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Unwanted Gift

Democrats Are Letting a Perfectly Good Indictment Go to Waste

The party is sitting on its hands instead of pressing the case that the Republican Party’s leader is a brazen criminal.

Donald Trump at CPAC in March

The 37 criminal counts unsealed last week against Donald Trump relating to his handling of sensitive classified records are a gift to his 2024 GOP rivals, presenting him as reckless, incompetent, and utterly unfit for office. While his motives for holding onto these records remain unclear, if the allegations are true (and they very much seem to be), he imperiled national security—and broke the law repeatedly and knowingly by showing them to and discussing them with people without the proper clearance. The existence of the indictment itself—and, presumably, the subsequent trial—will cast a long shadow of scandal over the most scandal-plagued figure in recent American political history. This, too, is an argument against Trump’s nomination.

That nearly all of Trump’s Republican rivals—and, for that matter, many in the GOP who do not wish him to be their party’s nominee—have decided to not only ignore this gift but leap to his defense is not surprising. For the last eight years, most Republicans have lived in fear of Trump, refusing to criticize him even when they find his conduct abhorrent and self-defeating. Trump’s criminality and his brazen disregard for norms, moreover, is a key part of his appeal to millions of Republican voters. Equally terrified of alienating a sizable portion of their base and of Trump unleashing a barrage of insults aimed at them, most of Trump’s rivals have taken the path of least resistance: vociferously defending him.

What is more surprising is that Democrats aren’t pressing the case against Trump more. On Saturday, Axios reported that “the Democratic National Committee has advised some Democratic members of Congress appearing on television this week to not comment on the indictment as the legal process plays out,” a process that will likely run into the general election campaign, if not even longer. This is stupid and self-defeating—it’s also a huge wasted opportunity.

President Joe Biden not commenting on the pending arrest of the leading Republican candidate for president is not shocking. Any comment from the president—the man, it almost goes without saying, who oversees the Department of Justice—could seem like political meddling in a legal matter. (Never mind that Trump has never paid attention to such niceties as a political candidate or president.) Biden’s only comment, stressing his lack of involvement in the matter, is sensible, reasonable, and hardly controversial: It’s both good politics and the correct course of action.

Members of Congress, however, should have no such concerns. And yet Democratic leaders responded by immediately laying down their swords. “This indictment must now play out through the legal process, without any outside political or ideological interference,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a joint statement. “We encourage Mr. Trump’s supporters and critics alike to let this case proceed peacefully in court.”

Schumer, Jeffries, and their congressional colleagues have no power over the investigation that led to Trump’s indictment and will have no influence over the ensuing trial. And by bending over backward to stay out of the investigation, they are addressing it on Trump’s own terms. They should attack Trump and his Republican defenders relentlessly, driving the point home that the GOP is a lawless party in the thrall of a reckless and incompetent aspiring autocrat.

Democrats are worried about politicizing the investigation. But such an investigation would be inherently political even under the best circumstances given that it involves a once-and-would-be-future president and declared 2024 candidate. And these are hardly optimal conditions: Trump and his defenders are relentlessly politicizing it, essentially arguing that it’s a partisan witch hunt being conducted by a lawless administration that wants to prosecute its political rivals. (To the extent that he actually believes his own nonsense, Trump may well be jealous.) So Democrats should do what Trump’s Republican opponents aren’t: connect the dots by making a larger argument that Trump is unfit for office.

They can also use the unfolding scandal, as my former colleague Brian Beutler argued in his newsletter recently, to drive a wedge between Trump and some of his mushier defenders. Democratic leaders, Beutler wrote, “can note that Trump’s defenders have sided against the country with someone who tried to destroy it.... They can note that the other Republicans in the field were all too happy to cape for Trump, knowing he was a criminal, until the moment they decided to run for president.”

The charges against Trump are both serious and not complicated, something that was not especially true for his first impeachment or for the case he is facing in New York relating to hush-money payments made during the 2016 election. In this case, Trump blatantly and wantonly mishandled extremely sensitive documents involving U.S. national security; he blithely discussed them with people who did not have the proper clearance; he kept them in unsecured places in a private club that has been of extreme interest to foreign intelligence groups for years. All of this imperiled American national security. If anyone else had done this, they would have been prosecuted.

It’s the clearest example yet of Trump believing himself above the law. It’s also a clear example of the Republican Party aiding his lawlessness—and of the GOP’s own growing authoritarianism. Trump believes that he should play by different rules, and most of the Republican Party agrees. That’s a strong argument against Trump being president. It may not work in Republican primaries, but it will undoubtedly get traction in the general election. And there’s no better time to start making it than the present.