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For the weeks leading up to Donald Trump’s indictment, the former President was constantly throwing misdirection into the ether. He predicted an indictment and arrest in the coming hours, even as his advisers and lawyers conceded they had no evidence that was in the offing. He raised cash on the threat of the prospect of criminal prosecution and plotted with his team about a potential perp walk. Amid it all, the ex-President seemed to miss the severity of history’s judgment should he become the first of his cohort to face a criminal indictment.
Well, late Thursday, that anticipated outcome finally came into relief. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office confirmed that a grand jury had made history, and that the process of negotiating a surrender and booking for the former White House resident had already begun. In the coming days, as the indictment is unsealed and Trump poses for his mugshot, the misdirection is unlikely to abate. And in that comes a distinct risk, one not confined to the American judicial system, the norms of the Presidency itself, or the basics of civility in a pluralistic political world.
With every single utterance, filing, and grievance, Trump and those involved in this case—and potentially others—stand to rewrite the rules of criminal accountability in a high-charged political environment.
For those who have watched Trump’s political career, none of this will seem new. If anything, it may sound like rhyming rejoinder to the last couple of years, where a clang of chaos was the best harmony available in the political hymnal of D.C.
Few understand this strategy better than Steve Bannon. In the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, the then-CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign was headed toward baggage claim at the Las Vegas airport, when he boiled Trump’s strategy down to its essence while chatting with reporters who just happened to catch him. Trump was trailing in the polls and Hillary Clinton seemed destined to return to the White House—this time with the good office—and the nation seemed ready to send The Apprentice star back to the mock boardroom on the fifth floor of Trump Tower. But Bannon, arriving in Nevada to watch the third and final debate, seemed upbeat, even excited. Trump, Bannon said, was “the master of the head fake,” optimistic that such misdirection could help power him to the White House despite polling, structural, and political headwinds.
Bannon, it turned out, was correct. And not just about how Trump would deploy such tactics to win the White House a few weeks later. Trump used them to great effect once there. Few possess his inherent ability to turn narratives on a dime with little more than a seemingly accidental aside, an errant tweet, or a snarky insult laced with a threat.
Put simply: the Head Fake Presidency seemed limitless. At least until it wasn’t.
The coming days, weeks, and probably months are set to test whether Trump’s head fakes can overpower the institutions of a criminal justice system never before tested in such a way. Since the start of his career in politics, Trump has seemed to have survived some of his most dangerous moments using a strategy of drowning bad news with bigger outrage. Facing his own troubles, he deployed a Soviet-era flex of WhatAboutism. And, more often than not, it worked.
As President, Trump stuck with that instinct, employing misdirection at every turn. He launched and suddenly called off a strike on Iranian facilities as retaliation for a downed U.S. drone. On immigration, Puerto Rico, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, guns, immigration, and climate change, he balked at other moves as he took delight in shattering norms. His transactional approach was mired in gamesmanship and posturing, seldom in facts.
It’s continued in his post-presidency, including through his tangled web of legal troubles. Even when E. Jean Carroll gets her day in a courtroom in a civil lawsuit alleging Trump raped her in a department store dressing room and then defamed her for making the allegations, Trump’s notorious indifference to honest-dealing will be a subtext of the trial; the jury’s identity will be concealed to protect them from threats and intimidation—an extraordinary step.
As the first criminal charges against an ex-President move forward, the combination of head fakes and the legitimate threat to judicial norms should not be taken lightly.
The stratagem has worked plenty for Trump to this point, and it still may, to be clear. At the same time, these proceedings might finally shake the American public of its reflex to follow Trump’s eyeline when it locks on to something blurry in the distance. After all, it seems an indictment is about to be in plain view, even if a lot of Americans aren’t yet ready to believe their eyes. In fact, Trump and his allies are going to work overtime to ensure that his strongest supporters never get there, even if it further diminishes the credibility of the nation’s courts.
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