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The document charges show how Trump has hijacked the GOP

The GOP can’t help itself

Noah Berlatsky
Friday 28 July 2023 17:15 BST
Trump Classified Documents
Trump Classified Documents (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Former president Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican party. It is now his personal cash machine and propaganda network. In its spare time, the GOP still pushes for ultra conservative policies, and it still tries to win elections. But whenever Trump decides to commit a crime, no matter how flagrant, gratuitous, or divorced from advancing Republican goals, the GOP drops everything to debase itself in the name of licking his boots.

We watched this dynamic unfold again Thursday night, when special prosecutor Jack Smith added charges to the indictment against former Trump. The original indictment alleged that Trump had illegally taken classified documents from the White House and stored them (in the bathroom, among other locations) at his Florida resort property of Mar-A-Lago. The updated indictment added charges that Trump had allegedly tried to erase security footage subpoenaed by the grand jury.

Trump not only took classified documents; he repeatedly refused to turn them over to authorities, and even hid them from his own lawyers when pressed. His motivation for doing all of this is still uncertain, but it seems he took the documents in part simply because he felt like it, and because they made him feel important. In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Trump insisted (falsely) that he had the right to “take stuff” from the White House.

Smith’s indictment says that Trump showed classified documents to cronies at the club—a writer, a publisher, staff members, someone working for his political action committee—even mentioning that the documents were important and secret and that his interlocutors should not look at them too closely.

It’s notable that Trump’s excuses and motivations all center on his own prestige, interests, and rights. He doesn’t even try to make a partisan argument. Republicans do not have a policy interest in allowing presidents to retain classified documents. Nor did taking the documents help Republicans electorally.

When Trump went on national television to ask China to investigate Joe Biden and interfere in US elections, the GOP could perhaps convince themselves that he was working for them as well as for himself, since they, like him, wanted Biden to lose the election. But in the documents case, there’s barely a pretext for Republicans to shed their morals and dignity. Trump hasn’t even pretended that he took the documents for any reason other than self-aggrandizement. Why should the GOP defend him?

The answer is that the GOP shouldn’t defend him. But it can’t help itself.

Defending Trump was a central tenet of Republican identity for years, and much of the party’s base still empathizes strongly with the former president. When Trump was indicted over the documents charges the first time in June, his campaign raised $6.6 million in a week. He started to pull away from the Republican field in March, just after his indictment for hush money payments in the 2016 election.

Trump himself is masterful at fanning the flames of grievance among his followers while issuing veiled threats to his peers and rivals. After the latest indictment, he scurried to Fox to tell them that the DOJ was “harassing my family” and that he was only being targeted because he was so far ahead of Biden in general election polls (recent polls are in fact mixed). He also said, in a clear message to any doubters or laggards in the GOP, “Hopefully the Republican Party will do something about it.”

GOP leaders either share the rank and file’s Trump love, or are afraid to defy it. In either case, they have mostly fallen in line. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has echoed Trump’s talking points, insisting that the former president is being persecuted because of his poll numbers, rather than because he walked off with classified documents. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan has taken steps to try to interfere with the DOJ investigation.

Even Trump’s rivals in the GOP primary have been reluctant to challenge him; when asked whether Trump’s indictments are disqualifying, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, in second place behind Trump in polls, half-heartedly replied that it’s up to voters to decide.

DeSantis knows that it’s not in his interest to help Trump steal classified documents so he can impress random Mar-A-Lago guests. Presumably others in the GOP also have some worries. Is Trump really the best general election candidate? His approval numbers are dismal; he’s currently almost 20 points underwater according to 538’s poll aggregator. Are those numbers going to get better following months of headlines about multiple criminal trials? At the least, it seems like a big risk which you could easily avoid by just nominating someone else.

But Trump owns the GOP, and there seems little the party can do about it. It has embraced Trumpian election lies; the majority of Republicans claim Trump won the 2020 election, despite no evidence of election interference. The GOP is less and less a democratic party, and more and more an authoritarian cult dedicated to the principle that the only votes that count are votes for Trump. Whatever Trump does, is right. Whoever opposes Trump must be destroyed. And if Trump decides that taking classified documents and storing them in the bathroom is what he wants to do—well, then many in the GOP will treat storing classified documents in the bathroom as a sacrament to be defended to the death.

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