If he were anyone else, one could say that former President Donald Trump has been having an exceedingly bad week. Indeed, were he anyone else, one might well be saying that it sure looks like the walls are closing in on him. But Donald Trump has been living in the Republic of Walls-Closing-Inistan for so very, very long that it’s difficult to know whether the former president will once again get away with simply lying about the square footage of the forever-shrinking penthouse. This week’s would-be significant developments include:
• In a massive filing on Tuesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said that her civil investigation into the Trump Organization showed the company had misstated the value of several assets in tax disclosures and financial statements used to secure loans. James thus sought a court order compelling Trump and two of his children, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., to testify under oath. James also reported that in previous testimony a third Trump adult child, Eric, invoked the Fifth Amendment about 500 times.
• On Wednesday evening, on an 8–1 vote, the Supreme Court opened the door for the release of more than 700 documents Trump had sought to withhold from the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, at this point practically ensuring that at minimum the commission will now receive documents tying the president to the events at the Capitol that day, including, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl wrote, “early drafts of statements that Trump gave that day that failed to quell the violence as lawmakers begged him for support, a draft executive order on election integrity, and handwritten notes concerning the events of Jan. 6 from Meadows himself.” Politico has already published the stunning draft executive order, which ordered the Pentagon to seize every single voting machine in the country in what would have amounted to a much more coup-y coup.
• On Thursday, the Jan. 6 select committee asked Trump’s daughter and then senior adviser Ivanka Trump to cooperate with its investigation—yet another step toward piercing his inner circle. In the letter seeking her testimony, the panel said witnesses have now told investigators that she may well have direct knowledge of her father’s actions before, during, and after the Jan. 6 effort to set aside the election results.
• On Thursday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis asked for a special grand jury as part of her efforts to investigate Trump’s attempt to set aside Georgia’s 2020 election results. Among other things, Willis is looking at Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he urged the Republican to “find” the 11,780 votes needed to reverse Biden’s win in Georgia. Willis is considering charging Trump criminally for election fraud. She requested the special grand jury because a “significant number of witnesses and prospective witnesses have refused to cooperate with the investigation absent a subpoena requiring their testimony.”
There’s more. There’s really a lot more. A criminal probe by the new Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, continues apace; civil suits brought by Mary Trump and E. Jean Carroll and other litigation chug on in courts around the country. Some of Donald Trump’s closest confederates, counselors, and boosters are beginning to feel the heat for their own actions around the insurrection, with contempt of Congress charges and referrals piling up and the Department of Justice finally targeting those who led the “seditious conspiracy” at the Capitol. The real question, then, is, now that he’s survived not one but two impeachments and the Mueller report, and settled many other potentially damaging lawsuits, when pundits state that this time, the walls are really, really, really, really closing in around the Trump family, which walls are really walls, and which are simply teensy little hurdles for a family that appears to have been genetically engineered to evade accountability forever?
The question isn’t merely whether Trump and his family’s usual bag of legal tricks—evasion, delay, threats directed at judges and other litigants, determined noncompliance, and the unfailing ability to spin losses as triumphs—will work for them. The question is whether the larger national mood that casts doubt on all legal processes as “witch hunts” and that deems any accountability for Trump supporters as partisan reprisals actually obviates even the utility of the entire legal system going forward. Put another way, what if we just kept throwing up legal mechanisms for accountability, and time and again nobody came?
In a way, the legal question bleeds into the political question: So long as Donald Trump is still somewhat immune from political consequences, will he remain entirely immune from the legal ones? Clearly that was the case for Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and others who came out on the wrong side of a legal fight and still walked away free men. Donald Trump no longer controls the levers of accountability, however, through the pardon power or the authority to abuse the Justice Department for his own purposes. So when we think about whether the walls of justice are genuinely capable of catching up with the Trump family and imposing meaningful consequences, it is useful to separate the legal machinery from the political.
In that sense, the findings of the Jan. 6 select committee, for instance, may not result in accountability for Trump, simply because—much like the Mueller report that all but stated Trump had obstructed justice but couldn’t be charged in office—half the country won’t care. The New York litigation may result in actual accountability for Trump, particularly the civil probe that could produce a monetary penalty, but whether that in fact stops him from running for office again, or inspires him to try harder for the 2024 nomination, is its own question. Maybe the real inquiry here, then, isn’t so much about the forever-closing-in walls and possible legal consequences for Trump, but whether the GOP specifically and Trump supporters generally have an unlimited appetite for a guy who looks a tiny bit more like a loser every day. The jury—which is not a real jury, to be sure—is still out on that question, but some of the signaling suggests that maybe the real effect of having the walls look like they are closing in, whether or not they really are, brings with it a growing sense that maybe tethering your horse to a paddy wagon is losing political strategy.
Donald Trump has kept the walls at bay, long before he ran for office, by undermining, buying off, out-waiting, and intimidating the justice system. Once he took office, he made the best efforts of any president to buy and sell judges and justices, to bully his attorneys general, and to bluster his way to a lifetime of legal immunity. When you no longer have any authority over the judges, and the prosecutors, and the law enforcement officers, it’s at least no longer possible to simply make the walls just go away. Which means we are really asking whether the illusion of immunity, the appearance of political victimhood, and the repeated claims that the rule law is only for other, smaller, less important people can protect the Trump family forever. That’s an illusory power that only lasts as long as we afford it to him. Whether it endures forever has less to do with the Trumps than the rest of us.