bad president, too often beholden to the far left and too willing to break promises he made to be a unifying leader. He has pandered to progressives on fiscal and cultural issues, cast good-faith opponents of his voting rights policies as Jim-Crow-era racists, and portrayed critics of his profligate spending as nihilistic radicals. The questions about his mental acuity—raised by Democrats and Republicans alike—come from his age (80) and his public appearances. His vice president, Kamala Harris, is by all accounts even more progressive and more divisive. Four more years of Joe Biden as president would be bad for the country.

Donald Trump as the Republican nominee makes a second term for Joe Biden likely. Most elected Republicans understand this and, in the comfort of private conversation, not only acknowledge this reality but offer withering critiques of Trump and his behavior that they strain to avoid making in public.

With all the humility we can muster about the likelihood they’ll listen to us, we implore them: Say in public those things about Donald Trump that you so often say in private. And start with the latest indictment.

The offenses detailed in the indictment are serious. Trump took from the White House hundreds of sensitive documents at the end of his term. Some were classified at the highest levels—records related to U.S. nuclear programs and potential American weaknesses, war plans with Iran, foreign and domestic weapons capabilities, among others. Many were haphazardly stored in boxes around the Mar-a-Lago resort, a poorly secured magnet for foreign spies.

The National Archives asked Trump, repeatedly and in good faith, to return these materials. He ignored some of these requests and rejected others. He played games with the FBI, enlisting his aides to hide boxes from investigators and insisting that his lawyers lie on his behalf. A transcript of an interview with Trump from July 2021 appears to show the former president presenting a highly classified document to visitors without clearances to see it—and acknowledging that he didn’t have declassification authority.

“As president I could have declassified it,” Trump said. “Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.” He added, “Isn’t that interesting?”

It is interesting—and illegal. An enlisted soldier or midlevel CIA bureaucrat who’d done the same would be on his way to jail.

The documents that Trump took are “among the most sensitive secrets that the country has,” said Bill Barr, Trump’s attorney general, in an interview over the weekend. “If even half of it is true, then he’s toast,” Barr added. “It’s a very detailed indictment and it’s very damning.”

Barr is right. And what makes the indictment so devastating is that so much of the evidence presented over its pages comes directly from Trump and those fighting in his behalf. If there are “deep state” actors out to get Donald Trump—a reasonable assumption, given details from John Durham’s investigation and the Justice Department’s inspector general—it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Trump and his hand-picked aides are literally the ones giving the “deep state” the evidence it needs to convict him. We think the legal case against Trump in New York is flimsy and political, but we don’t know anyone who finds it hard to believe that Trump attempted to buy the silence of a porn star paramour. Donald Trump is the author of his own drama.

We’re sympathetic to concerns from those who worry about double standards. Republicans who protest that Trump is being prosecuted by the same Justice Department that let Hillary Clinton off the hook over her own classified-documents scandal have a point. Clinton was “extremely careless”—in then-FBI Director James Comey’s phrasing—with the handling of top-secret materials when she hosted them on a private email server in her New York home as secretary of state. Comey’s decision not to recommend charges for Clinton was deeply controversial at the time; we think she should have been prosecuted. These facts make Clinton’s recent self-satisfied victory lap—she used the news of Trump’s indictment to hawk “But Her Emails” merch on Twitter—a disgraceful reminder of why she was weak enough to lose to Trump.

If Trump’s alleged conduct were equivalent to Clinton’s, that wouldn’t necessarily mean Trump’s indictment was wrong. The answer to partisan double standards isn’t to abandon standards altogether; it’s to insist on the nonpartisan application of them. This is especially true when the standard under discussion is the rule of law.

But this is beside the point. The conduct of Trump and Clinton is not equivalent. Trump is charged not only with mishandling highly classified materials, but with executing a shockingly clumsy scheme to avoid handing them back to the government (and lying to cover his tracks). Trump’s intent to deceive shines out from the indictment like a fog light. And the fact that he has insisted—before the indictment and after—he is allowed to have the materials he took is effectively an admission of guilt.

The law is clear that anyone with unauthorized possession of documents related to national defense who “willfully retains” and “fails to deliver” them to the proper authorities is in violation. Looking the other way at Trump’s alleged actions would have corrosive effects, not the least of which would be declawing any future effort by the U.S. government to prosecute those who mishandled classified documents. 

Sen. Marco Rubio once pointed to those corrosive effects in condemning Clinton’s behavior. Clinton, he said, “left sensitive and classified national security information vulnerable to theft and exploitation by America’s enemies. Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk.” What’s more, he added, “Clinton’s actions have sent the worst message to the millions of hard-working federal employees who hold security clearances and are expected to go to great lengths to secure sensitive government information and abide by the rules. They don’t take their oaths lightly, and we shouldn’t expect any less of their leaders.”

Indeed, we shouldn’t lower our expectations. But Rubio, now the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is today defending Trump’s behavior with claims that would have been too embarrassing to articulate for the once-principled senator. “There’s no allegation that there was harm done to the, to the national security,” Rubio said this week on CBS. “There’s no allegation that he sold it to a foreign power or that it was trafficked to somebody else or that anybody got access to it.”

Got that? In 2016, merely leaving classified information vulnerable earned the sternest of rebukes. In 2023, “there’s no allegation that he sold it to a foreign power.”

Other Republicans have been as pathetic. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy defended Trump’s storage of some boxes in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom by pointing out that bathrooms have locking doors. (He failed to note that most bathrooms are locked from the inside.)

But we’ve been encouraged by the emergence of a Republican “sanity caucus.” Among Trump’s primary opponents, former Gov. Chris Christie has been forthright in calling Trump’s actions leading to the indictment “inexcusable.” Former Vice President Mike Pence has said he “cannot defend what is alleged.” On Capitol Hill, Sen. Mitt Romney correctly said Trump “brought these charges upon himself,” and has been joined by Sens. John Thune, John Cornyn, and Lisa Murkowski in expressing concern about the underlying alleged crime. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said: “It’s very problematic. There’s a reason I’m not—not defending it.” There are other Republicans willing to speak the truth, but nowhere near enough. 


All of what Trump has shown disregard for—the letter and spirit of the law, the security of sensitive information, the foundational republican compact of the country that elevates the Constitution and the rule of law over the will of its leaders—is not good for anyone. And with every opportunity that responsible leaders fail to do something about it, Americans just get more used to it.

If none of these moral arguments convince those who would call themselves leaders of the Republican Party, then perhaps an appeal to base political considerations is in order. What would the GOP accept by defending Trump to the hilt, or even just standing by silently? Defeat wrested from the jaws of victory.

In every national election since Trump’s improbable victory in 2016, the GOP suffered significant costs because of its close association with Trump. A dismal midterm in 2018. Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in 2020. The flipping of Senate control in early 2021 after two disastrous runoffs in Georgia. Disappointing 2022 midterm elections that gave House Republicans a razor-thin majority but denied the party the Senate majority. The more voters see Trump, the less they like him and his party.

While early evidence shows the Republican base rallying around Trump in the wake of this latest indictment, these developments repulse those who lean Republican but can’t stand the former president. Those voters—many of them John McCain Republicans—may not be wanted by the likes of Trump acolyte Kari Lake, but they (along with true independents and moderates) make the difference in close states like Arizona. They don’t want Trump.

Republican officials, party leaders, donors, and voters ought to look at the indictment through the eyes of Americans who are not enamored with this man. The man who told his supporters on January 6, 2021, “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” right before they stormed the Capitol to stop the lawful and constitutional transfer of power. The man who may still face more legal trouble, including from a grand jury in Georgia considering his alleged actions to overturn the 2020 election in that state. The man who was impeached twice and who downplayed racist violence in Charlottesville and who has praised foreign dictators and who has enlisted his fellow Republicans to defend him throughout it all—while only offering headaches and heartaches and defeat after disappointing defeat in return.

It’s a cliche to say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But in that spirit, let’s say this: Sticking with Trump? It’s insanity.


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