8 min read

Trump’s last move left

The political world steels itself as Trump predicts he will be indicted tomorrow.
Trump’s last move left
(Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Monday, March 20, 2023. The 2024 elections are 596 days away.

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Trump’s rhetoric darkens as possible indictment looms

Donald Trump claims that he is about to be arrested, and that it will happen on Tuesday.

Although there are signs to suggest the first half of that claim is true, there is no evidence to support the second half; in fact, the New York Times reports that a Tuesday arrest is unlikely and that Trump pulled the date more or less out of nowhere.

But whether on Tuesday or not, it is clear that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is closing in on Trump in a way that prosecutors never have in the many investigations that have plagued him since his 2015 escalator ride. Final witnesses are being interviewed. Law enforcement officials are making security preparations. Everyone else is bracing for impact.

Many of the fears hanging over the political world stem from the final sentence of the Truth Social post by Trump in which he predicted the indictment. “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” he demanded, a call to arms eerily similar to the one he issued to supporters in the weeks before the violent 2021 riot at the Capitol.

Trump’s call for protests sparked this question, posed by right-wing commentator David Reaboi, a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute:

This central question — is Trump’s political project now only about Trump? — has hung over the former president at least since 2020, when his re-election campaign dropped the “forgotten man” messaging of his 2016 bid and instead went all-in on messaging focused on the Trump Cinematic Universe. (It is easy to forget, but his 2016 campaign did include real foreign and domestic policy promises and a broader systemic critique of Washington.) As I wrote in November:

Instead of seeking to again channel the emotions of his supporters, Trump often used campaign rallies [in his re-election bid] to air personal grievances that he had built up over four years in office, railing against a hard-to-follow cast of characters in the media, Justice Department, and elsewhere. (See his 2019 acting-out of the romantic texts between two obscure FBI agents who had investigated him.)
Most symbolically, his second campaign for the presidency featured no policy platform whatsoever (the GOP merely declared its support of the 2016 platform and, above all, its loyalty to Trump); when Trump was pressed by dogged interviewer Sean Hannity to name the policies he would pursue in a second term, the then-president famously came up empty.

Trump, however, appears to have arrived at his version of an answer to Reaboi’s question. In response to such criticisms — why should Republicans rally to defend Trump from charges stemming from his alleged affair with a porn star? Why shouldn’t they just cut him loose and go on with their lives? — Trump has been slowly building a case to his base that any indictment should not be seen as a legal case against him, but rather as a government-funded assault on all 74 million of his supporters.

If 2016 was about his supporters’ grievances, and 2020 was about his own, in 2024, Trump now realizes he has to make his grievances his movement’s. He has been laying the groundwork do this for several weeks now, priming his base in preparation for a possible indictment. See, for example, his darkly apocalyptic CPAC speech earlier this month, when he told attendees:

In 2016, I declared, “I am your voice.” Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.

Trump’s allies doubled down on that messaging this weekend, as they pressured the Republican Party to fall in line behind the former president as his legal troubles worsen. “In reality, they’re not after me. They’re after you,” read a grim meme shared by Trump’s eldest son, along with a picture of his father’s face. “I’m just in the way.”

“This isn’t a prosecution,” the Trump campaign wrote on Twitter, “it’s a persecution.”

And here Trump himself is again on Truth Social, steaming in all-caps last night:


It’s the only move Trump has left, a familiar one out of his well-worn playbook: appeal to the base and attempt to depict his unique problems as theirs, in hopes that they will rally to his side — perhaps even violently — one final time.

Will Trump’s darkly populist messaging be enough to persuade a GOP weighed down from years of his scandals? So far, statements from several Republican officials — all of whom have defended Trump, many by using his same language of persecution — suggest that the gambit is working, the party is holding.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy:

Here we go again — an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA who lets violent criminals walk as he pursues political vengeance against President Trump.

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik:

This is the Far Left’s final desperate attempt to silence voters at the ballot box who support President Trump and the America First Movement.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan:

God Bless President Trump. Real America knows this is all a sham.

Even some of Trump’s 2024 rivals have come to his defense, including minor candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence, who was last seen declaring that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable” for January 6th.

Trump is closely watching the rest of the pack, calculating — somewhat incredibly — that they will be harmed in the Republican primary by not responding to his indictment more than he will be harmed by being indicted.

“We have yet to hear from Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott, and others,” a press release from Trump’s super PAC announced on Saturday. “History will judge their silence,” his campaign added somberly on Twitter.

As his most serious competitor, DeSantis is facing the loudest demands from Trump’s allies to weigh in against the potential indictment — despite the fact that Trump has spent the last few months lobbing nasty nicknames at the Florida governor, filing a legal complaint against him, and suggesting that he is a pedophile.

It is unclear which route DeSantis will opt to take: defending Trump like other top Republicans, or seizing the opportunity to claim some distance from him. While the early GOP responses have certainly been favorable to the ex-president — buying into his campaign to portray the indictment as a threat to all Republicans, not just to him — there is a lot of time for the political sands to shift, as the unprecedented nature of an indicted American president dawns.

Plus, other indictments could follow, from the Justice Department or from Georgia prosecutors. The electoral effect of any protests, should they materialize, would be unclear, especially since the January 6th attack was broadly unpopular with voters.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, are taking that part of Trump’s statement neither literally nor seriously, despite its very real reverberations on right-wing social media.

“I don’t think people should protest this, no,” Speaker McCarthy told reporters on Sunday. “And I think President Trump, if you talk to him, he doesn’t believe that either.” Trump, of course, has given every indication of the opposite.

  • Happening today: Before wrapping up its investigation, the Manhattan grand jury is expected to hear testimony from attorney Robert Costello, a critic of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who is the prosecution’s star witness in the case.
  • Background on the case: “Inside the Payoff to a Porn Star That Could Lead to Trump’s Indictment” New York Times
  • Background on the prosecutor: “The prosecutor, the ex-president and the ‘zombie’ case that came back to life” Washington Post

The Rundown.

— Chinese leader Xi Jinping has arrived in Russia for his first visit since the invasion of Ukraine began. Xi is poised to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, just days after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest while accusing him of war crimes.

— More than four decades later, as former President Jimmy Carter receives hospice care, a former Texas politician has revealed that he joined a top Republican in a mission to persuade Iran to continue keeping Americans hostage in order to sabotage Carter’s 1980 re-election bid.

— Today is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. According to an Axios/Ipsos poll, 61% of Americans now believe the invasion was a mistake.

— President Biden spoke on the phone with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, expressing his “concern” over Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of his country’s judicial system.


President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing, host a reception for Nowruz (the Persian New Year), and hold a private meeting with the cast of “Ted Lasso” to “discuss the importance of addressing your mental health to promote overall well-being.”

  • Fun fact: “Lasso” star Jason Sudeikis and Biden have a history: Sudeikis portrayed Biden on “SNL” during his vice presidency. So don’t be surprised if you see any social media posts from the meeting where Sudeikis slips into his impression.

The House and Senate are out today.

The Supreme Court will hear consolidated oral arguments in Arizona v. Navajo Nation and Department of Interior v. Navajo Nation, a “decades-old dispute between three western states, the federal government, and the Navajo Nation over water rights,” per SCOTUSBlog.

Before I go...

Here’s a story I enjoyed: “My neighbor found Lincoln’s hair in his basement. I found a mystery,” by Matt Bai in the Washington Post.

One excerpt I appreciated:

I suppose someone who lived in a normal city, maybe Akron or Omaha, would have nervously laughed off [discovery of the artifact] and started talking to someone else. But in Washington, where we practice what Abraham Lincoln called our “political religion,” we cling to creepy totems, proof that the Founding Fathers and their celebrated successors once walked among the living.

Related book recommendation: “Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America” by Andrew Ferguson, which includes tons of great stories about Lincoln in the modern U.S. — including a dive into the world of Lincoln collectors, where hair (and other bodily artifacts) are prized above all else. (Interestingly, as Bai notes, the fascination with such collections seem to have mostly fizzled out in the digital era. “With all the oddity and grossness at our fingertips,” he writes, “on YouTube or Facebook or in aggregated clickbait, the Barnumesque collections of another era have been packed up and stowed away.”)

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe