How to talk about the Trump indictment

Posted on April 5, 2023

It’s not the indictment that’s unprecedented, it’s the criminality. We’ve never before had a president like Trump—he’s a one-man crime wave.

First, let us consider who we’re trying to persuade. The great majority of MAGA leaders and voters will stick with Trump no matter what. Remember, it was Trump himself who said “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” He is almost right.

What Trump gets wrong is that there’s a slice of conservative-leaning voters who won’t swallow the very worst candidates, like Herschel Walker, Sarah Palin, Doug Mastriano, Mehmet Oz and Kari Lake, all losers in 2022. Some conservatives (mostly college-educated) respond to a horrible GOP candidate by voting for the Democrat, while others simply won’t vote.

It is persuadable conservatives and independents who are your audience. While they represent a fairly small percentage of the electorate, they’re enough to turn 2024 from a near-even struggle into a rout, where MAGA candidates lose up and down the ballot.

So, with your language, focus on persuadables and speak of American ideals.

America was founded on the principle that no one is above the law. No kings, no lords, no wealthy aristocracy should be able to commit crimes and get away with it. Look above the door at the Supreme Court, it says that America stands for “equal justice under law.”

If Trump is innocent, the high-priced lawyers surrounding him will get him acquitted. If Trump is guilty, he must be convicted like anyone else. That’s justice; that’s what America is all about.

MAGA argument: The prosecution is political!

Say, in reply:

There’s politics involved, but not the way you suggest. Because of politics, especially because Trump was the president, everything was delayed and the indictment came only after an extended period of evidence-gathering. If it was anyone other than Trump, he would have been prosecuted years ago.

MAGA argument: It is unprecedented and even dangerous to prosecute elected officials or former officials!

Say, in reply:

The only thing unprecedented here is Trump’s criminality. Nixon would have been prosecuted if he hadn’t received a comprehensive pardon from Gerald Ford. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was prosecuted. Vice President Aaron Burr was indicted for murder after he shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Senator John Edwards, who was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2004, went on trial for nearly the same thing Trump did—violating campaign finance law by paying hush money to his mistress. And many Senators, Representatives and Governors have been prosecuted and jailed. Remember former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich? He was in prison for eight years before Trump commuted his sentence and freed him.

It is neither dangerous nor unusual to prosecute elected officials. What is dangerous is failing or refusing to prosecute. That emboldens criminals to commit future crimes.

MAGA argument: The crime is highly technical!

Say, in reply:

Let us be clear. For years, Trump has freely admitted that he reimbursed his lawyer Michael Cohen $130,000 for paying porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep quiet. Cohen pled guilty and was sentenced to prison for paying that hush money. Do you seriously believe that Trump didn’t have an affair with the porn star? That he didn’t participate in the coverup? This is the least technical prosecution imaginable—Trump is charged with the same offense for which his lawyer already went to jail. (For more about the details of the charges, see this NYT column.)

MAGA argument: Americans oppose this indictment!

Say, in reply:

According to an April 3 CNN poll, 60 percent of Americans “approve of the decision to indict Trump” and 40 percent disapprove. It is true that most Republicans oppose the indictment, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? MAGA leaders don’t care about the facts of the case.