Creeping civil war

Georgia votes, classified papers and Stormy Daniels hush money. Daniel Lazare weighs up the chances of Donald Trump being paraded before the press in handcuffs

Instead of just attacking Democrats, Donald Trump has recently begun upping the political pressure by taking aim at the entire US criminal-justice system as well.

The reason: he is facing prosecution on at least three fronts and has decided to go on the offensive as a consequence. In Georgia, a grand jury has spent nearly a year investigating whether he tried to overturn the 2020 election by telephoning the state’s top election official and saying, “I just want to find 11,780 votes … because we won the state.” Since Trump lost the state by 11,779 votes, that would be just enough to transfer Georgia’s 16 electoral votes from Joe Biden’s column to his own.

In Washington, a special federal prosecutor is going after a member of Trump’s legal team for certifying that a “diligent search” turned up no government-classified papers at the ex-president’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, even though the FBI would later find more than a hundred. If the prosecutor can show that the lawyer lied, the next step will be to prove that he did so on Trump’s instructions. In New York, a local prosecutor named Alvin Bragg is investigating whether $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels amounted to a criminal violation of US campaign financing laws.

The last allegation is the most explosive, because the press has been breathlessly announcing that charges are due any day: “Bragg … appears poised to indict,” The New York Times announced on March 20. “Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg preps Trump charge,” a Bloomberg News headline declared on the 21st. In response, furious Republicans have accused Bragg of “an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority” and are demanding that he turn over all documents related to the case. Trump has joined the pile-on by calling Bragg a “degenerate psychopath” and warning that the US could face “potential death and destruction” if an indictment goes through.

Finally - and most improbably - a Trump music video entitled ‘Justice for all’ is climbing the Billboard and iTunes charts. It features 20 or so men imprisoned for their role in the January 6 Capitol Hill uprising singing ‘The star-spangled banner’, as Trump recites the Pledge of Allegiance (“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands ...”).1 With its ominous score, echo-chamber sound effects and chants of “USA, USA”, it is all too reminiscent of The parallax view, Alan J Pakula’s classic study of political paranoia that seems even more relevant today than when it was released in 1974.

Trump used the video on Saturday to kick off a campaign rally in Waco, Texas. Only instead of a prison cell with a view of Old Glory through a barred window, it featured scenes of rioters battling cops on Capitol Hill.

“I am your warrior, I am your justice,” he told a crowd of thousands dressed in Maga (‘Make America Great Again’) hats, T-shirts, and other red, white and blue paraphernalia. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed ... I am your retribution.”2 No more Mr Nice Guy, in other words. The new Trump is out for revenge.

What does it all mean? Simply that the march to civil war that culminated in the storming of Congress in early 2021 is now resuming on an even broader scale, as Trump attacks not only the legislative branch, but the judiciary as well. Two things are clear. One is that, while Democrats would like to blame it all on a single demonic figure with orange hair and a florid complexion, there is no doubt that the downward descent is by now a thoroughly bipartisan affair.


The other thing that is clear is who started it: the Democrats. In fact, it is even possible to pick an exact date: September 30 2015. That is when Russia intervened in Syria to prevent al Qa’eda and Islamic State from toppling Bashar al-Assad, sparking a furious reaction on the part of the US foreign-policy establishment. The New York Times accused Vladimir Putin of “support[ing] Mr Assad and his brutal reprisals against civilians and the opposition,” while The Washington Post published an op-ed by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and ex-secretary of defence Robert Gates, calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone - a step that would have brought the US into direct conflict with Russian forces.3

But, when Trump refused to join the anti-Putin pack, the top guns turned on him too. In October 2015, Trump criticised the Obama administration for “backing people” in Syria, when “they don’t know who they are”, adding that, while “Assad is bad”, the rebels “could be worse”.4

“It would be very nice if we got along with Russia,” he said a couple of months later. “… I think it would be a positive thing if Russia and the United States actually got along and they could work to the mutual good of getting rid of Isis and clean things up.”5 In response, Hillary Clinton sailed into Trump for “prais[ing] dictators like Vladimir Putin”, adding in July 2016 that “what he has laid out is the most dangerous, reckless approach to being president than I think we’ve ever seen”. By October, Clinton was describing Trump as Putin’s “puppet”. She added: “… you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up Nato, do whatever he wants to do, and … you continue to get help from him because he has a very clear favourite in this race.”

Everyone knows what happened next: a round-the-clock campaign once Trump prevailed in the Electoral College aimed at driving him out of office. It was an attempted coup d’état that laid the basis for Trump’s own attempted coup four years later. With corporate media like The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN all eagerly joining in and the CIA and FBI leaking fresh new “revelations” seemingly by the day, the result was a general offensive aimed at proving that the Kremlin had engineered Trump’s election and that the president had welcomed its assistance. The press was soon ablaze with conspiracy tales. Russia was blackmailing Trump with a video of him cavorting with prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. Trump Tower was using a secret link with Moscow’s Alfa Bank to communicate with the Kremlin. Yevgeny Prigozhin, soon to be famous as head of the Wagner Group, had swayed the electorate by buying ad space on Facebook and Twitter.

None of it was true. The video story was phony, the secret link with Alfa Bank was non-existent, while, as veteran investigative journalist Jeff Gerth recently noted in the Columbia Journalism Review, “the total value of the … Facebook ads that were deemed election-related amounted to $2,930, in a political cycle where billions of dollars were spent”. While Facebook calculated that the ads may have reached 126 million people, it was a drop in the bucket, compared to the 33 trillion election-related news items that Facebook fed readers over the same period.6 The investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller was also clearly part of the anti-Trump campaign, since he managed to stretch it out over two years before finally admitting that he was unable to “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”.

So Trump is right: Democrats did weaponise federal prosecutors and did collude with the press and the intelligence agencies to convince Americans that a constitutionally-elected president was in thrall to a foreign power. And now, in furtherance of the same aims, they are subjecting him to another round of legal woes.


This is not to say that the latest cases are without merit. On the contrary, the Georgia business is something Trump should worry about, since there is no question that the purpose of his phone call to Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger was to persuade him to alter the election results. Indeed, the call was followed just four days later by the Capitol Hill insurrection, a plain-as-day attempt to halt congressional certification by throwing the election into the House of Representatives, where Trump enjoyed a built-in advantage, courtesy of obscure constitutional language dating from the early 19th century.

But the investigation into Trump’s secret papers is another matter, since it suffered a major blow when Joe Biden and former vice-president Mike Pence were found to be in possession of confidential papers as well. The department of justice may still try to prosecute Trump on the grounds that he lied about the papers, but there is no doubt that the case is now on shakier ground.

As for the Alvin Bragg investigation in New York, it is so meritless that most people would find it difficult to see how it is anything other than a straight-out political vendetta. Bragg is black, but that does not mean he is poor and oppressed. On the contrary, he is a top member of the Democratic wing of the bourgeoisie - the product of elite private schooling in Manhattan plus Harvard College and Harvard Law. After a stint as a federal prosecutor, he won election as Manhattan district attorney - yes, local prosecutors are elected in faux-populist America - by promising to nail Trump to the wall: “I led a Trump Foundation case where we sued him and family members and the foundation for their misconduct,” he told voters. “... We also sued the Trump administration over a hundred times on programmatic matters.”7 Even though federal and state prosecutors and the previous Manhattan DA had all decided not to pursue the Stormy Daniels case, Bragg was under intense political pressure to follow through.

Since he has delayed issuing an indictment, it may mean that he is having second thoughts. If so, it would be a smart move on his part, since the case is almost laughably weak. Here is why.

In October 2016, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) $130,000 to keep quiet about a sexual encounter that allegedly occurred a decade earlier - one that Trump continues to deny. In 2017, Trump then reimbursed Cohen, listing the payment in his records as a “legal expense”. Disguising a payment in this way might have opened Trump to a charge of business fraud. But the problem now is that it is a misdemeanour with a two-year statute of limitations. So Bragg moved to charge him with a felony, on the grounds that the payment amounted to a covert campaign contribution and therefore was a violation of federal campaign-finance laws. That is a stretch, to say the least, especially since it is unclear why a district attorney would pursue a federal case that federal prosecutors had already decided to drop.8

Indeed, George W Bush’s department of justice used a similar legal theory to prosecute a leading Democrat named John Edwards in 2004, yet the case failed.9 So why pursue a similar case 20 years later when there is no reason to think it will fare any better?

Reportedly, Trump wants to be arrested and subjected to the famous ‘perp walk’, in which he is handcuffed and paraded before the press. The reason is that he thinks the spectacle of their leader being whipped and scourged will drive Maga members to a frenzy. If Bragg declares war on him, his goal is to up the ante by launching a holy crusade in reverse.

It may work. If so, it will be a textbook example of a liberal establishment that is so short-sighted and corrupt that it practically ushers a fascist through the door.

  1. . www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhXDz_ZTMfQ.↩︎

  2. . www.texastribune.org/2023/03/25/donald-trump-waco-rally-retribution-justice.↩︎

  3. . www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/opinion/vladimir-putin-motives-in-syria.html; www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-to-counter-putin-in-syria/2015/10/08/128fade2-6c66-11e5-b31c-d80d62b53e28_story.html.↩︎

  4. . www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/13/donald-trump-foreign-policy-doctrine-nation-building.↩︎

  5. . www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/donald-trump-on-vladmir-putin--he-is-a-strong-leader-589070915601.↩︎

  6. . www.cjr.org/special_report/trumped-up-press-versus-president-part-4.php.↩︎

  7. . www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/local-politics/2021/03/24/why-the-manhattan-da-candidates-say-they-re-ready-to-take-on-the-trump-investigation.↩︎

  8. . www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/five-things-to-remember-about-a-zombie-trump-indictment.↩︎

  9. . www.nytimes.com/2023/03/26/opinion/trump-indictment-skeptical-case.html.↩︎