The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The eternally unfulfilled dream of Trump’s opponents: This time, they’ve got him

People participate in a vigil on Jan. 6 in New York to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A bombshell landed late Tuesday evening, fired from Albany, N.Y.: a 42-page court filing offering evidence that New York Attorney General Letitia James believes demonstrates rampant fraudulent activity at the Trump Organization. The result of months of investigation, it includes allegations of inflated real estate valuations and loops in not only former president Donald Trump but his children, as well.

So there it is. The walls are crumbling. Trump’s long-standing and widely reported actions will result in dire consequences — just as his opponents long foresaw. Until, that is, the Trump Organization’s legal team pushes back and until the organization reaches a settlement agreement and until something else emerges as the new source of Trump’s inevitable downfall.

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Few assessments of Donald Trump’s tenure in politics have had the staying power of a joke put on Twitter by writer Jesse Farrar in early October 2016.

Well, I'd like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!
*Trump wriggles his way out of the jam easily*
Ah! Well. Nevertheless,

That trailing comma plays the key role, of course, serving as a transition back to the top of the tweet. Over and over, Trump’s opponents think they’ve got him. Over and over, ah, well, nevertheless.

Farrar was writing at a moment when this pattern had already been demonstrated repeatedly. Trump insults the military service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — I’d like to see him wriggle out of that! Turns out primary voters didn’t really care. Ah. Well. Nevertheless. Trump decries immigrants as criminals. Trump shares an antisemitic meme. Trump disparages a Gold Star family. Trump promotes racist misinformation about crime. Lots of jams but, a few wriggles, and voilà!

Again, all of those things occurred before Farrar’s tweet. The pattern was established even then, by Oct. 1, 2016. Consider what happened less than a week later: The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump described physically assaulting women. Trump didn’t wriggle out of that one quite as easily, particularly once his mid-debate denial that he’d ever actually touched women inappropriately spurred several credible allegations that he’d done exactly that. But, eventually, he slipped the bindings of that jam and pressed on.

Then, as always, he had help. Ol’ Donny Trump’s ability to wriggle out of jams has long depended heavily on the support of his allies and supporters — and, in some cases, attorneys. There is a massive ecosystem dedicated to helping Trump pry himself free from controversy, an ecosystem that is, by now, extremely well-versed in how to make that happen. It has been strained, as with the “Access Hollywood” tape or the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but no wriggle-proof jam has been identified yet.

Perhaps you view this as fatalistic, a resignation that Trump lives a life free of the sorts of accountability that might plague other people. And perhaps you think that it is naive to assume that, just because the sun has risen in the east for the past few millennia, we might presume that it will rise in the east again tomorrow.

Consider the extent of the pattern we’re talking about here. You probably had forgotten the handful of pre-October 2016 examples I offered above, if you ever even heard about them. But there are so many more. Remember all of the presumptions that Trump’s presidency would be hobbled by the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III? His impeachment for trying to pressure Ukraine to aid his reelection bid? The repeated rumblings about invoking the 25th Amendment to oust him from the White House? Those are just the moments that were purported to pose a threat to his tenure as president. There are, of course, myriad other comments and actions — his disparagement of countries in Africa and the Caribbean, his response to the violence in Charlottesville and the aftermath of the hurricane in Puerto Rico, to name three — where it was posited that Trump might finally see a collapse of his political strength.

He didn’t.

Then there were the other legal fights. You heard a lot about Trump University during the 2016 campaign, his for-profit effort to sell people the secrets to becoming millionaires in real estate. Then, during the transition period before his inauguration, he settled the case. Wriggle; ah, well. There was the investigation, again spurred by The Post, into his charity, an organization that took in millions of dollars that were at times spent on political contributions or furnishings for his for-profit properties. It no longer exists, after legal action by the state of New York that resulted in a multimillion-dollar fine. Trump, though, seems to be doing okay.

None of this is meant to excuse the things Trump has been accused of doing, much less the things he has obviously said and done. It is clear, for example, that he bears primary responsibility for the Capitol riot, having both repeatedly misled his supporters about the results of the 2020 election and then encouraged them to bring their resulting fury to Washington on that day. To say that it is unlikely that Trump will face significant consequences for that culpability is not to say he isn’t culpable. It is, instead, to recognize that significant consequences are unlikely — and that insistences to the contrary demand a burden of proof they aren’t often given.

For example, processes are underway to evaluate what occurred at the Capitol both at the congressional and law enforcement levels. The Justice Department released indictments last week targeting members of the right-wing group Oath Keepers on charges of seditious conspiracy. But, as the Hill reported, prominent Democrats also think that the feds may go further: charging Trump himself for his role.

It’s … possible, certainly. It is, however, much easier to imagine such charges than to imagine what would happen should they come down. For the Biden administration, the considerations are far broader than simply whether the letter of the law was broken. This is not how justice would work in an ideal world, sure, but, then, in an ideal world, a violent mob wouldn’t storm the country’s seat of legislative power. Again, this isn’t to say that Trump or others shouldn’t face charges if the evidence strongly suggests that they violated the law, it is to say that it’s worth recognizing that the bar for that to happen is far higher than might be presumed, particularly among those for whom implying that the bar isn’t high is useful.

This brings to mind another tweet from the early Trump era: British writer Louise Mensch’s wild claim that then-Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon might face the death penalty on espionage charges. There was a market for these sorts of bonkers assertions about the heavy hand of justice (lowercase J) coming down on members of the Trump administration, and Mensch was a regular pusher. Bannon was eventually arrested for his role in an effort to vacuum up contributions to build a wall on the border with Mexico. And then Trump pardoned him.

But you never know! Hope necessarily springs eternal. Maybe this jam, the one Letitia James just moved forward, will be the one, final, wriggle-proof jam. If not? Well, nevertheless,