Donald Trump May Have Begun Losing

Mr. Trump is surrounded by disparate legal actions of varying importance by disconnected individuals. But if we step back and think about the meaning of this period, are we trying to move on from the Trump era, to put it behind us, or to understand what went wrong?




By guest author Kathrine Miller. She is opinion staff writer of the New York Times

April 27, 2030

What’s the right form of justice for the problem of Donald Trump?

There’s already been one indictment. There’s expected to be another in Georgia, possibly a sprawling one, about the effort to overturn the 2020 election. Although there’s a literal point to an investigation (find out what went wrong) followed by a prosecution (hold people accountable), investigations and prosecutions can also take on cultural or symbolic meaning.

The Fox News settlement last week offered a microcosm of what’s happening now with Mr. Trump: The Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit was about one thing (the claim of defamation against a business), but it took on a broader meaning (the public learned more about how Republican politics really works right now). And, notably, few agree what the settlement means, whether the $787.5 million paid by Fox to Dominion reflects accountability or inconsequence, whether an apology was required or whether a trial was, even as the case risked a ruling with unpredictable repercussions.

Different people have different views of what the real problem and the right form of justice look like for Mr. Trump. Maybe the only certainty right now is that the answer will be unsatisfying.

He, meanwhile, has never let up. Last month, Mr. Trump stood with his hand over his heart in Waco, Texas, as scenes from the Jan. 6 riot played on a big screen and a recording by the J6 Prison Choir blasted through speakers at a rally for his presidential campaign.

So what’s the point? Mr. Trump is surrounded by disparate legal actions of varying importance by disconnected individuals. But if we step back and think about the meaning of this period, are we trying to move on from the Trump era, to put it behind us, or to understand what went wrong? “Justice for the problems of the Trump era” or “preventing another Trump presidency”?

If you think hard about the Jan. 6 select House committee, its exact point might seem a little opaque. The committee couldn’t arrest anybody; its criminal referrals depended on a different branch of government to pursue them. The point couldn’t be justice, and while people may have mistaken the committee for a legal entity, it was a political one.

But the committee served some purpose in American life: Millions of people watched its hearings, millions learned new details about this major event. Maybe the committee’s chief purpose, then, was about the documents and the interview transcripts and video — a truth project.

Former Representative Stephanie Murphy, who served on the committee, told me in November that this was its meaning: “for history,” to “document what happened.” To her, a former national security specialist at the Pentagon, the riot revealed the Capitol to the world as a “soft target,” and that “if we don’t walk away from perilous moments like that and take a moment to reflect and figure out how to improve, then I think we will have failed.” In an interview this month, Representative Zoe Lofgren isolated the main question — “We were there for the riot and the mob. How did it happen?” — and took it one further: to make the details “accessible to people,” filming depositions (even if only iPhone video or screen capture was available) and releasing the maximum amount of supporting material with the final report.

The effect of the committee’s presentation, a kind of effort at building consensus about recent history, was less tangible: to reorient the country’s attention, through the hearings, to how bad Jan. 6 really was. Attention is hard to maintain and focus, especially when, with Mr. Trump, it’s as if we’re always trying to hold water in our hands.

And this can have political consequences. In December, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics wrote on Twitter that he had come to believe the Dobbs abortion ruling had more of a regional effect on the 2022 midterm results, but it was the hearings that shaped the national choice: “By re-centering Trump in the narrative,” the Trump-backed candidates became “less palatable to independents at a time when impressions were formed.”

With hindsight, that committee had a pretty contained purpose — a public examination and narrative about a catastrophic event in American life, a kind of truth project.

But it’s hard to assign a neat goal like that to every piece of the avalanche of litigation, investigation and prosecution that has converged in the last few months, between prosecutions or investigations for things that are or aren’t the problem with Mr. Trump (the Stormy Daniels payments, the efforts to overturn the election in Georgia, the handling of classified documents); the lawsuits about Mr. Trump’s business dealings in New York; the lawsuits about actors who responded to Mr. Trump’s election claims (like the Fox-Dominion lawsuit). We probably wouldn’t be here if, after the riot, Republicans had actually barred Mr. Trump from holding office, as my colleagues Ezra Klein and David French recently discussed. Impeachment was another political, civic process, rather than a criminal one. But it didn’t work, and now we have this.

Without obvious shared goals, arguably all these different prosecutors, officials and individuals are undertaking an inadvertent deterrence project, keeping alive the bad parts of the recent past and applying pressure on the central players. We talk about a “chilling” effect with abortion laws, regulatory action against corporations and certain speech policies; these “work” by exerting pressure, making people skittish and worried about getting caught up in legal trouble.

The endless hearings and legal heartburn might be working in a similar manner. As a friend put it to me, post-Jan. 6 prosecutions and the prospect of an indictment in Georgia may be causing people to be less rowdy.

In advance of Mr. Trump’s New York indictment, his former adviser Roger Stone reminded people to keep their protests “civil” and “legal.” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene said she would “be pointing at people to be arrested if they’re being violent.” Many (but not all) of the Trump-backed candidates who lost in November conceded their elections within a normal time frame. This was good for the country, but also a bit of a puzzle: Many of these people claimed a major election was stolen, so why wouldn’t they do the same for their own? The drag and scrutiny in the aftermath of Jan. 6 might be an answer.

Deterrence is an uneasy goal, however — hard to measure, impossible to predict, and at danger of becoming retribution in the wrong hands, or even hardening reactionary and illiberal elements by accident.

Deterrence would also suggest an established kind of consensus: that a specific crime was, in fact, committed and the goal moving forward is to keep other crimes like it from being perpetrated. With many entry points to the problem, and without a shared consensus about what the real problem with the Trump era was, satisfaction here might be difficult to achieve. There’s also a kind of dark-night-of-the-soul, “The Godfather Part II” concern, which surfaced in early polling after the New York indictment, that at least some segment of the country most likely finds that prosecution to be political, and doesn’t seem to mind. And Mr. Trump is raising a lot of money and consolidating his polling advantage in the wake of the first indictment.

Consensus and order are unusual, though. Ms. Lofgren noted that the Jan. 6 committee was different from any experience she’d had, beginning with its unique presentation structure. “You had to have a unified view of what was the mission, and the mission was to find all the facts that we could, and then tell them,” she said. “There wasn’t a political divide on that. But that doesn’t mean we saw everything exactly the same way, exactly at the same time.” The committee, she explained, used closed-door discussions to reach public unity: “There were times when I thought one thing and by the time we’d spent a couple of hours thinking through it, I became convinced of someone else’s point of view. And the same thing happened with other members. That’s also rare.”

Reaching one shared idea of what happened and why things went wrong, even within a smaller group behind closed doors, has real appeal, even if it’s not how we would want a country run. Instead, it’s like the best society can do is to keep applying a kind of societal weight to Mr. Trump — attention on the accurate memory of the events, the creation of legal hurdles and public scrutiny, possibly doomed prosecutions of varying quality — adding a little more weight, a little more weight, a little more weight in an effort to contain him. It’s like some mixed-up version of deterrence and truth, with a society trying something, anything, with possibly volatile precedents for the future.

Even in all this chaos of information and opaque goals, a story can still stick out as representative of the frustrating parts of this time. In part of the materials released at Christmas by the select committee, in an episode you may have missed, a former White House deputy press secretary, Sarah Matthews, described an argument some of the press staff got into about who would benefit if Mr. Trump called the insurrection off, and whether he should condemn the violence at all.

Ms. Matthews wanted him to do that: tell everyone to go home. According to her account of the day from her closed-door testimony, someone suggested that maybe people from the antifa movement were behind the riot; that was, Ms. Matthews said, all the more reason to condemn the violence. According to Ms. Matthews, someone kept arguing that to condemn the riot would allow the media to “win,” because Democrats had not been asked to condemn violence during the protests after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

“I pointed at the TV,” Ms. Matthews testified last year, “and said — I guess yelled — ‘Do you think we’re winning right now?’” She became emotional, left the room and, later that day, resigned.

This is, on the one hand, sort of a pointless thing to know — a vivid but peripheral episode, from overlooked supporting materials to a report from a committee that no longer exists. On the other hand, it speaks to the lasting change in American politics since 2016: When Ms. Matthews was working for House Republicans and testified publicly last summer, the House Republican Conference called her a “liar” and “pawn” on Twitter, before deleting the post.

There’s something emblematic of this frustrating and confused era in a woman hopelessly shouting, “Do you think we’re winning right now?”

A version of this article appears in print on April 30, 2023, Section SR, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: Are We Making an Example of Trump?.