No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on April 3.

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

– attributed to Socrates by Epictetus
Discourses, book I

This week’s featured posts are “A right-wing judge takes aim at medication abortions” and “Can the anti-woke mob define ‘woke’?

This week everybody was talking about indicting Trump

For some while, I’ve been playing down speculation about possible Trump indictments, because those stories have been in reruns for months: Yes, there are all these grand juries and a list of possible charges that could be pressed at any time. We could talk forever about all the possibilities. But is anything actually happening?

This week, though, things got a lot more definite, at least with respect to the Manhattan grand jury investigating the Stormy Daniels payoff and the false business records that covered it up. AP reports that law enforcement officials are making security plans to handle a Trump indictment and arrest. Trump’s lawyer said Friday that Trump would appear voluntarily if indicted (and would not hand Governor DeSantis the hot potato of deciding whether to delay or block his extradition from Florida). NBC says the arrest could happen this week. In a Truth Social post, Trump claimed he would be arrested tomorrow. So that’s a little more than just speculation.

Former Manhattan prosecutor Karen Friedman Agnifilo describes the process in a 13-minute video, including a few things I did not already know: The indictment will be sealed until the arraignment, but Trump will have seen it, and so will be able to spin it for some period of time while the DA’s office is obliged to stay silent. Also, if he refused to come to New York and fought extradition, his problems wouldn’t be limited to Florida. Any state could arrest him and send him to New York. It’s kind of hard to run for president under those conditions.

Here’s the outline of the case: Trump had sex with porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) in 2006. Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 not to tell her story to the media. (As Chris Hayes reminded us this week, the payoff happened shortly after the Access Hollywood grab-them-by-the-pussy controversy had nearly destroyed Trump’s candidacy. A follow-up sex-with-a-porn-star scandal would have been a big deal.) Trump repaid Cohen over a period of months, with the Trump Organization falsely recording the payments as legal fees. An indictment would claim that the $130K was an unreported campaign contribution, which would be a crime. Falsifying business records in furtherance of a crime is another crime.

A lot of people find it ridiculous that Trump would be indicted for this, rather than for his more serious offenses, like inciting a riot and trying to overturn an election. (That said, a Fulton County grand jury is still discussing whether to indict him for election manipulation in Georgia.) I’m sure we’ll hear similar complaints if Jack Smith indicts Trump for mishandling classified documents and obstructing the investigation of that crime.

Politically, the unfortunate thing about this case is that the scandalous part (sex with a porn star while your wife is tending a new baby) isn’t the criminal part, which is more technical. So it sounds to a lot of his (male) supporters like he’s being charged with something that shouldn’t be illegal, and that they’d do if they had the chance.

And while complaints about the smallness of the crime may be valid as far as they go, I think that’s the wrong way to look at this situation.

it’s really not a notional offense. If we had known in the final weeks of the 2016 election that a presidential candidate would arrange a hefty payment to kill a story about his sleeping with a porn star and do it by committing tax fraud and campaign finance fraud, I don’t think any of us would have said, “Oh, well, that kind of stuff happens all the time. Let’s not pretend those types of fraud are crimes.”

You and I would be indicted if we did what Trump has done, so he should be indicted too. There shouldn’t be one set of laws for Trump and another set for everybody else. (His fans want to claim the reverse, that the law shouldn’t be harder on him than it would be on anybody else. I agree with their point in theory, but I don’t believe that’s what’s happening.) If you don’t think these laws should apply to Trump, what laws should?

The obvious comparison here is Al Capone, who was convicted of tax evasion, not murder and racketeering. I’m sure that prosecution also seemed a bit ridiculous, but should Capone have been able to get away with avoiding taxes just because he was also a murderer?

The second big question related to a Trump indictment is whether he will incite another riot. He’s posting all-caps screeds on his Twitter-clone Pravda Social, calling on supporters to PROTEST and TAKE OUR NATION BACK, which resembles his pre-January-6 rhetoric.

Trump’s speeches have always been dark, full of visions of “American carnage” and so on. But lately it’s gotten worse.

In 2016, I declared, “I am your voice.” Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.

He’s been getting more and more explicit about the idea that if he gets back into power, he’ll make a lot of people suffer.

In other Trump-related legal news, a DC judge has ordered Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to testify to the grand jury investigating Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. Courts ordinarily don’t expect lawyers to testify against their clients (i.e., attorney/client privilege), but the judge is invoking the crime/fraud exception: Conversations in which a lawyer and his client conspire to break the law are not privileged.

That means that Special Counsel Jack Smith has convinced the judge (by a preponderance-of-evidence standard, i.e., more likely than not) that Trump and Corcoran discussed committing a crime.

Tucker Carlson may have texted “There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”, but I believe that’s too pessimistic. Think of all the law we’ve learned since the Donald came into our lives.

and abortion

One of the featured posts covers the lawsuit that seeks to outlaw the abortion drug mifepristone.

and Ron DeSantis

DeSantis seems to have entered a tricky new phase of his quest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He hasn’t declared his candidacy yet, but he has begun making appearances in places like Iowa that sure look like campaign rallies. Previously, Republicans had mostly been responding to the idea of nominating DeSantis, but now they’re going to have a real campaign and candidate to examine. This is a transition all candidates have to go through. Some sail through it, while others are thrown by it.

One famous example was Ted Kennedy in the 1980 presidential cycle. High inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis had made President Carter vulnerable to a primary challenge, and Kennedy seemed to represent a return to the halcyon days of JFK’s Camelot. Polls showed him crushing Carter in the primaries, and then probably sailing into the White House. But in August of 1979, just as he was getting ready to announce his candidacy, Kennedy sat down for a televised interview with Roger Mudd — an interview so consequential that it headlined Mudd’s obituary more than 40 years later. “Why do you want to be president?” Mudd asked. Kennedy was stumped for an answer. (One lesson here is that abrasive or pugnacious interviewing is not necessarily the most hard-hitting. A simple question can be devastating if there’s no good answer. One of the featured posts discusses a similarly devastating simple question: When Briahna Joy Gray asked Bethany Mandel to define woke.)

Ted went forward with his campaign and took his challenge all the way to the convention, where he gave a historically great speech. (“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”) But after the Mudd interview, the bloom was off the rose. A new Kennedy presidency no longer seemed inevitable, and Ted was just a candidate running to Carter’s left, not the reincarnation of his sainted brothers.

Early in the 2012 cycle, Texas Governor Rick Perry was briefly ahead in the polls. But his campaign had a rocky start, and his chances vanished for good during a debate in November, 2011, when he boldly promised to eliminate three government agencies, but could only remember the names of two of them.

The candidates most vulnerable to this transition might be described as “high concept”. They haven’t run nationally before and don’t have a committed following, but their attraction can be summed up in one simple line: Scott Walker was the governor who broke the public-employee unions. Marco Rubio was a handsome young senator who could bring Hispanics into the GOP. Gary Hart was a new kind of Democrat challenging the Mondale establishment.

Ron DeSantis’ high concept is that he’s Trump without the baggage. He’s the anti-woke candidate who will troll the libs and fight tooth-and-nail against the kind of people the Republican base hates, but he’s not a pussy-grabbing insurrectionist who will have to spend more time in court than on the campaign trail. He can look ahead to 2024 and beyond, rather than constantly relitigate 2020. At 44, he can exploit Joe Biden’s age in way that 76-year-old Trump can’t.

That capsule description looks good to a lot of Republicans, but now they’ll have to see what they think of the actual Ron DeSantis. We started getting a preview of that process this week, when he answered Tucker Carlson’s question about Ukraine.

While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.

In some sense, that was the right answer for his campaign. Aiding Ukraine is popular nationally, and most voters understand that the Russian invasion is more than a “territorial dispute”, but the most likely Republican primary voters are on the other side of that question. In MAGA circles, aid to Ukraine is always cast in a zero-sum frame: “Why are we sending our money to Ukraine when we still have problems X, Y, and Z at home?” (as if they have obvious solutions to X, Y, and Z that can only be funded if Ukraine aid gets scrapped). So nobody who challenges Trump can afford to be the pro-Ukraine anti-Putin candidate.

But the deeper problem is that he had to answer the question at all. Reagan Republicans may be in the minority now, but they’re not gone, and Republicans who look to the general election know that it would be fatal to run as the Putin party against the Zelenskyy party. And DeSantis wants to be seen arguing with Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris. He doesn’t need people like John Cornyn and Marco Rubio challenging his lack of foreign-policy experience.

But that’s going to keep happening for a while now: DeSantis wants to talk about woke teachers indoctrinating kids to hate America, Anthony Fauci shutting down America’s economy for no reason, and predatory doctors pressuring teen girls to cut their breasts off. But he’s going to face increasing pressure to take positions on issues that are off-brand for him, like health care and jobs.

And as he goes into small early-decision states like Iowa and New Hampshire, individual voters are going to be telling him the actual problems in their lives, and expecting him to pretend that he cares. That might be difficult for him.

An NYT newsletter (behind a paywall) claims DeSantis is falling behind Trump in recent polls. Polling is hard in this race, because the results various polls get are wildly inconsistent with each other. But

In this situation, the best way to get a clear read on recent trends is to compare surveys by the same pollsters over time. … Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better.

DeSantis is suffering from the same problem Republicans have been having since 2015: He seems to be hoping Trump will magically disappear, because he doesn’t want to anger Trump’s base by criticizing him. So Trump can tear him down without any fear of DeSantis striking back.

Barring a heart attack or a well-placed meteor, the only way to beat Trump is for somebody to take him on. If DeSantis won’t do that, he should save his effort and not run.

and you also might be interested in …

The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. He’s charged with war crimes for deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.

The warrant has few immediate consequences, since the ICC won’t be taking Putin into custody anytime soon. However, it does limit his travel options and puts a stigma on him. The ICC has international prestige, so this counts for more than just a claim made by the Ukrainian government or his country’s other enemies.

Saturday, the NYT published an article on something that has been long rumored but never definitively established: The Reagan campaign’s successful attempt to sabotage the Carter administration’s efforts to negotiate the release of American hostages in Iran.

The state of Texas is taking over Houston’s schools. The state is dominated by White Republicans, the city by Black Democrats, so trust is hard to come by here.

and let’s close with a simple test

If you see a Ukrainian flag here, you’ve been watching too much news. It’s a Jersey shore sunrise, photographed and submitted to a Smithsonian photo contest. (The flag would be upside down anyway.)

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  • Ed O  On March 20, 2023 at 3:38 pm

    “A follow-up sex-with-a-porn-star scandal would have been a big deal.”

    Really? The “grab them by the pussy” remark was a frank revelation of Trump’s history of abusive behavior and disrespect toward women. On the other hand, having sex with Clifford, who claims she consented even though she “felt trapped” in his hotel room, was just another indication of his already obvious character (and unfaithfulness to his wife, assuming he had ever led her to think he wouldn’t have sex with other women).

    It would have made headlines, and he might have been embarrassed, but his supporters would have given him a pass on it (or liked him all the more) just like with everything else, and I seriously doubt it would have prevented him from winning in 2016.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On March 21, 2023 at 12:02 pm

      I disagree. Pence came very close to leaving the Trump campaign after the pussy-grabber tape came out. If Daniels’ story had come out right after, that might have motivated Pence to actually leave, and for a significant chunk of Evangelical voters to stay home. And imagine the spectacle of Trump frantically scrambling for a VP replacement at that point.

  • ccyager  On March 26, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    I keep wondering what would happen if all the Trump indictments happened at the same time. Or in a cascade over the course of two weeks. I think stretching them out would be a mistake because then the trials will be stretched out or postponed. Trump can’t use a presidential campaign as an excuse to delay a trial, can he?

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