A long-standing myth enveloping former President Donald Trump is that he routinely eludes law enforcement. While he has spent decades probing the law’s boundaries, enjoying the insulation from legal accountability that wealth provides and shredding civic norms, the reality is that he has rarely faced robust and unforgiving prosecutions – until he entered and departed the White House.

One argument is that law enforcement didn’t come knocking until Trump’s presidential years because he then became a political target. In that scenario, law enforcement and the courts are untrustworthy and partisan actors. Another, more accurate and tactile argument is that it took a presidency to reveal how lawless and dangerous Trump is, and that he desperately needed reining in to preserve the Constitution, democracy and essential American institutions.

If none of that works for you, here’s a third, more straightforward argument for why Trump is in trouble: He broke the law.

If you harbor any doubts about that, a federal criminal indictment filed Friday involving his misappropriation of classified government records is a sobering and tragicomic tutorial. Trump stashed the goodies at his Palm Beach home, Mar-a-Lago, and appears to have made matters worse by trying to hide them once the feds asked after them.

The indictment is replete with details of Trump allegedly directing that the documents be hidden from investigators. He is said to have suggested to his attorney that they be destroyed. The indictment has photos of the documents in various Mar-a-Lago locations, including a ballroom. They allegedly made their way to a bathroom at one point. The documents, according to the indictment, contained information about U.S. military and defense secrets, nuclear weapons, as well as military vulnerabilities. The indictment notes that if the documents got into the open, they could have compromised national security.

The indictment also makes clear that Trump knew the importance of classified documents before and during his presidency, yet he made off with them anyway.


Trump faces a dizzying array of charges stemming from a lengthy Justice Department investigation that led to the indictment. They include willful retention of national defense information, corruptly concealing documents, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and making false statements.

The gravity of the potential crimes is apparent. And the indictment, handed up by a grand jury in Trump’s adopted home state of Florida, outlines one of the most momentous and perilous legal confrontations the former president has faced to date. Penalties could include lengthy prison terms associated with each crime, though Trump is likely to get a softer landing because he’s a former president and because political fallout abounds.

Word of the indictment became public after Trump himself leaked word of it on social media on Thursday evening. He assailed the Justice Department’s integrity and described the indictment as an “act of open legal ‘warfare’ ” – employing his long-standing playbook of smearing prosecutors rather than contesting the factual merits of the charges. Smear first, defend yourself later.

This is stating the obvious, but Jack Smith, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, wouldn’t have convened a grand jury composed of Trump’s fellow Floridians and pursued charges unless he believed he had an utterly airtight case. The indictment will also continue to test Republicans’ support for the rule of law.

Given how swiftly some Republicans dismissed the severity and bona fides of the pending federal charges – and their behavior for years now – too many of them will continue to favor lawlessness. Attacking and undermining the Justice Department to protect Trump and their own prospects has been a core electoral strategy for Republicans. They remain hostages to their own immorality and cowardice, and to Trump’s firm sway over about a third of the party’s voters. What makes strategic sense for them politically sows anarchy and violent divisions everywhere else.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, earlier slagged the Justice Department for the indictment. “There is no limit to what these people will do to protect their power & destroy those who threaten it, even if it means ripping our country apart & shredding public faith in the institutions that hold our republic together,” he observed on Twitter. It’s worth noting that Rubio has made the same criticisms of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists who, egged on by Trump, actually did try to shred the foundations of American democracy. The people he’s targeting now are just lawyers doing their jobs.


House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, ever the loyal apparatchik, invoked Orwellian doublespeak to defend his sponsor. “I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice,” he tweeted before the indictment became public, as he went about savaging the rule of law.

Not all Republicans have followed this script. Even former Attorney General William Barr, perhaps the most potent and craven enabler of Trump’s presidency, has said the Justice Department’s investigation of the former president isn’t a “witch hunt” and has cited the integrity of the probe. “This says more about Trump than it does the Department of Justice,” he declared in one recent interview.

But Barr isn’t the one fielding Republican candidates and controlling the levers of legislative power. That’s the Republican Party, and a core part of the party remains loyal to Trump. He and his minions are anarchists, not conservatives, and their allegiance to one another runs deep. Street violence may escalate because of this in the not-too-distant future.

A former U.S. president has never been charged with federal crimes before and this indictment may eventually be paired with another Justice Department action pertaining to the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. Smith is examining whether Trump fomented violence that day to overturn the 2020 election results and essentially acted as a seditionist. All of this will have an as yet unknown impact on the 2024 presidential race.

Karma is afoot here, too. Trump scored a political victory in 2016 in part by calling Hillary Clinton’s integrity into question over her failure to observe federal record-keeping protocols. In her case, it involved a bout of improper emailing. Trump is now ensnared by possible record-keeping transgressions of infinitely greater consequence. What goes around comes around.

Trump, who was recently found liable for sexual assault and defamation, is also mired in civil and criminal fraud probes in New York. He’s also at the center of a Georgia investigation of voting fraud involving the 2020 election. In case you’ve forgotten, he was impeached twice as president.

And if the authorities can also rope Trump in for absconding with classified documents and trying to torch the Constitution, well, wow, that’s a lot of stuff.

You might feel worried enough to ask yourself what the country’s coming to. After all, if the federal government and law enforcement can do all of that to a well-meaning straight-arrow like Trump, they might do that to just about anybody.

But if those are the questions you’re asking in this particular matter, you’re on the wrong side of the law, civil society and democracy.

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