(This is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.)
By Geoff Mirelowitz and Argiris Malapanis
The indictment charges Trump with violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice for trying to hide his violations. The act is a reactionary piece of legislation passed in 1917, two months after the U.S. government entered the First World War. It was intended to silence and intimidate working-class opposition to the war, which was fought in the interests of the wealthy.
One of the first and best-known victims of the act was Eugene Victor Debs, a revolutionary trade unionist and socialist who spoke out against the war. Debs had been the Socialist Party (SP) candidate for U.S. president more than once. Debs was indicted under the act following a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio, in 1918. He was convicted and ran for president again in 1920 — from his prison cell — winning almost one million votes.
Others who have been indicted under the act include Daniel Ellsberg who brought to light what are known as the “Pentagon Papers” that detailed Washington’s lies and deceit about the war in Vietnam and Edward Snowden who revealed the U.S. National Security Agency’s widespread secret surveillance of U.S. citizens in 2013.
While Trump was president his administration enforced the Espionage Act just as Republicans and Democrats have done in the past.
A centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 campaign was his accusation that Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton had endangered national security by improper use of her governmental email address. Chants of “Lock her up!” were a regular feature of Trump campaign rallies. “I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information,” Trump declared then. “No one will be above the law.” Mrs. Clinton’s cavalier handling of the sensitive information, he said then, “disqualifies her from the presidency.”
It’s ironic it is Trump who now faces the possibility of jail time for similar behavior.
Trump’s alleged violations of the Espionage Act consist of retaining documents the U.S. government deems “classified,” which he was not entitled to have in his possession after leaving office following Biden’s inauguration.
Trump is by no means the only former official to retain such documents. Both Mike Pence and Joe Biden have been accused of doing the same. The difference in these cases appears to be a simple one. Pence and Biden apparently cooperated with federal officials in returning these documents. The indictment accuses Trump of refusing to do so; of returning some but not others and of seeking to hide those he did not return.
Charges of a double standard
Nevertheless, the charges against Trump are seen by many as the Biden administration’s Justice Department targeting his most likely opponent in the 2024 election. As a Washington Post headline put it, “Trump indictment thrusts Biden into unprecedented territory.”
The June 9 Wall Street Journal editorial went further: “As usual, Mr. Trump is his own worst enemy,” it argued. “‘This would have gone nowhere,’ former Attorney General Bill Barr told CBS recently, ‘had the President just returned the documents. But he jerked them around for a year and a half.’
“That being said,” wrote the Journal, returning to its main point, “if prosecutors think that this will absolve them of the political implications of their decision to charge Mr. Trump, they fail to understand what they’ve unleashed.
“In the court of public opinion, the first question will be about two standards of justice,” the Journal argued. “Mr. Biden had old, classified files stored in his Delaware garage next to his sports car. When that news came out, he didn’t sound too apologetic. ‘My Corvette’s in a locked garage, OK? So it’s not like they’re sitting out on the street,’ Mr. Biden said. AG Garland appointed another special counsel, Robert Hur, to investigate, but Justice isn’t going to indict Mr. Biden.”
What motivated Trump’s decision to retain the documents? That is a question with no clear answer. The government will likely have a difficult time proving Trump planned to do anything nefarious with them. Most claims of violations of “national security,” made by government officials of either party, are primarily aimed at protecting information about U.S. policy and actions the wealthy do not want working people to know about.
Without speculating about Trump’s state of mind, his public statements suggest he considers himself above the law, largely based on being a former president who continues to insist that the 2020 election was stolen from him. An argument can be made that Trump essentially provoked the Department of Justice to indict him by refusing to simply cooperate by returning the documents.
In fact, the June 15 Washington Post reported Trump repeatedly rejected efforts by some of his lawyers to avoid an indictment by returning the classified documents in his possession. One of these attorneys, Christopher Kise, “wanted to quietly approach Justice to see if he could negotiate a settlement that would preclude charges, hoping Attorney General Merrick Garland and the department would want an exit ramp to avoid prosecuting a former president,” the Post noted. “But Trump was not interested after listening to other lawyers who urged a more pugilistic approach, so Kise never approached prosecutors.”
Trump’s stance left only two alternatives for the liberals who lead the U.S. government: do nothing and appear weak, or prosecute despite knowing that obtaining a conviction is by no means a certainty. But by choosing to indict they also unleashed political forces they cannot control.
A warning of the dangers
“Trump’s indictment plus candidacy could endanger democracy and the rule of law. The collision of former president Donald Trump’s criminal indictment with the presidential campaign could further undermine confidence in democratic principles and institutions of government, experts say,” proclaimed the headline of an article in the June 17 Washington Post, expressing a similar view to that sounded by the Wall Street Journal, albeit from a different angle.
“In the estimation of many legal experts, declining to charge Trump, given the preponderance of evidence laid out in the indictment, would have sent a signal that former presidents, or at least this former president, are above the law,” wrote the Post.
“Scholars, legal experts and political strategists agree that what lies ahead is ugly and unpredictable,” the article said. “Many fear that the 2024 election will not overcome the distrust of many Americans in their government and its pillars, almost no matter the outcome. ‘A constitutional democracy stands or falls with the effectiveness and trustworthiness of the systems through which laws are created and enforced,’ said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. ‘If you have fundamental doubts raised about those institutions, then constitutional democracy as a whole is in trouble.’
“On top of those legal questions are big issues confronting the country,” the article said. “With other investigations continuing — one into Trump’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack… and the other looking at his efforts to overturn the Georgia results of the 2020 presidential election — more damage might be inflicted on these democratic institutions by the battering likely to take place between now and the inauguration in 2025.”
The Post cited Jack Goldsmith, who served in the Justice Department and at the Pentagon during the administration of George W. Bush and is now a professor at Harvard Law School, who observed: “It seems obvious and clear that it’s going to be worse and probably much worse,” Goldsmith said. “Convicted or not, nominee or not, we can assume [Trump] is going to inflame this to the maximum and his supporters will inflame this to the maximum.”
“The possibility of an indictment in the Jan. 6 investigation adds another layer of risk,” the Post said. “Goldsmith sees that case as more fraught legally than the documents case and therefore potentially harder for prosecutors to win,” it continued.
“These are likely to be the conditions throughout the coming election year. By any measure, this represents a gloomy prospect for restoring a thriving democracy,” the Post warned.
The United States has been the most stable bourgeois democracy in the world for well over a century. Its chief executive — the president — serves a four-year term uninterrupted by parliamentary maneuvers. A U.S. presidential election, no matter how bitterly contested, has, until 2020, resulted in a predictable, uneventful transfer of power. Today that is far less certain. The indictment of Trump only increases the uncertainty and danger of political instability. Tens of millions still believe Trump’s bogus claims that he lost the 2020 election and are standing by him as he fights the indictments while campaigning to reclaim the White House.
Political issues will take precedence
Exactly how the legal issues will be resolved cannot be predicted. The case has been assigned to Federal Judge Aileen M. Cannon who ruled in Trump’s favor at an earlier stage of the DOJ investigation (only to have her rulings overturned by a federal appeals court known for a conservative bent). If the case goes to trial, even one member of the jury, unpersuaded by the government’s charges, can block a conviction.
This will unfold in the polarized political climate that dominates the United States today. As Damon Linker wrote in his New York Times opinion piece, “Mr. Trump is not a standard-issue politician who happened to run afoul of corruption statutes. He’s a man who rose once to the presidency and seeks to return to it by mobilizing and enhancing mass suspicion of public institutions and officials. Mr. Trump has portrayed himself as just such a man of defiance, eager to serve as a tribune for those who feel left behind, denigrated and humiliated by members of the establishment.
“The more concerted opposition Mr. Trump has faced from law enforcement, the mainstream media, Congress and other prominent people in our country and culture,” Linker continued, “the more popular he has become within his party. Efforts to rein him in — to defeat him politically and legally — have often backfired, vindicating him and his struggle in the eyes of his supporters.
“There’s no reason at all to suppose the prospect of Mr. Trump’s ending up a convicted criminal would disrupt this dynamic. On the contrary, it’s far more likely to transform him into something resembling a martyr to millions of Americans — and in the process to wrest those devoted supporters free from attachment to the rule of law altogether.”
Trump has achieved this status because U.S. economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate for tens of millions in the working class and sections of the middle classes, and Trump claims — falsely — he will change that.
Some of the issues that have led many to lose confidence in the traditional figures of the two-party system include: high inflation; wages that cannot keep up, forcing many into working more than one job; an overall sense of economic insecurity; a crisis of affordable housing and a growing homeless population; an epidemic of opioid use and rising numbers of lethal drug overdoses; and growing signs that changes in the climate are already wreaking havoc on the lives of millions.
Those who rule this country appear to have less confidence in their own ability to inspire trust in their capacity to lead the country out of the worsening conditions faced by so many. One sign of this is the distinct likelihood that the choice they will offer the American people in the 2024 election will be between the oldest person to ever sit in the White House — Biden — and Trump, who will be 78 years-old on election day 2024. In place of any vision of a meaningfully different future, what both parties put forward is constant factionalism that offers no political solutions to benefit working people.
In an April 16 World-Outlook article on the earlier indictment of Trump on state charges in New York, we wrote: “Meanwhile, working people have no political party that speaks for our interests and could cut through this demagogy to point the way toward working-class political action independent of the two parties of the wealthy. With each new issue or controversy, we are told to choose between, and stand with, the Democrats or Republicans. So it is with the legal moves against Trump today. So it will be with future moves that will be taken in response, as the divisions among the capitalist parties continue to play out.”
We believe that remains accurate. Only an upturn in working-class resistance leading towards establishing a genuinely independent political party of labor, to fight day in and day out for the interests of working people, can change the situation we face today.
(This was the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.)
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Categories: US Politics