The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If the Mar-a-Lago case collapses? Disaster dodged, America.

Documents seized during the Aug. 8 search by the FBI of former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. (Department of Justice via AP)

The discovery of classified government documents in President Biden’s Wilmington, Del., garage should spell the end of any realistic prospect of criminal charges against former president Donald Trump over his Mar-a-Lago portfolio of pilferage.

For the millions of Americans with a deep-down feeling that Trump is guilty of many things and that the heavens cry out for some justice, somewhere, sometime — who have cheered the pursuit from Russia-gate through the porn-star hush money, the rape allegation, the Ukrainian phone call, the second impeachment, the trial of Allen Weisselberg, the corporate and personal tax returns, and the attempts to steal an election — for all those legions who thought finally, Trump was caught dead to rights, this may be a tough pill to swallow.

Illegal possession of classified documents and repeated attempts to avoid surrendering them to the proper authorities constituted a case that bordered on open-and-shut. Trump’s defense — that as president he could declassify material simply by entertaining the notion — was obviously unsustainable. By that logic, a future president could lawfully cart away all the secrets of the U.S. government in a convoy of tractor trailers.

But now that case will probably not be brought, no matter how many side-by-side charts are created to distinguish between the known allegations against Trump and the (so far unknown) culpability of Biden. According to the latest Gallup data, 45 percent of Americans identify as Republicans or leaning toward the Republicans; 44 percent are Democrats or lean in that direction. The Justice Department serves them all, and its credibility rests on being perceived to play fair.

Marc A. Thiessen: If Trump’s classified document mishandling was ‘irresponsible,’ so is Biden’s

Attorney General Merrick Garland clearly appreciates the predicament. When, six years after Biden left the vice presidency, a classified cache was found near his vintage Corvette, Garland swiftly appointed a special counsel to balance the one already investigating Trump. Don’t be surprised to see the two cases move in exquisite lockstep from now on — “a pumpkin in each end of [Garland’s] bag,” as President Abraham Lincoln might have put it.

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Before continuing, let me be clear: I believe Trump is a bad person of low character, selfish and dishonest, intellectually lazy, childish and shameless, and that his presidency has been a terrible thing for the country I love. For this reason, I’m relieved by the likely collapse of the classified documents case against him. Because it was the strongest case against Trump, in terms of trial strategy, it was the most likely to produce an indictment — and indicting Trump is a terrible idea for those who genuinely hope to be rid of him.

Politically, Trump is a dead man walking. He has lost the ability to drive the news cycle. His outlandish social media posts fall as silently as unheard forest trees. His declaration of his next campaign produced a yawn worthy of another run by Ralph Nader. As drum major of a wackadoodle parade, he marched through the Republican primaries last year, delivering candidates who bombed in the general election. Now no one marches to his tune. When he tried to influence the election of a House speaker, even the surviving zealots ignored his instructions.

Lord Voldemort, near death, fed on the blood of unicorns to make his way back to power. If Trump is to come back from his self-made political disaster, he must have publicity to sustain him. Attention is his lifeblood — good or bad makes no difference to him. As Alice Roosevelt said of her father, Theodore, Trump must be “the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening” — but unlike Roosevelt, Trump doesn’t care whether he deserves center stage.

The Post's View: Why Biden’s document case is different than Trump’s

To be indicted and hauled into court for history’s most heavily publicized trial would invigorate Trump, and the spectacle would galvanize his dwindling base of support. He’d go from grumbling irrelevance in the gilded prison of his Mar-a-Lago mausoleum to ring master of a circus trial that would dominate every news outlet.

The same earnest people who supported not one but two disastrously failed impeachments of Trump because, they averred, he needed to be shamed in the eyes of history would find that, nope! He’s just as impervious to conscience as ever. The law would play fair and Trump would play dirty — and you can ask O.J. Simpson how that works out in a courtroom inundated by hype.

It must be observed that not everyone who hates Trump truly wants to be rid of him. Trump hysteria has rung media cash registers and raised the profiles of politicians.

But it can’t be noted often enough: Only one person has occupied both the Oval Office and the world wrestling hall of fame. He got there by turning conflict into celebrity and celebrity into votes. Rather than reboot the old show as a courtroom drama, we must call off the conflict that feeds the beast.