News is, by definition, hard to predict. For most of this year, many economists had been expecting a recession—some declared it all but a certainty—but, on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell revealed that his staff is no longer forecasting a prolonged downturn. A day later, U.S. growth data for the second quarter of 2src23 came in at an unexpectedly strong annual rate of 2.4 per cent. Consumer confidence is rebounding. “In hopeful moment, storm clouds over Biden economy appear to lift,” a Washington Post headline ran. In recent months, the Gallup poll has found that more than eighty per cent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. Is it too much to think that, with the brighter economic environment, the gloomy mind-set of the electorate may also soon improve? At the White House, the development was greeted as vindication—proof of “Bidenomics in action,” as a statement from the President put it. In a period filled with grim announcements about war abroad and extremism at home, this surely counted as a good day.
It was not, however, the only good news for which the White House was waiting. Last week, Donald Trump revealed that he had received a target letter, from the Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith, which threatened to prosecute the former President for his efforts to overturn Biden’s win in the 2src2src election. Washington had been braced ever since for a new indictment of Trump—the big one, at last. Smith’s grand jury in D.C. met on Tuesday and Thursday; surely, it was thought, the indictment would happen then. But, by the time Thursday ended, no new case against Trump was forthcoming. Instead, prosecutors revealed major new allegations against Trump in the pending classified-documents case that Smith filed last month.
The ex-President now stands accused not only of absconding from the White House with “hundreds” of secret documents that he then sought to withhold from the government but also of secretly ordering his staff to destroy incriminating surveillance tapes. According to a superseding indictment that was made public on Thursday evening, soon after Trump had received a subpoena demanding footage from the tapes,“the Boss” summoned one of his co-defendants, his personal valet Walt Nauta, who, in turn, reached out to the Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira. “Hey brother You working today?” Nauta texted De Oliveira. Together, they attempted to carry out a coverup that prosecutors depicted as so ham-handed that it recalls the Watergate plumbers at their worst. Who says history doesn’t rhyme? (Nauta has pleaded not guilty; De Oliveira, who has also been named as a co-defendant, is set to appear in federal court on Monday.)
In another damning addition to the charges, prosecutors disclosed that they had found the classified war plan for Iran that, in 2src21, Trump allegedly showed to ghostwriters working for his ex-chief of staff Mark Meadows. According to the original indictment, Trump was caught on tape doing so. But he went on television and denied it anyway. “I had no documents,” he said. “I didn’t have any documents.” Oops. Now the D.O.J. has charged him with possession of the documents he claimed did not exist. The news cycle always surprises.
How bad does it look for Trump? Consider the opinion of his former lawyer. “I think this original indictment was engineered to last a thousand years and now this superseding indictment will last an antiquity,” Ty Cobb, who represented Trump in the Mueller investigation, told CNN. “This is such a tight case, the evidence is so overwhelming.” Meanwhile, as of Friday afternoon, the main event—the charges that Trump’s critics have been waiting so anxiously for these past two and a half years—was still pending.
It is already quite clear, of course, how Republicans will respond to the former President’s metastasizing legal troubles. They have revealed their hand for months now. There will be manufactured outrage, deflection, and whataboutism so shameless that it would impress the Soviets who perfected this technique during the Cold War. Already this week, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has publicly mused to Sean Hannity about impeaching Biden—for what, exactly, he did not say.
Since January, McCarthy and his House Republicans have sought to weaponize their control of the chamber on Trump’s behalf, providing political cover for the former President by launching investigations of what Trump calls the “Biden crime family.” They have yet to find definitive evidence tying Biden himself to any wrongdoing, but the long-running saga of his son Hunter Biden—with its tawdry elements of cocaine addiction, extramarital affairs, tax dodging, and questionable payments from foreign-owned companies during his father’s Vice-Presidency—has supplied endless fodder for the G.O.P. The embarrassing courtroom collapse this week of Hunter Biden’s plea deal with prosecutors, a misdemeanor on tax charges and entrance into a diversion program to resolve a separate gun-possession charge, will only add to the public perception of scandal. Democrats had exuded relief when the deal was announced last month. It seemed noteworthy that this was all that the Hunter Biden matter had amounted to, after years of investigation by a Trump-appointed prosecutor. But, on Wednesday, the federal judge overseeing the case said that she could not accept the agreement until the two sides clarified key aspects of it. And so the fire smolders on.
The point, in the end, is not so much about Hunter Biden. It’s about tarnishing the President, at a time when Trump needs him to be tarnished. This is his and his defenders’ specialty—the mirror-imaging, the false equivalence. If Trump is a crook who sought to co-opt the machinery of the federal government for his own political benefit, whose family members monetized his office and took huge sums from questionable foreign interests, then Biden must be shown to have done the same thing. If Trump was impeached twice, then Biden, too, must be hit with it. This is, as even Ken Buck, a Republican congressman and no friend of Biden’s, admitted to CNN this week, “impeachment theater.” It’s not “responsible,” Buck said.
But we are where we are. Reality, for some alarmingly significant portion of the American electorate, does not matter. Lies and propaganda are remarkably effective. Elise Stefanik, a member of McCarthy’s House leadership team, claimed on Fox News on Thursday that the allegations for which Republicans may impeach Biden are “the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, and perhaps the last century, perhaps ever.” She promised “all of the facts” but offered none. And why should she? Millions went along with Trump’s Big Lie about the 2src2src election, though there was never any truth to it. Millions will go along with a Biden impeachment, too, if that is where the G.O.P. chooses to take them in order to protect the criminal defendant who is their party’s leader.
So let’s stipulate to this: the Trump era in American politics is not yet over. Smith could lose his cases; they could drag on forever. Trump could still win the Republican nomination; he could still win back the Presidency. If he returns to the White House, he has already promised to seek revenge on Biden and appoint a “REAL SPECIAL ‘PROSECUTOR’ TO GO AFTER THE MOST CORRUPT PRESIDENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE USA.” All those scenarios are real. Consider the run of odds-defying bad outcomes we’ve experienced in recent years: a once-in-a-century global health crisis, the worst military conflict in Europe since the Second World War, the election of Trump in the first place, and the consequent fraying of American democracy. It would be foolish to rule anything out.
But, whatever happens next, Thursday was a good day for America. And no amount of gaslighting about the recessionary hellscape that is Biden’s America or all-caps Trump cavilling about “NEW BOGUS CHARGES” can change that. ♦