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Merrick Garland

The Justice Department keeps revealing damning details about the ongoing investigation into Donald Trump’s illicit possession of highly classified documents and his alleged effort to conceal and retain those materials. That has some commentators arguing against an indictment of the former president on the grounds that it might spur a backlash from conservatives who will argue that Democrats have weaponized the DOJ.

Trump’s “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,” Damon Linker wrote last week in The New York Times. “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 this smear of federal law enforcement cannot be staved off by declining to indict the former president, as Linker suggests. It is true that a bloc of Republicans and right-wing media personalities have spent the weeks since the FBI’s August 6 search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort loudly arguing that the action was a partisan sham, and they would certainly continue to do so if he were indicted. Another faction, however, is now preparing to go after the Justice Department on the exact same grounds of Democratic partisanship if it decides not to indict the former president.

This damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t tendency runs through the columns of Andrew McCarthy, a Trump-skeptical legal commentator respected in higher-brow conservative circles. McCarthy is a former federal prosecutor whose columns run in National Review and The New York Post and who regularly provides legal commentary in his role as a Fox News contributor.

McCarthy’s August 9 column, written in the immediate aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago search, provided a somewhat more sober version of the incendiary conspiracy theories of a justice system weaponized for Democratic benefit that were replete at the time on Fox. The National Review columnist argued that the Justice Department had “obviously” used concerns about classified information “as a pretext” to find evidence tying Trump to the January 6 insurrection. He warned against filing charges on such grounds, saying that such an indictment “would fuel the perception that Democrats are using the Justice Department as a political weapon.”

“The Biden Justice Department is under enormous pressure from the Democratic base to indict Trump, and it is straining to deliver,” McCarthy concluded.

A couple weeks later, McCarthy was still telling readers that any Trump indictment would be politically motivated. After reviewing the redacted affidavit supporting the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, he concluded that the Justice Department would be unlikely to indict the former president unless it had strong evidence to prosecute an obstruction of justice charge or Trump talked himself into an indictment.

“I don’t think the Justice Department and FBI want to prosecute Donald Trump on classified-information or document-retention offenses in light of all the considerable downsides of doing so,” McCarthy explained. But he added: “Of course, the Biden Justice Department has shown itself to be very responsive to the demands of Democrats’ progressive base. As the midterms approach, if the left’s rabid insistence on a Trump indictment gets intense enough, all bets are off.”

After Tuesday’s damning DOJ filing, however, McCarthy concluded in his August 31 column that the DOJ possesses “formidable” evidence of obstruction on Trump’s part and that Attorney General Merrick Garland will likely approve charges. That evidence is so damning, in fact, that McCarthy wrote that the only explanation for not indicting Trump would be that the DOJ is in the service of the partisan interests of the Democratic Party.

This is a serious obstruction case that appears as if it would not be difficult to prove. The Justice Department is under immense pressure from the Democratic base to indict Trump, and the jury pool in Washington, DC, where the government would file any indictment, is intensely anti-Trump. It is thus hard to imagine that Attorney General Merrick Garland will decide against filing charges.

The best hope Trump has of avoiding an indictment is that Democrats would rather run against a wounded Trump in 2024 than indict him in 2022.

Note that McCarthy left himself room to accuse Garland of partisanship regardless of what the attorney general does: If he files charges, it will be because his department is “under immense pressure from the Democratic base to indict Trump,” while if he refrains, the only explanation is that he thinks it will help Democrats by keeping Trump on the 2024 presidential ballot.

To his credit, when the facts change, McCarthy’s stated view changes. To his detriment, the throughline is that if the Justice Department doesn’t do what he wants, it must be because it’s run by Democratic partisans.

It’s easy to imagine that this line of reasoning might spread amid the faction of the GOP that would prefer to see another candidate — perhaps Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — on the ballot in 2024 in Trump’s stead. It gives such individuals a talking point that suggests moving on from Trump without actually criticizing his behavior: It’s the Democrats who want Trump to be the 2024 Republican nominee! You can tell that’s true because the Justice Department isn’t indicting him!

The staunchly pro-Trump faction, of course, has a different view.


The Justice Department would be wise to follow the facts wherever they may lead and make a decision about whether to indict Trump based on what it finds. Trying to avoid right-wing allegations of partisanship is futile — in that information ecosystem, such conspiracy theories are the coin of the realm.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

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