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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump flourishes in the glare of his indictment

The Mar-a-Lago Club owned by former President Donald Trump, who was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury on Thursday, in Palm Beach, Fla., March 31, 2023.

By Peter Baker

Since long before he entered the White House, former President Donald Trump has been an any-publicity-is-good-publicity kind of guy. In fact, he once told advisers, “There’s no bad press unless you’re a pedophile.” Hush money for a porn star? Evidently not an exception to that rule.

And so, although no one wants to be indicted, Trump in one sense finds himself exactly where he loves to be — in the center ring of the circus, with all the spotlights on him. He has spent the days since a grand jury called him a potential criminal milking the moment for all it’s worth, savoring the attention as no one else in modern American politics would.

He has blitzed out one fundraising email after another with the kind of headlines other politicians would dread, like “BREAKING: PRESIDENT TRUMP INDICTED” and “RUMORED DETAILS OF MY ARREST” and “Yes I’ve been indicted, BUT” — the “but” being but you can still give him money. And when it turned out that they did give him money, a total of $4 million by his campaign’s count in the 24 hours after his indictment, he trumpeted that as loudly as he could, too.

Rather than hide from the indignity of turning himself into authorities this week, Trump obligingly sent out a schedule as if for a campaign tour, letting everyone know he would fly Monday from Florida to New York, then Tuesday surrender for mug shots, fingerprinting and arraignment. In case that were not enough to draw the eye, he plans to then fly back to Florida to make a prime-time evening statement at Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by the cameras and microphones he covets.

Never mind that any defense attorney worth the law degree would prefer he keep quiet; no one who knows Trump could reasonably expect that. He has already trashed the prosecutor (“degenerate psychopath”) and the judge in the case (“HATES ME”) and absent a court-issued gag order surely will continue to. His public comments could ultimately be used against him in a court of law, but to him, that hardly seems like a reason to stay silent.

“The trick, of course, is to take up all the air — demand all the attention, all the time, make everything, including his own indictment, into an opportunistic moment,” said Gwenda Blair, author of “The Trumps,” the definitive multigenerational biography of the former president’s family. So far, she added, he has done so “by combining exaggerated hyperbole with a claim to ultimate patriotism and religious zeal — quite the ultimate power package.”

By treating the case as a spectacle, rather than a serious issue, he may discredit it, at least in the eyes of his own supporters. Rather than hang his head in shame, as many facing the possibility of prison might, he frames it as just another Trumpian drama in a life filled with them, the latest reality show cliffhanger — will he get off or will his enemies get him?

But the ratings-obsessed star’s need for the limelight invariably will draw it away from other issues of major import. The United States is in the middle of a nuclear-edged clash with Russia in Ukraine, and Moscow has just arrested an American reporter, provoking another hostage crisis. Taiwan’s president is visiting the United States at a moment of bristling tension with Beijing. Just Friday, America’s top general warned of the increasing convergence of a hostile Chinese-Russian-Iranian axis.

The indictment comes “at the exact moment when our military and economic power is being profoundly challenged by our adversaries,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based organization focused on trans-Atlantic relations. “From a national security perspective, we need to keep our eye on the ball. But unfortunately, our gaze on Tuesday will be on our own domestic turmoil.”

For President Joe Biden, who has assiduously avoided commenting on Trump’s legal travails, the first criminal prosecution of a former commander in chief will surely make it that much harder to generate interest in his dutiful speeches promoting the latest bridge project or other achievements he hopes to tout as he prepares to kick off a reelection campaign.

In today’s sizzle-saturated media environment, White House officials understand perfectly well that an incumbent president doing his job can hardly compete for attention with a former president possibly doing time. Instead, they hope the electorate appreciates a leader who ignores the Sturm und Drang to focus on matters such as the economy, health care and national security.

In some ways, Biden faces the challenge that President Gerald Ford did when he decided to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, in the Watergate scandal. One of Ford’s advisers asked the Watergate prosecutor how long it would take to bring Nixon to trial if he were indicted and was told as long as a year. To Ford, it seemed too costly to have the country absorbed by a former president in the dock for so long.

But those were different times and different presidents. Nixon had resigned in disgrace, his party had abandoned him and he grudgingly offered a measure of contrition when pardoned, even if not nearly enough for many. There was a sense of a chapter closing. Trump feels anything but contrite and, instead of sliding into exile, is mounting a comeback campaign with the support of many in his party.

Barbara Res, who worked for Trump for 18 years as an executive at his development company and later broke with him, does not think Trump expects to be found guilty. “He’s incapable of believing that he’s wrong,” she said. And she doubted he would comply even with a gag order.

“To be honest, nobody tells Donald what to do. Really,” Res said. A judge, she said, may hesitate to enforce a contempt of court order. “Even people that hate Trump or dislike Trump would probably think it was not a good idea to put him in jail for contempt of a gag order,” she said. And so, she concluded, “He will not shut up.”

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