Will Donald Trump Spend the Rest of His Life Behind Bars? Umair Haque writes.
By now, you’ve heard — The Jan 6th Committee issued, at last, a criminal referral, to the Justice Department, against Donald Trump. And you’ve heard a chorus of pundits saying things like: it won’t matter, it’s not legally binding, it’s just a formality, so what difference does it make, and so forth.
They’re wrong. The criminal referral of Donald Trump is earth-shaking — for America, and for the world. It is a genuinely historic moment — a turning point, and a warning, both, that will echo through decades to come.
I’ve put the title provocatively for a reason. Will Trump spend the rest of his life behind bars? Maybe, maybe not. That part’s up to Merrick Garland, the Attorney General, of course. And while he’s said to be meticulous and painstaking in his work, the self-evident fact is that he’s slow to act. Still, he gets the job done. So will he indict Trump? I’ll come back to that. First, let’s begin with the charges, and then talk about why this is an historic moment, of immense proportions, and it’s both foolish and wrong to dismiss as humdrum everyday politics.
The Jan 6th Committee referred Trump to the Justice Department on four charges. Criminal charges. Let’s put them in ascending order of gravity, so that it becomes a whole lot clearer why this matters so intensely. One: conspiracy to make a false statement. Not such a big deal, in the larger scale of things — I imagine everyday mid-level crooks face that kind of thing relatively frequently. Two: conspiracy to defraud the United States. Now, suddenly, we’ve already taken a quantum leap: this is the stuff of RICO charges, which, of course, are what bring down kingpins around the world at the very highest levels of organized crime. So just the second most serious charge — out of four — is already at the level of the highest echelons of organized crime, which are some of the most serious charges that exist in America’s justice system.
And it only gets worse — much, much worse for Trump — from there. Number three: obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress. This one might not sound like such a Big Deal in itself, but in the context of the other charges, it’s a setup for number four: inciting or assisting an insurrection. And that’s probably the gravest criminal charge there is, full stop. It’s a high crime way, way above the levels of petty, everyday criminality. It’s such a grave charge that, outside the events of Jan 6th, it’s rarely used, if at all.
And against a former President? Now. These are spectacular charges to recommend. Just one of these charges would wreck anyone’s life. Just one of them wrecked the lives of cartels heads and terrorists and so forth. Four such charges? Believe me when I say that you really don’t want the US Government on your case when it comes to matters like these, because once it decides to prosecute you, it doesn’t stop. And there is no institution on this planet even remotely comparable to the power it has. Each of those four charges? You can bet that there are eager young prosecutors at the Justice Department begging Merrick Garland to let them at it — because they’re career-makers, the kind of stuff that’ll launch you into the upper stratosphere and law and politics for good, at once. Now imagine an army of such prosecutors at the Justice Department, shouting, whispering, pleading in Merrick Garland’s ear — please, boss, please — and shudder. Because those guys? They don’t give up, they don’t forget, and they don’t compromise. They are some of the hardest nosed people on the planet. A phalanx of them arrayed against you? LOL, good luck ever having anything remotely resembling a vaguely happy life again. They’ll make it their entire life’s mission to put you behind bars, and if they can’t do that right away, they can make you everything from broke to miserable to an isolated pariah…for good.
So…it’s not a joke. Not remotely something to dismiss, the way that pundits and columnists already are. You see, it’s not just about Merrick Garland. Sure, he calls the shots at the Justice Department, but in that Department, you can bet the farm that this is the single biggest career-making opportunity since Watergate, and it’s on a level or three even beyond that. The internal pressure Garland’s going to be getting to prosecute? Right about now, the poor guy’s phone is buzzing off the hook, as every single prosecutor he employs and leads texts him begging for one of those juicy charges — just one — to take to court immediately. And institutional pressures like that aren’t easy to withstand, even for the most resolute bureaucrat.
Given all that, there’s a pretty good chance that Garland will prosecute the case. Because right about now, all those young prosecutors are making the same argument to him, too. Boss, you’re going to go down in history either way. Either as the man who indicted — or the one who didn’t. There’s no way out of going down in the history books now, boss — the only question is what you’ll be remembered for. And hey, look — let us take the heat. If it does’t work out, if we can’t make a strong enough case — well, we’ll take the fall. Come on, democracy needs this. It needs you to be that guy — and we’re here, ready to do the hard work, and even catch the heat. Strong argument, I’d say, and I’d bet the farm, too, that Garland’s getting about seventy different versions of that, in emails and text messages the size of textbooks, right this instant. Poor guy, LOL.
Now. Let’s imagine that Garland — despite all that — still doesn’t indict. He comes up with some tepid argument not to, which basically amounts to the Republican line of, “Hey! We’re all friends now, aren’t we? Let’s just forget the time our side spilled blood on the hallowed steps of Congress. You wouldn’t want to make us mad, would you? Let’s let bygones be bygones!!” Weak, but possible — he could go that route. Would that make all this…forgettable?
Not even a little bit. Even if Garland doesn’t prosecute, this is still an historic moment. One of immense proportions. Why? Well, let me give you a bit of global context, and then we’ll come back to America.
Take a hard look at the world. What do you see? What you should see is a fanatical right wing wave sweeping it, a fascist one — and in its wake, corruption of a stunning kind. Here’s a simple example. In Britain, the Health Secretary who broke his own lockdown rules…while people’s grandparents were dying alone…in order to cheat on his wife…and have an affair with his assistant…got reward…with a job in…reality TV. Here’s another example from Old Blighty, which is currently doing a stellar job of living up to its name. The government set up — LOL, get this, literally — a “VIP Lane” for awarding contracts for Covid gear, like PPE and masks and so forth, in the days when the pandemic was at its height. The “VIP Lane” was more like a VIP room, and the government itself crowded in, awarding its buddies big, fat, huge contracts. And now? After all this time? A member of Britain’s House of Lords is finally being investigated for…raking in hundreds of millions of pounds…for defective equipment.
Imagine being the kind of person who supplies defective hospital equipment during a pandemic. No, wait, imagine being the kind of government who sets up a “VIP Lane” in which such things are obviously going to happen…and looks the other way. That scale of corruption? It’s banana-republic level. It’s the kind of stuff we see in failed states. And yet here it is, happening in Britain, precisely because the far-right government has driven Brits into a mania of xenophobia and hate — dirty Europeans!! Disgusting immigrants!! Britains for the Real Brits!! — which blinds the average person to their pocket being picked right behind their back. I mean…what do you even do when the Artful Dodger is your Prime Minister?
The world is in shocking state, politically speaking. Political scientists speak of “democratic backsliding,” which is an anodyne phrase, that doesn’t really help explain to people how much trouble it’s actually in. But from fascism to corruption, it’s in utterly dire shape. If Britain’s government picking its own people’s pockets…while they descend into Neo-Victorian poverty — no kidding, here’s what a 97 year old lady who couldn’t get an ambulance looks like — if all that isn’t enough…the consider the fact that Italy and Sweden just elected fascists.
Oh sorry, they claim not to be fascists. Which just makes it worse, because it tells us people there not just believe the Big Lies — they do so with a certain degree of knowing culpability and willful complicity. Have you ever heard of such a thing of a “not fascist” party that scapegoats everyone from gays to women to minorities for the woes of the pure and true? I mean, that’s pretty textbook fascist.
The world we live in is in this kind of shape, politically. Even Europe’s mature social democracies are turning to fascism in despair and rage. Meanwhile, in Britain, a populace driven blind and deaf by neglect and impoverishment, mad with xenophobic manias — it doesn’t even notice why it’s getting poorer, which is that its entire government is basically the Artful Dodger’s crew of pickpockets having a ball while they’re busy screaming vitriol at…some poor French dude…some innocent Italian lady…a refugee who crossed the Channel on a leaky life raft. Yeah, guys, they’re the problem, not your very own government, nope, hey, better not look back there, that’s totally not your pocket being picked, it’s just a friendly hug.
The world we live in is in this kind of dire shape — democracy isn’t just “backsliding,” it’s being assassinated, its pocket is being picked, thugs are violently assaulting, maniacs are out there screaming lies about it and insults at it, whopping up frenzies against it…and the average person, well, they’ve got mixed emotions about all this, as if saying yes, ma’am respectfully to pickpockets and shaking hands enthusiastically with fascists was a good thing.
It’s in that dire context of dark, painful stupidity, willful complicity, eye-winking pleas of ignorance, “VIP lanes,” gentle Sweden cheering for neo-Nazis, Italians saying hey, maybe Mussolini wasn’t such a bad guy, the French, who invented existentialism and modernism and impressionism…their latest Grand Philosophical Theory of Art and Life…being, humiliatingly enough, LOL…“The Great Replacement” of the Master Race. It’s not exactly the stuff of Camus and Sartre, is it? In this world? Of democracy being ripped apart and stolen and battered and bruised?
Referring an American President for criminal charges, some of the gravest there are, matters. It says a whole lot of things. It says to the world: “Look. Our democracy is working. We had a bad period — but we made it through. And the way we made it through is like this. Democratic institutions, doing their jobs, even if that work is slow, painstaking, difficult, exacting, even if corners can’t be cut. That work must be done, because that is how democracy prevails. We did it, and we’re still trying to do even more of. it — and you can do it, too.”
America just raised the bar for the world. And the world, make no mistake, is watching and learning. It’s already a little bit in shock, of America’s comeback under Biden — see how Macron is desperately scrambling to lead Europe to catch up with Bidenomics economically. That’s America beginning to lead the world economically again. This is a form of political leadership. America’s saying to the world: we’re getting our house in order. What about the rest of you? We’re not just going to sit by and let our democracy die, at the hands of lunatics, fanatics, crooks, criminals. You guys? Over there in Britain? Not doing so well, are you? How about you guys, in Sweden and Italy? How’s that whole rise of the European fascist right thing going? In America, we’re teaching these guys a lesson, a big one, the biggest one — we’re taking it on from bottom to top. We took on the bottom of this movement first, charging nearly a thousand people, and yes, even that took too long.
But the top? We’re not afraid to go there. We’re not afraid to go after a former President. Nobody’s above the law in our society, because it’s a democracy. Hey, how about you, Britain? What’s the deal, anyways — you’re seriously going to break international law and you think we won’t care? What about you guys, in Italy and Sweden and wherever else? After this dalliance with fascism ends badly — as it inevitably will — are you going to be able to go after those at the very top? Look at us. Learn from us. It happened to us first. The fascist wave hit us first and hardest. Don’t make our mistakes. And yet even though we’ve made mistakes, here our democracy is, prevailing. One difficult step at at time.
That is an incredibly vital thing in a world in as bad a shape as ours. A world needs a leader that’s willing to stand up for democracy, precisely in ways like this. Difficult ones, unsure ones, because that is what democracy’s about. It’s not about knowing. It’s not about just throwing a former President in jail just because. They do that in failed states. In true democracies, the hard work of following the book of due process and proving it all to a jury and a judge happens. Even if it takes time and effort, and the scales of justice are both slow and painful to balance. To say to a world like ours — democracy still matters, so much that we’ll take on a former President, even if it might not go all the way, because this is what we believe in, have faith in, democracy itself — is a stunningly beautiful, brave, and noble thing.
I wonder if Merrick Garland sees all that. I really do. You see, I have no doubt that he’s a good guy, in the small — and I don’t mean that in an insulting way at all — sense of the word. That he went into justice because, well, he wants to see justice done. And hence, he’s painstaking and methodical and all the rest of the traits so often attributed to him. Still, I wonder if he sees not just that justice should be done, for America, but that the world needs justice to be done, for the sake of democracy, all around it. I wonder if he’s thinking along those lines at all.
If he’s not, he should be. Because prosecuting Trump doesn’t just matter to America. It is the ultimate way, in the end, of proving that America’s back. Remember, for all its mistakes, all its flaws — America comes through when it matters. Yes, Nixon did go down for Watergate. Yes, there was a price to be paid for scandals like Bush’s incompetence or Reagan’s secret wars, even if that price came late.
The world needs that, my friends. It needs a beacon of democracy, because right about now, the lights are going out. One by one. Britain. Sweden. Italy. Who’s next? France? Germany? Where does it end? Who do nations look to, in this desperate and baffling age, for leadership, for a model to follow, for a path to walk? They used to look to America, once. And maybe they will again. This world? It needs a leader. Biden’s given it one, economically. Merrick Garland is about to decide if it’ll have one politically, again.
Will America lead the democratic world again? Will it give the world a reason to believe in democracy again? Those are the stakes of Garland’s choice. It’s not just about Trump spending the rest of his life behind bars — his mind is such a dank prison anyways, it’d hardly register. It’s about everything — and everyone — else. Having a reason to believe in the great, timeless, and noble project of democracy again — instead of, as it’s doing right about now, giving up on it, in despair, fury, madness, and out of sheer stubborn I’ll-burn-it-all-down self-destruction. Let’s hope he chooses wisely, my friends, because this decision? It’s going to define not just whether America remains a democracy — but whether the world believes passionately, wholeheartedly, in its difficult, often thankless, yet eternal work again.