INDIANAPOLIS — When I was a young American — age five — we were guided by the words of a soon-to-be slain president. At his inauguration in 1961, President John F. Kennedy instilled this key concept: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
I bring back this call to action in the context of an isolated Miami federal courtroom, sans video or audio, on Tuesday, when former president Donald J. Trump pleaded not guilty to 37 criminal charges of violating the Espionage Act and obstructing justice.
On the day Trump was arrested, he led the Real Clear Politics polling composite by 30.7% over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence.
Trump was not arrested and criminally charged for possessing top-secret documents detailing U.S. war plans, its nuclear capabilities and those of its allies. Had he done what President Joe Biden and former Vice President Pence did earlier this year — give such documents back to the National Archives — Trump would have been left to fend off 17 dubious charges related to a payoff of porn actress Stormy Daniels while running for the GOP nomination.
But Trump didn’t do that. He obfuscated, plotted, obstructed, diverted and exposed his own legal team, leading to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago last August. In photos released by special counsel Jack Smith last Friday, cartons and boxes containing top secret documents were seen stacked under a crystal chandelier and next to a toilet, as well as on stage at the resort that has hosted thousands of Trump patrons and, most certainly, lurking foreign spies.
Or as conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig explained in a Twitter thread, “[Trump] has dared, taunted, provoked, and goaded DOJ to prosecute him from the moment it was learned that he had taken these national security documents. On any given day for the past 18 months — doubtless up to and including the day before the indictment was returned — the former president could have avoided and prevented this prosecution. He would never have been indicted for taking these documents. But for whatever reason, he decided that he would rather be indicted and prosecuted.”
Appearing at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Tuesday evening, Trump told supporters: “If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me. They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings, and even future Republican candidates. I am the only one that can save this nation.”
So, what kind of “top secret” documents were stored in Trump’s Florida resort? Retired Gen. Mark Hertling tweeted, “The documents were likely extremely detailed intelligence assessments, w/ potential foe (& friendly) capabilities & weaknesses & U.S. capabilities we would not want anyone — especially foes — to know.”
As with many of his political crises since 2015, Trump’s current legal woes are self-inflicted, and poorly handled by his shoddy political and business organizations.
There seemed to be series of fissures appearing in Trump’s once impermeable Republican wall. While U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, the only announced Republican for Indiana’s open U.S. Senate seat, summed up this latest scenario by saying, “Democrats are throwing away 247 years of American democracy over a records case … Horrifying,” U.S. Sen. Todd Young said, “The charges against President Trump are very serious and should not be minimized. The former President, like every other American, is deserving of due process and should be held to the same standard any other American would be held to.”
Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, said on Fox News Sunday, “If even half of it is true, he’s toast. It is a very detailed indictment and it’s very, very damning. This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here or a victim of a witch hunt is ridiculous. Those documents are among the most sensitive secrets that the country has. They have to be in the custody of the archivist.”
Former Indiana governor and vice President Mike Pence told The Wall Street Journal editorial board, “Having read the indictment, these are very serious allegations. And I can’t defend what is alleged.”
While Trump allies called the legal charges tantamount to giving the former president a third GOP presidential nomination, the harsh reality is that this has been a brutal year for the billionaire. Trump’s business organization was convicted of 17 felonies. He was found guilty of sexual assault in a Manhattan civil trial and ordered to pay $5 million to author E. Jean Carroll. He now faces 34 New York felony counts in addition to the 37 felony counts filed in Miami on Tuesday.
If nominated, Trump will likely be challenging an 82-year-old President Biden in November 2024. Should he win, it sets up the specter of a candidate running (or ruling) from a federal penitentiary. Trump has suggested that should he win, he would pardon himself.
Seeking further wisdom from a former president, I turned to two-term Republican Ronald Reagan, who once described our America as a “shining city on a hill.”
“We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker,” Reagan said. “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at StateAffairs.com/pro/Indiana. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.