Debate about the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence has settled into well-worn grooves. Mr. Trump and many Republicans have denounced the act as illegitimate. Attorney General Merrick Garland is staying mostly mum. And Democrats are struggling to contain their enthusiasm.
Liberal excitement is understandable. Mr. Trump faces potential legal jeopardy from the Jan. 6 investigation in Congress and the Mar-a-Lago search. They anticipate fulfilling a dream going back to the earliest days of the Trump administration: to see him frog-marched to jail before the country and the world.
But this is a fantasy. There is no scenario following from the present that culminates in a happy ending for anyone, even for Democrats.
Down one path is the prosecution of the former president. This would be a Democratic administration putting the previous occupant of the White House, the ostensible head of the Republican Party and the current favorite to be the G.O.P. presidential nominee in 2024, on trial. That would set an incredibly dangerous precedent. Imagine, each time the presidency is handed from one party to the other, an investigation by the new administration’s Justice Department leads toward the investigation and possible indictment of its predecessor.
Some will say that Mr. Trump nonetheless deserves it — and he does. If Mr. Garland does not press charges against him for Jan. 6 or the potential mishandling of classified government documents, Mr. Trump will have learned that becoming president has effectively immunized him from prosecution. That means the country would be facing a potential second term for Mr. Trump in which he is convinced that he can do whatever he wants with complete impunity.
That seems to point to the need to push forward with a case, despite the risk of turning it into a regular occurrence. As many of Mr. Trump’s detractors argue, the rule of law demands it — and failing to fulfill that demand could end up being extremely dangerous.
But we’ve been through a version of the turbulent Trump experience before. During the Trump years, the system passed its stress test. We have reason to think it would do so again, especially with reforms to the Electoral Count Act likely to pass during the lame duck session following the upcoming midterm elections, if not before. Having to combat an emboldened Mr. Trump or another bad actor would certainly be unnerving and risky. But the alternatives would be too.
We caught a glimpse of those alternative risks as soon as the Mar-a-Lago raid was announced. Within hours, leading Republicans had issued inflammatory statements, and these statements would likely grow louder and more incendiary through any trial, both from Mr. Trump himself and from members of his party and its media rabble-rousers. (Though at a federal judge’s order a redacted version of the warrant affidavit may soon be released, so Mr. Trump and the rest of his party would have to contend with the government’s actual justification of the raid itself.)
If the matter culminates in an indictment and trial of Mr. Trump, the Republican argument would be more of what we heard day in and day out through his administration. His defenders would claim that every person ostensibly committed to the dispassionate upholding of the rule of law is in fact motivated by rank partisanship and a drive to self-aggrandizement. This would be directed at the attorney general, the F.B.I., the Justice Department and other branches of the so-called deep state. The spectacle would be corrosive, in effect convincing most Republican voters that appeals to the rule of law are invariably a sham.
But the nightmare wouldn’t stop there. What if Mr. Trump declares another run for the presidency just as he’s indicted and treats the trial as a circus illustrating the power of the Washington swamp and the need to put Republicans back in charge to drain it? It would be a risible claim, but potentially a politically effective one. And he might well continue this campaign even if convicted, possibly running for president from a jail cell. It would be Mr. Trump versus the System. He would be reviving an old American archetype: the folk-hero outlaw who takes on and seeks to take down the powerful in the name of the people.
We wouldn’t even avoid potentially calamitous consequences if Mr. Trump somehow ended up barred from running or his party opted for another candidate to be its nominee in 2024 — say, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. How long do you think it would take for a freshly inaugurated President DeSantis to pardon a convicted and jailed Donald Trump? Hours? Minutes? And that move would probably be combined with a promise to investigate and indict Joe Biden for the various “crimes” he allegedly committed in office.
The instinct of Democrats is to angrily dismiss such concerns. But that doesn’t mean these consequences wouldn’t happen. Even if Mr. Garland’s motives and methods are models of judiciousness and restraint, the act of an attorney general of one party seeking to indict and convict a former and possibly future president of the other party is the ringing of a bell that cannot be unrung. It is guaranteed to be undertaken again, regardless of whether present and future accusations are justified.
As we’ve seen over and over again since Mr. Trump won the presidency, our system of governance presumes a certain base level of public spiritedness — at the level of the presidency, in Congress and in the electorate at large. When that is lacking — when an aspersive figure is elected, when he maintains strong popular support within his party and when that party remains electorally viable — high-minded efforts to act as antibodies defending the body politic from the spread of infection can end up doing enduring harm to the patient. Think of all those times during the Trump presidency when well-meaning sources inside and outside the administration ended up undermining their own credibility by hyping threats and overpromising evidence of wrongdoing and criminality.
That’s why it’s imperative we set aside the Plan A of prosecuting Mr. Trump. In its place, we should embrace a Plan B that defers the dream of a post-presidential perp walk in favor of allowing the political process to run its course. If Mr. Trump is the G.O.P. nominee again in 2024, Democrats will have no choice but to defeat him yet again, hopefully by an even larger margin than they did last time.
Mr. Trump himself and his most devoted supporters will be no more likely to accept that outcome than they were after the 2020 election. The bigger the margin of his loss, the harder it will be for Mr. Trump to avoid looking like a loser, which is the outcome he dreads more than anything — and one that would be most likely to loosen his grip on his party.
There is an obvious risk: If Mr. Trump runs again, he might win. But that’s a risk we can’t avoid — which is why we may well have found ourselves in a situation with no unambivalently good options.
Damon Linker, a former columnist at The Week, writes the newsletter “Eyes on the Right” and is a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
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