Opinion

The enormous downside of another long, public Trump investigation that comes to nothing

Why New York prosecutors should go about their work quietly

The New York attorney general's investigation into the Trump Organization is "no longer purely civil in nature," the prosecutor's office announced Tuesday evening. "We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, along with the Manhattan DA," said a representative of the office, prompting media speculation that Trump could end up in prison. "Previously, the danger posed by [this] investigation seemed to be merely financial," The Washington Post observed. It "didn't threaten his liberty."

That speculation, argued Jonathan Chait at New York magazine Wednesday morning, is exactly what we need. "The American people need to be prepared for the fairly likely possibility that the former president will be prosecuted," Chait wrote. "The more surprised the public is to learn of charges against Trump (should they be filed), the easier it will be for Trump to depict them as political."

Chait is right to be concerned about public reception of this news, how it might be interpreted by Trump's fans and how it could affect his political future. But his strategy, I think, is exactly backwards. Officials and the media should be very cautious about hyping this probe. The last thing we need is another long, public Trump investigation that comes to nothing.

Since he left office in January, deprived of his Twitter account and other major social media platforms, Trump has slipped from American attention with remarkable speed. He makes the occasional appearance on Fox or One America News, but — diehard Trump supporters aside — who cares anymore? He's out of office, and we've heard it all before. His recent debut of a blog, where he collects donations and issues screeds roughly the length and tone of a three-post Twitter thread, has attracted far less interest than the tweets used to claim. It has no comments or other means of reader response, which undoubtedly makes it less fun for Trump and less engaging for his readers. To my knowledge, only one post has driven significant news coverage, and it was about Republican criticism of Trump (one of several intriguing recent signs he may be losing some sway in the GOP).

In short, Trump has dwindled as a factor in our national politics. We're still dealing with the results of his presidency, of course, but the man himself no longer effects the sense of imminent omnipresence he maintained for five years, and America is better off for the change. (I debated writing this column for that very reason.) Absent some new medium of public communication — which he seems to lack the wherewithal to develop — Trump looks set to stay thus muted for at least the next year and a half, until the 2024 campaign season begins. This is a good thing, and it would be a huge unforced error to change it.

Chait's idea of prepping the public for the possibility of Trump's criminal prosecution would do exactly that. It would facilitate the very politicization Chait fears. It would hand Trump a lengthy news cycle, likely a months-long invitation to get back in the spotlight. And it would be such a convenient story for him, too, perfect for the revised edition of his presidential magnum opus, Total Political Witch Hunt: How Democrat Losers, Nasty Haters, and Fake News Liars Betrayed Your Favorite President. Prosecutors and the press preparing the public for the possibility of prosecution — which is to say, talking a lot about Donald J. Trump — would make it Christmas morning at Mar-a-Lago every single day.

That's not to say this process shouldn't be as transparent as possible, or that extensive media coverage would be inappropriate if Trump is indeed subject to criminal charges. But we're not there yet. Not even close. At present, it's not clear Trump himself will ever be prosecuted. Tuesday's news is zero guarantee he'll be charged, tried, convicted, or imprisoned. To my mind, with the information currently available to the public, telling the American people to expect Trump's prosecution is telling them to engage in fantasy.

And it's not a harmless fantasy. It would once again lavish Trump with attention — and perhaps needless attention, should this investigation end in nothing (or nothing the average American can explain as proof of Trump's corruption in a minute or less, which in politics is functionally the same thing). That's a real possibility, though Trump is now deprived of the presidential resources he once enjoyed. If this investigation is handled as Russiagate was and ends in a similar whimper, with no criminal consequences for Trump personally, he will run victory laps until the day he dies. He will do this even if, in echoes of the Russia scandal, some of his subordinates are prosecuted and/or there is evidence of wrongdoing (perhaps more moral than legal) but not enough for prosecution.

It isn't difficult to imagine how ideal this scenario might be for Trump: He could spend, say, summer 2021 to summer 2022 whining about his ostensible persecution to every media outlet that will take a former president's call, see the investigation end without his prosecution next year, crow about "winning" for a few months, and then launch his 2024 campaign in late 2022 on the premise that this episode demonstrates how badly America has gone wrong without him.

Would it be enough to put him back in power? Maybe not, but it would certainly put him back on CNN.

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