When Donald Trump took his final walk from the White House, boarded a helicopter and vanished into a cold sky, millions of Americans breathed a sigh of relief. With the former US president retired to his Mar-a-Lago estate, they reasoned, they would no longer live in constant dread of new scandals or impulsive tweets.
Two years and two months later, it turns out that Trump addiction is hard to beat. His legal perils have dominated headlines all week. Republicans continue to define themselves in relation to him. He remains the favourite for the party nomination in next year’s presidential election. Trump is still living rent-free in the nation’s head.
“The hope that Donald Trump would melt away into Mar-a-Lago seems sweetly nostalgic,” said Jane Dailey, a history professor at the University of Chicago. “There is something about Donald Trump that fascinates and grabs the gaze and holds on to it. Nothing seems to hurt him ever. It’s just bizarre. Every single time we’ve thought he’s gone too far, he’s been rewarded.”
Now 76, Trump has continued to make news and make himself impossible to ignore. His conduct before and during the January 6 insurrection was the subject of primetime congressional hearings. He inserted himself into the midterm elections for Congress and declared his own presidential run. And now he is on the brink of becoming the first American president charged with a crime.
A grand jury in New York is examining his involvement in a $130,000 payment made in 2016 to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public about an alleged sexual encounter years earlier. Trump has denied the claim, insisted he did nothing wrong and assailed the investigation, led by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, as politically motivated.
With an indictment seemingly imminent, Trump last weekend used his Truth Social platform to predict that he would be arrested on Tuesday and call for his supporters to protest. With that single post, he triggered a week of breathless will-he-won’t-he media coverage and speculation that demonstrated, far from moving on from Trump, America remains as in thrall to him as ever.
New York police erected security barricades outside the Manhattan criminal court and Bragg’s office. News outlets deployed teams of reporters and braced for the spectacle of the former president in handcuffs. Fake AI-generated images of Trump being arrested received millions of views online. Pundits debated whether Bragg’s case hinges on an untested legal theory and whether it will benefit Trump politically by galvanising his base.
Tuesday came and went without an arrest, though the prospect of it reportedly helped Trump raise $1.5m in three days. The breaking news from the grand jury was no news: it gradually became clear that it would not reach a decision this week. Trump fired off a barrage of messages on Truth Social, describing Bragg as an “animal” who is “doing the work of Anarchists and the Devil”.
He also contrived to turn his imminent disgrace into a loyalty test for Republicans who for nearly eight years have rallied around him over and over again.
Dozens of congressional Republicans gathered at a conference in Orlando, Florida, to discuss the party’s legislative achievements instead found themselves talking about Trump and his potential indictment. Kevin McCarthy, speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters: “I think you know in your heart of hearts that this is just political. And I think that’s what the rest of the country thinks. And we’re kind of tired of that.”
House Republicans drew comparisons with the Russian collusion saga and set about investigating the investigator. In a letter to Bragg on Monday, they demanded communications, documents and testimony relating to the “unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority and the potential indictment” of Trump. Bragg dismissed the effort as “an unlawful incursion into New York’s sovereignty”.
Potential rivals in the 2024 Republican primary were also forced to respond, rushing to defence rather than risking alienating his base. Former vice-president Mike Pence said Americans do not want to see Trump indicted. The New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a frequent Trump critic, suggested that he was being unfairly prosecuted.
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who has been losing ground to Trump in recent opinion polls, offered a mixed assessment when asked to address the potential indictment. He condemned Bragg as a “George Soros-backed” prosecutor “pursuing a political agenda and weaponising the office” but also said pointedly: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
Just as in the 2016 election, when Trump received free media coverage worth billions of dollars, these contenders were forced to talk about him rather than establishing their own identity or setting their own agenda. Political analysts suggested that it will be hard for any of his Republican rivals to cut through the noise.
Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York, said: “DeSantis keeps aligning himself more and more with Trump’s own views. He talks about the witch-hunt of the New York DA and is clearly trying to capture Trump voters and keep himself on their good side in case something happens to Trump.
“But that’s not necessarily a winning strategy, because if Trump doesn’t have anything damaging that’s going to take him down, then DeSantis isn’t going to go anywhere. He can’t win Trump voters if Trump is still a viable option. For others, just getting room in the public sphere is going to be hard because Trump is the 500lb gorilla.”
The hush money case is only the beginning: Trump is under scrutiny from special counsel Jack Smith for his efforts to overthrow the 2020 election and mishandling of classified documents after leaving office. In Georgia a prosecutor has been investigating whether Trump and his allies illegally meddled in the election in that state.
Although Trump’s call for protests this week fell flat, the higher-stakes investigations are only likely to drive up the temperature and increase the potential for social unrest heading into the 2024 election. On Thursday he wrote on Truth Social: “Our country is being destroyed, as they tell us to be peaceful!” – implying that peaceful demonstrations might not be enough.
Yet there is little prospect of the media ending its obsession with Trump given the way his perpetual dramas translate into ratings. Some commentators argue that his continued presence also suits Democrats just fine because he unites their coalition and has proven beatable in elections.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “It’s extremely depressing that elements of the left want to keep scratching at the national scab. It takes two to tango and we definitely have a willing partner in this. Alvin Bragg does not have to bring this prosecution and yet he chooses to do so. Let’s apportion blame to all contributing actors.”
Trump’s enduring grip on the national psyche marks yet another break from his presidential predecessors, who have largely devoted their time to preserving their legacies through philanthropic work and presidential libraries. Although Barack Obama continues to campaign on behalf of Democrats during election campaigns, he no longer drives news cycles.
Trump’s refusal to leave the stage did not surprise Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to Bill Clinton and biographer of Abraham Lincoln. “Our long national nightmare continues,” he said. “It was a delusion to believe, even after the coup attempt and the insurrection of January 6, that Trump would just fade away and cease to be a factor and that politics as usual could be resumed between two normal political parties.”
He added: “I don’t know if it requires the brandishing of a cross and the wearing of garlic to deal with the vampire. It’s entirely possible and even likely that Trump could be the Republican nominee and has a possibility of re-entering the White House to, as he has promised, abrogate the constitution and the republic, destroy the western alliance and, in effect, rule as a dictator.”