Literally unprecedented The indictment against Donald Trump marks an entirely dangerous and politically fraught moment for the United States, and serves as a reminder of the unprecedented level of crime and conspiracy that surrounded the 2016 election.
It’s easy to look back on the 2016 election as if its outcome was inevitable — that Hillary Clinton was too weak a candidate whose years of expensive speeches had caused her to lose touch with working-class voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; that “but her emails” and Jim Comey’s repeated, inane and misguided election meddling turned the tide. But Trump’s new indictment is an important historical correction, a moment that shows how the U.S. as a country must come to terms with the fact that Trump’s surprise victory was facilitated not alone, but two separate criminal conspiracies.
In 2016, in the final stretch of a race that came down to incredibly narrow victories in just three states — 10,704 voters in Michigan, 46,765 in Pennsylvania and 22,177 in Wisconsin — and where Trump lost a total of about 3 million votes votes, he was helped by a massive and extensive operation of the official Russian government. The effort was partially funded by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is now behind the brutal military operations of his Wagner mercenary army in Ukraine, which target American social media companies and activists on the ground. In the second part of the Russian operation, the GRU military intelligence agency hacked top Democratic Party officials, leaked their emails and changed the national narrative around Clinton and other Democrats, according to a comprehensive report from the US Justice Department. (Not to mention it spawned the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and possibly QAnon.)
In addition, there was a separate criminal conspiracy that was the subject of today’s new indictment in New York: the Trump campaign colluding in the final weeks of the 2016 election, Trump family organizer Michael Cohen and National Enquirer paying hush money to bury the stories of the candidate’s two affairs, including the infamous affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.
While it might seem like news of such a case in the final weeks of the campaign would have been empty words, it’s worth remembering the specific context Cohen and Trump’s orbit faced in those final hours of the campaign. They performed a difficult and simple balancing act to retain support from conservatives and evangelicals in the wake of devastating Access to Hollywood tape, the moment vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence seriously considered throwing in the towel himself. Continuing stories that don’t promote family values could well start an irreversible spiral. (It’s also worth recalling the still-suspicious interplay between these two threads: how, on one Friday in October 2016, US intelligence chiefs publicly said for the first time that Russia was behind election meddling, Washington Post drew the existence of the lecherous Access to Hollywood tape, and then, hours later, Wikileaks began releasing a fresh batch of stolen emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.)
The new criminal case related to the second Stormy Daniels conspiracy, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, is also a reminder of the historic error of the US Department of Justice, which declined to bring its own charges against Trump in the same case. It was a stunning abdication, given that the Justice Department is in the midst of its own Donald Trump presidency, no less! — prosecuted Cohen for the same conspiracy, calling Trump “Person 1” in the allegations against Cohen and, according to Eli Honig’s new book, outlining Trump’s personal direction and involvement in the case in a draft indictment.