Throughout his career, Donald Trump has been like Houdini, escaping responsibility for his actions. But as he tries to escape more than 90 felony counts in four jurisdictions, his method is obvious. He is performing again, and his judges are not amused.
The trick consists of three parts. First, former President Trump intimidates those who would dare testify against him. Second, he makes himself the victim by maligning prosecutors, judges, juries and witnesses. That way, he can deny the legitimacy of the verdict should he be convicted.
Trump and his colleagues performed the same act regarding the 2020 election as they tried to find evidence of voter fraud, rigged voting machines, invalid ballots and other cheating. Although no evidence existed, Trump still claims he won. His mentor, the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, taught him to never, ever concede defeat.
The third element is delay, especially when time is the enemy of justice. His supporters raided the Capitol to postpone the certification of votes long enough for Trump’s cronies to submit fake electors. We’ve already seen the beginning of Trump’s attempts to delay his trials long enough to win the election and pardon himself.
Regarding intimidation, Trump vows he’ll “come after” anyone who comes after him. However, he doesn’t need to do it himself. He has a well-armed, violence-prone army among the 1,225 hate and antigovernment groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has identified in the U.S.
His ground troops are already terrorizing judges and jurors by publicly disclosing their names and addresses. They must take the threats seriously since an angry lawyer shot and killed Daniel Anderl three years ago; he was the son of New Jersey Judge Esther Salas.
Another gunman tried to attack an FBI office last year following the agency’s search for classified government documents at Mar-a-Lago. Earlier this year, FBI agents tried to arrest but were forced to kill a man who made social media threats against President Biden and the Manhattan district attorney prosecuting Trump for his hush money payoff to an adult film actress.
The Associated Press notes, “Donald Trump’s aggressive response to his fourth criminal indictment in five months follows a strategy he has long used against legal and political opponents: relentless attacks, often infused with language that is either overtly racist or is coded in ways that appeal to racists.”
For example, Trump spent days assailing Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, an African American, with what the AP characterized as “unfounded accusations and race-related attacks.”
Extremists are normalizing political terrorism as though it qualifies as freedom of expression. The SPLC reports a “marked increase” in threats against political candidates, elected officials and public figures. It was higher last year than at any time in the previous decade. Researchers say the trend continues this year, with most threats coming from the far right.
So what can we do?
We can start by eliminating the confusion about protected speech and assembly in America. Perhaps the Ad Council — the nonprofit that produces and promotes public service announcements (PSAs) for other groups, including government agencies — could launch a series of PSAs on the exceptions to those rights. Freedom of assembly applies to “peaceable” gatherings. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled speech is not protected when it’s “a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”
The prosecutions of Trump and his associates are opportunities for judges to educate the American people about the limits to those rights and to show that people will be prosecuted if they willfully exceed the limits with malicious intent.
Next, judges and prosecutors should charge anyone who discloses confidential personal information about jurors and witnesses, including street and email addresses. Anyone who reveals that information should be prosecuted as an accessory if the juror or witness becomes the victim of criminal acts.
Finally, states should exclude Trump from ballots in the 2024 presidential election. Some constitutional scholars believe the 14th Amendment prohibits Trump from holding public office. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment says no official who has taken an oath to defend the Constitution can hold public office if they participate in insurrection or rebellion.
Other scholars argue that keeping Trump off ballots would be anti-democratic. But democracy is better served when public officials take their oaths seriously and if people entrusted to defend democracy know they will be held accountable for subverting it.
In short, the coup we defeated in 2021 has moved on to the justice system. Everyone from judges to citizens on jury duty is in the crosshairs — too often, literally.
The coup also is underway in society at large. SPLC President Margaret Huang warns of “a concerted effort by hate groups and extremist actors to terrorize communities and gain control of public institutions by any means necessary.” She says “these groups are descending on Main Street America and disrupting people’s daily lives, too often with dire consequences for communities of color, Jewish people and the LGBTQ+ community.”
The SPLC has published recommendations on how citizens and local governments can confront hate groups. At the top of the list is the obligation of leaders in local government and civil society to condemn hate crimes, abuses of protected speech and assembly, and political, racial and religious violence.
As always, however, the most important defensive weapon is our votes. America is under attack from within. No one should support candidates who participate, promote or condone this assault on democracy, diversity and the Constitution’s promise of domestic tranquility.
William S. Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, is a co-editor of and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People.”
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