What Donald Trump’s Indictment Reveals

Win or lose, the charges are an American tragedy.

Former President Donald Trump claps during a Save America rally in Warren, Michigan, on October 1, 2022.
Emily Elconin / Getty

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

A grand jury has reportedly indicted Donald Trump on criminal charges stemming from his role in a hush-money payoff to the porn star Stormy Daniels. This historic event is a tragedy for the American republic not because of what it has revealed about Trump, but because of what it is revealing about us as voters and citizens.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

An American Tragedy

Donald Trump is about to be charged with crimes in New York. I do not know if he is guilty of any of these charges—we don’t even know the exact accusations yet—and neither do you. That’s for a jury to decide, and both Trump and the state of New York will have their day in court. In that sense, this is a good day for America, because it shows, in the most direct way possible, that no one in this country is above the law.

But this whole mess, no matter how it turns out, and no matter what other charges may come at Trump from elsewhere, is also an American tragedy. Trump’s status as a former president has not shielded him from answering for his alleged crimes. The indictment itself is shot through with tension, because Trump is, in fact, a former president and a current leading presidential candidate—which underscores the ghastly reality that no matter how much we learn about this crass sociopath, millions of people voted for him twice and are still hoping that he will return to power in the White House.

Trump’s defenders will argue that the New York case is just a local political vendetta, and that the potential crimes involved are relatively minor. As my colleague David Graham has noted, “Falsifying records is a crime, and crime is bad,” but this is like trying to get Al Capone on tax evasion, especially because “the Manhattan case seems like perhaps both the least significant and the legally weakest case.” David also notes that even some Trump critics wish Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had waited for Trump to be indicted on more important potential charges.

I’m not so sure. Trump has kept his supporters in a state of high tension over the past few weeks, first claiming that he’d be arrested on Tuesday, March 21, and then, in an appalling cultlike rally in Waco, bellowing that 2024 would be “the final battle” after previously warning that to indict him would be to court violence and civil unrest. Perhaps the New York charges have popped that bubble of tension; Trump can now go and whine about that while others prepare the case arguing that he has committed crimes against American democracy.

But to focus on which indictment should come when is to ignore that Trump has already admitted to his awful behavior in the events around the case. Trump (who sometimes refers to Stormy Daniels as "Horse Face") denies that he had an affair with the porn actor, but no one contests that he authorized paying her off, nor does his legal team deny that he lied about that money while standing in Air Force One—part of their risible argument that she was being paid hush money to keep quiet about an affair that never happened. They’re simply saying that technically, he didn’t violate any namby-pamby laws about ledger entries and campaign funding.

To our shame, we have too often let those kinds of arguments define the Trump legal saga. If Trump is brought to trial on the far more serious charge of attempting to strong-arm Georgia election officials, his defenders will claim that that indictment, too, is just local huckstering. They will find other excuses in the event that he somehow must answer for his role in trying to overturn our constitutional processes. And once again, even after looking at Trump’s own behavior, including his phone call to the Georgia secretary of state and the exhortation to the mob on January 6, too many Americans will focus on whether he committed an actual crime instead of coming to their senses and realizing that in any functional and healthy democracy, someone like Trump would have been shamed and forced into political and social exile years ago.

Trump, like the Republican opportunists who cling to him like remoras under a shark, doesn’t care about shame—he cares about getting away with it. Indeed, rather than leaving the public arena, Trump has reveled in it all, rolling around in the garbage of his own life and grunting happily about how the rules don’t apply to the real elites like him. Forget about Richard Nixon, who publicly resigned; Trump isn’t even Spiro Agnew, a man who seethed with rage at the felony corruption charges against him but had the sense not to brag about them. (Agnew insisted on his innocence for two months and then took a plea of “no contest” to a single tax-evasion charge, after which he mostly vanished from public view.)

No such luck this time. Win or lose in court, Trump is determined to bring us all into a summer-heat dumpster with him for as long as he can. And that leads to the last and most shocking thing about today’s news: Late this afternoon, New York local media reported that security was tightening up in certain areas of the city. That’s how we knew something was coming: The former president had already told us that he fully intended to trigger violence if the institutions of the law tried to touch him.

Tomorrow, all NYPD officers have reportedly been ordered to be in full uniform and ready to deploy. And again, somehow, we’ve just accepted this as the new normal. We no longer even blink when New York, a city scarred by multiple terror attacks against its innocent citizens, has to go on alert just to charge Trump with a crime. That one fact, more than any other, tells you how far down the long slide into vice and venality—and violence—Trump has dragged this country.

Every defendant, including Donald Trump, deserves the presumption of innocence. But when it comes to our civic and political innocence, Americans long ago lost whatever is left of ours.


Today’s News
  1. Nine U.S. soldiers were killed after two helicopters crashed during a training mission in Kentucky.
  2. The White House confirmed that President Joe Biden will not veto a congressional resolution ending the national emergency declared at the start of the pandemic.
  3. Major League Baseball’s 2023 season begins today.

Evening Read
Illustration of a person wearing a surgical mask against an American flag motif
The Atlantic

‘A Common American Death’

By Nicole Chung

His death certificate doesn’t tell me how he died. The causes of death are listed as “end-stage renal failure,” “diabetes mellitus,” “hypertension.” Yet I have no idea what forced my father’s body to shut down, his heart to stop, on that given night.

He’d had a cold, my mother told me, and had gone to bed early in the spare bedroom so he wouldn’t keep her awake with his coughing. Did his cough give way to a silent heart attack? she wondered. We know more about what did not happen than what did. At no time did he shout for help, or cry out in pain. There was no harsh death rattle, no deep gasps for a final breath he couldn’t find. My mother sat not 10 feet away from him on the other side of a thin wall, reading a book; if he had called out for her, made any sound of distress, she would have heard, and gone to him.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Mikayla LoBasso

Read. These eight books will take you somewhere new.

Listen. Get to know boygenius before their first album comes out tomorrow. The supergroup of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus is making a last stand for bands.

Play our daily crossword.

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.