Remember the "deep state"? That hidden cabal of government bureaucrats who were supposedly interfering with the Trump administration's agenda? President Donald Trump spent four weird years scapegoating these mythologically nameless mandarins for his inability to deliver on core campaign promises, such as exiting the war in Afghanistan. Because in those days, when Trump could plausibly claim to be a legitimate government authority, he loudly denounced those who stood in his way as anti-democratic.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Trump is out of power. His political prospects are clouded by four criminal indictments. And so Trump's rhetorical attacks — mindlessly echoed by the partisans who stand beside him and the lawyers who cash his checks — have shifted.
Trump's new object of hatred is the surface state — the state itself. The attack on the surface state began, of course, on January 6, when a violent mob, assembled and encouraged by Trump, descended on the Capitol to overturn a presidential election. When they weren't able to achieve that objective, they attacked every part of the government that they could lay their hands on. They trashed the floor of Congress. They punched and clawed at uniformed police officers.
Today, Trump's attacks on the surface state are accelerating. He's going after prosecutors, judges, grand juries, and state officials — anyone who suggests that normal due process move forward to determine his criminal responsibility for any of the above. He's called Special Counsel Jack Smith a "thug" and a "terrorist," while referring to Smith's wife as a "Trump Hater." Trump has also posted attacks and false allegations about Fanni Wills, the Fulton County district attorney. Since these attacks, she has reported receiving racist threats by email and phone.
Let's set aside for a moment the strength of the evidence showing that Trump committed three sets of crimes — the January 6 plot, absconding with classified documents to Mar-a-Lago, and the arm-twisting phone call to Georgia. Even if we chose to overlook these past actions, Trump's behavior now goes far beyond that of a typical defendant who believes that he has been wrongly accused and is seizing every procedural advantage to try to clear his name. Instead, he's making a desperate bid to escape accountability by undermining the legitimacy of the very institutions seeking to hold him to account. When Trump posted on Truth Social "if you go after me, I'm coming after you," there should be no doubt what the 'you' refers to: the federal, state, and local governments of the United States.
Maybe Trump has forgotten that less than three years ago, he was head of the surface state. He himself was the person in charge of the Department of Justice, which is prosecuting two of the four cases against him. He got to pick two attorneys general, three Supreme Court justices, and 231 federal judges, including the one now overseeing the Mar-a-Lago documents case. It was Trump's official portrait hanging on the wall of DOJ headquarters at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. So if the DOJ really is a cesspool of politically motivated hacks, why did Trump twiddle his thumbs for four years instead of cleaning house? Why didn't he declassify the secret documents that he took with him to Mar-a-Lago? Why didn't he accept the advice of his hand-picked White House counsel and attorney general that he'd lost the election, instead of finding an even more power-crazed and sycophantic gang of attorneys who would tell him otherwise?
These aren't hard questions. The record shows that Trump will say and do anything to feed his appetite for absolute power. The words that he says in public shouldn't really be understood as factual claims that, strung together, form coherent arguments. They're something closer to a special genre of music, intended for the 35% of Americans who long ago stopped caring if the lyrics made any sense.
But something has indeed changed. It's one thing to whip up partisan paranoia about the leadership and intentions of the CIA, FBI, and NSA — many of whom were indeed Trump's antagonists, particularly after he called them "gestapo." Any thinking person should harbor some suspicion of these agencies, which operate according to secret rules and minimal public oversight. It's another thing entirely to undermine America's faith in the justice system itself — the power of individual states, like Georgia and New York, to investigate violations of their own laws, written by elected officials, and then bring potential wrongdoers to justice. This is exactly what Trump is trying to do when he calls the US a "banana republic" with a justice system comparable to the "third world."
Even defendants who, like Trump, attempt to sabotage the integrity of the justice system are entitled to the same due process and protections under US law. That's not a weakness of our system; it's a strength. Of course, the courts may find that Trump is not guilty. If that happens, his opponents should not do as Trump did with Hillary Clinton, who was never indicted. They should not cheer their surrogates on as they whip up angry supporters with chants of "lock him up."
Trump ultimately wants more than four acquittals; he wants two paths to winning an election. There's the normal path, winning the most electoral votes. Then there's the Trump-only path, refusing to take the loss and then illegally subverting the result. And if Trump chooses the "illegally subvert" path and fails to succeed, he doesn't want any courts to be empowered to investigate or punish the wrongdoers who enabled his attempt. Instead, he wants the unimpeded ability to do it all over again. If he succeeds, the result would be a political system where the minority can violently challenge the elected government over and over again, with no consequences, until they succeed, and then use the pardon power to print stacks of get-out-of-jail-free cards.
The sheer audacity here is absurd. It goes way beyond "working the refs." It's more like hiring an electrician to covertly rewire the scoreboard, then taking a bazooka to the scoreboard when that effort fails, and then insisting, against mountains of evidence, that no one knows what the score actually was, so the game has to be played again and again until the losing team wins.
The arguments being made by Trump's camp today are so stupid and so cynical that they can seem to diminish anyone who takes them seriously, let alone those who are making them. But they must be addressed, because Trump is not the only one making them with a straight face. These last few days, a state court in Georgia heard Mark Meadows insist that pressuring the Georgia secretary of state to find non-existent Trump votes was part of his official duties as the White House chief of staff. And a national audience saw seven GOP primary candidates raise their hands to indicate they'd support Trump's presidential bid, even if he were convicted of a felony.
It's way past time to draw some red lines. One place to start is the eight Republican senators who voted against certifying the 2020 electoral votes, even after the armed mob attacked the Capitol: Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tommy Tuberville, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Roger Marshall, and John Kennedy. Two weeks after January 6, a group of senators filed an ethics complaint against Cruz and Hawley. Both didn't just vote against certification. They helped whip up the mob and fundraised off of Trump's baseless challenge. We've heard nothing from the Senate Ethics Committee since that complaint was filed. A spokesperson for the committee didn't immediately reply to an email asking if the matter was ongoing.
If the Senate is too spineless to draw those red lines, others will have to step up. It's reasonable for the GOP to say that Trump deserves the presumption of innocence, and that the courts will acquit him. But to suggest that it doesn't matter if he's guilty because the judicial deck is stacked is not reasonable. It's dangerous. The names of those who say that should be remembered in infamy. Of course this didn't happen with those who boosted the Iraq war, or with those who backed Trump the first time. But maybe it could happen now.
To stand with Trump as he openly attacks the justice system isn't only crazy and desperate, it's also arguably short-sighted, a reflex by loyalist hacks who can't see that there is no longer much of a political upside. Trump is old. He will not be the dominant GOP figure forever; there is no reason that those who continue to echo his cynical blather at this late date should be taken seriously again. They should leave politics. They should be shunned by the normal Beltway retirement communities—the think tanks, the lobbying groups, and the cable news shows. Serious people should refuse to meet with them. The lawyers among them should be disbarred. They should try their hands at some honorable work instead of lying for a living. They should get jobs at Trader Joe's.
Mattathias Schwartz is chief national security correspondent at Insider.
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