The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s very bad week leaves him teetering on the brink of disaster

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House ion June 25, 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Donald Trump just had a very bad week.

Five members of the Oath Keepers were convicted for serious felonies relating to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that the former president instigated. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that his former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows must testify in Georgia’s criminal investigation into his attempt to overturn the state’s results. And a federal judge denied Trump’s claim that he has absolute immunity from civil suits.

And that’s just the court-related developments. More Republicans have turned on him for dining with a Holocaust denier. Congress also made progress to fund the government — including the Justice Department — through September, potentially taking away a tool that Republicans could have used to blunt Trump’s legal woes.

The convictions against the Oath Keeper members should be particularly troubling for Trump. Two members, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, were found guilty of seditious conspiracy. The other three were not found guilty of seditious conspiracy, but all five were found guilty of obstructing a congressional proceeding and aiding and abetting. Rhodes faces up to 60 years in prison, unless he cuts a deal with prosecutors.

Each of these charges could be applied to Trump should he be indicted for his role in triggering the violence on Jan. 6, although the facts would differ for a seditious conspiracy case against him. Still, as Norman Eisen, who served as co-counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment, puts it, “Now we know D.C. jurors can be receptive to that count.” He adds, “Perhaps a more likely charge against the former president is obstruction of Congress, and here again, DOJ can only be emboldened by its success on those counts in the Oath Keepers case.”

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Attorney General Merrick Garland took a well-earned victory lap on Tuesday. “Today the jury returned a verdict convicting all defendants of criminal conduct, including two Oath Keepers leaders for seditious conspiracy against the United States,” Garland said in a written statement. “The Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on January 6, 2021.” That could include characters in Trump’s inner circle with whom Rhodes was in communication with, such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.

The convictions raise the Justice Department’s incentive to indict Trump for a number of reasons. First, the verdict should breed confidence in the Justice Department that juries will convict of serious crimes arising from the coup plot. It also effectively confirms that the violent assault on the Capitol to stop the transfer of power meets the definition of “sedition” and that seeking to disrupt the electoral voting counting amounts to an obstruction of an official proceeding. Second, failing to hold Trump accountable would appear contrary to the principle of “equal justice” for all people regardless of their position of power. Finally, these verdicts make convictions in cases against others who participated in the insurrection more likely, increasing the number of potential cooperating witnesses.

Moreover, constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe tells me, “The jury’s obviously painstaking care in returning verdicts of guilty on some but not all of the charges against Rhodes’s co-conspirators undermines any claim that it was what some might call a ‘hanging’ jury, one prepared to convict unthinkingly, and thus adds credibility to similarly structured indictments against those who orchestrated or instigated the plot.” Tribe adds that the convictions “shores up the charge that Jan. 6 was an insurrection against the United States Government and not just a riot that got out of hand.”

Trump’s precarious position in a possible state criminal case in Georgia also worsened. The South Carolina Supreme Court, in ordering Meadows to testify, found his effort to avoid a grand jury “manifestly without merit.” Meadows might choose to take the Fifth Amendment regarding Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Georgia election officials, but the risk that Meadows provides evidence against Trump is considerable.

To top it all off, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan held that Trump has no absolute immunity in a civil case brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a Michigan voting rights group alleging he attempted to disenfranchise voters. Sullivan wrote in his ruling: “President Trump continues to spread false claims about the 2022 elections and continues to attempt to pressure officials into nullifying the election results: Plaintiffs extensively allege the efforts of Former President Trump and his allies as recently as March 2022 to get state officials to overturn the election results; to endorse and provide financial support to candidates for office who supported his false claims of election fraud; all while fundraising for the 2024 Presidential Election.”

Such a holding may prove disastrous for Trump — not only in this case but in several civil suits brought against him.

Worse for Trump is that the Justice Department does not seem to have lost a step in its investigations into him following the appointment of special counsel Jack Smith. In fact, Smith’s lawyers seem to have scored a knock-out blow in the 11th Circuit, where Trump is seeking to throw out the entire suit regarding the highly classified materials he hoarded at his Mar-A-Lago club.

The undivided loyalty that Trump enjoyed from his party also seems to have frayed, at best. Everyone from former vice president Mike Pence to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is turning on him. Can he really expect them to go out on a limb if he’s indicted for serious crimes?

If that happens, the transformation of Trump from a cult leader to a criminal defendant would be profound. For once, he might actually face serious consequences for his conduct.

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