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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Out of power, Trump still exerts it

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks during a Friends of Ireland caucus St. Patrick’s Day luncheon at the Capitol in Washington on Friday, March 17, 2023. McCarthy said he would seek an investigation of whether the Manhattan district attorney used any federal money in the Trump inquiry.

By Maggie Haberman

Since Donald Trump left office, Democrats and a smaller number of Republicans have vowed to ensure that he never recaptures the White House, where he would regain enormous power over the nation and around the globe.

Yet, in his insistence on forging ahead with a campaign while facing multiple criminal investigations, his dismissiveness toward supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression and his continued provocations on social media and in campaign speeches, Trump has shown that he does not need control over the levers of government to have an effect on the country — and, in the minds of many, to do damage.

To those who believed that the secret to banishing Trump was to deprive him of attention — that ignoring him would make him go away — he has shown that to be wishful thinking.

To fully understand that, one need look no further than the events of Saturday. The day began with a 7:26 a.m. post by Trump on his social media site, Truth Social, declaring that he would be arrested Tuesday, even though the timing remains uncertain, and calling on people to “protest” and “take our nation back.”

The effect was like that of a starter’s gun: It prompted Republican leaders to rush to Trump’s side and to attack the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, who has indicated he is likely to bring charges against Trump in connection with 2016 hush money payments to a porn star who said she’d had an affair with him.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Trump ally, wrote on Twitter that Bragg’s investigation was an “abuse of power” and that he would direct congressional committees to investigate whether any federal money was involved — a thinly veiled threat at a key moment before Bragg makes his plans clear.

A crush of other Republicans denounced the expected charges as politically motivated. They included one declared presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, and one potential candidate who has not yet formally entered the primary field, former Vice President Mike Pence.

It was lost on no one that the investigations Trump is facing include a Justice Department probe of his efforts to stay in power in the lead-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a mob of his supporters, several of whom have told prosecutors that they felt summoned to Washington by a tweet from Trump the previous month.

Authorities in New York City were already preparing for possible unrest in response to an indictment before Trump’s Saturday morning call to action. And while some Republicans did not echo his call for protests while defending him, relatively few publicly objected to them. McCarthy on Sunday seemed to split the difference, saying he did not believe people should protest an indictment and did not think Trump really believed they should, either, according to NBC News.

“There is a lot of power in the presidency, which is dangerous in the hands of a self-interested demagogue,” said David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Barack Obama. “But as we’ve seen, there are also some institutional constraints. Without those, there are no guardrails around Trump. And the more embattled he feels, the more inclined he’ll be to inflame mob action.”

Already, Trump’s hold on the party has far outlasted his time in office. While the 2022 midterms revealed his weaknesses in picking candidates who could win a general election and his failure to focus on issues appealing to a broader group of voters, he nonetheless has continued to bend the GOP to his will.

Not being the incumbent means Trump lacks the ultimate platform from which to summon his followers, as well as the trappings of power that so appealed to some of those who most vocally support him.

But Trump’s strength as president never derived entirely from the office itself. He had spent decades building a fan base across the country and portraying himself as synonymous with success in business, though that image was as much artifice as fact.

For years, Trump moved in some of New York’s power circles even as other elites shunned him. He has decadeslong ties, for example, to New York law enforcement officials whose agencies would play a role in providing security during an eventual indictment, arrest or arraignment.

Dennis Quirk, the head of the court officers association, once advised Trump on construction of the Wollman Rink, the ice skating rink in Central Park whose renovation was crucial to Trump’s selling of himself as an innovator.

Trump was endorsed by the nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, in 2020. And his long-serving personal aide, Keith Schiller, was a New York City police detective.

Among those assailing the Manhattan district attorney Saturday was Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, who took part in efforts to keep Trump in power after the 2020 election and has known him since Trump was mainly a New York real estate developer.

“At some point, local, state, and federal law enforcement officers need to stand up and walk out, if they’re forced to engage in illegal political persecutions!” Kerik wrote on Twitter. “You cannot break the law to enforce it, and that is exactly what @ManhattanDA is doing.”

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