The satisfaction is almost universal, but it has a sickening aftertaste: Democrats revel in the possibility that Donald J. Trump will finally get his comeuppance. But when the mocking laughter fades, a much more enduring fear remains. What will this do to the country?
While President Biden and his closest allies have been largely silent on Mr Trump’s indictment, mainstream Democrats have been much more eager to talk, responding with a mix of cheers and deep concern about how the federal prosecution of a former president and current candidate of the White House could turn American politics upside down.
Interviews this week with more than 60 Democratic members of Congress, state legislators, liberal activists and party officials found near-universal agreement that Mr. Trump deserved to face federal charges for his handling of classified documents, but a notable split over whether the charges were good for the country or even their party.
“I don’t want this chaos machine to do more damage to the country, to hurt more people,” Ohio Representative Greg Landsman, a moderate freshman from Cincinnati, said in an interview Tuesday, referring to the former president. “Democrats, Republicans, Independents, everyone has to take some degree of seriousness.”
For years, Democrats have debated the wisdom of prosecuting Mr Trump for the various crimes they believe he has committed. Vice President Kamala Harris said during her presidential campaign that the Justice Department “would have no choice” but to prosecute Trump.
Now the document’s indictment serves as a political Rorschach test, coming at the start of the 2024 presidential campaign, in which many Democrats expect a rematch between Biden and Trump. Some Democrats are excited that the man who tormented them for seven years can finally be held accountable for his norm-breaking actions, but others fear Trump will again defy political gravity and his supporters will respond to the charges. with violence.
Top of mind for many Democrats is the possibility of another outbreak of civil unrest akin to the riot of Trump supporters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. While Mr Trump’s first appearance in federal court on Tuesday took place without a hitch outside the building, there is no shortage of Democrats predicting that Mr. Trump’s candidacy will lead to more chaos at some point.
“I worry about what will happen in 2024,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. What we saw on January 6, I don’t think we saw the end of it.
David Walters, a former governor of Oklahoma, said that given the evidence in the documents case, charges should be filed — despite the possibility that Trump’s supporters could foment violence.
“The long-term damage to the nation and our justice system from inaction far outweighs the political and security risk,” Walters said. “We have an evil force in our midst that must be fought.”
The tone was livelier this past weekend at the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s annual convention in Green Bay. There, Rep. Mark Pocan sprinkled his speech with celebratory gags comparing Mr. Trump’s legal trials to recent Democratic triumphs in the state.
His biggest line of applause was, “Indictments, like impeachments, apparently come in pairs for crooked ex-presidents. Happy indictment weekend, friends.”
In North Carolina, Shelia Huggins, a Durham attorney who serves on the Democratic National Committee, read the indictment aloud for 50 minutes during her YouTube livestream on Monday. She stopped halfway through. “I need a break,” she said. “That was a lot.”
The indictment itself served as a conversation starter for Democrats across the political spectrum. They have so many questions: Will the allegations that Mr. Trump mishandled national security secrets be the thing that separates him from his hard-core supporters? Does the indictment make it more or less likely that Trump will become the Republican presidential nominee? What would happen if he was convicted and still active next year?
“I don’t like putting a former president, along with his Secret Service team, in a corrections facility,” said Mary Moe, a former Montana state senator. “But there has to be a consequence. We are in unfamiliar territory here.”
New York State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs predicted the indictment would be the final straw for Mr Trump’s political career — a statement no doubt made many times by others over the past eight years.
“The political damage to Donald Trump’s chances of another run for president will overwhelm his candidacy,” said Mr. Jacobs. “There are just too many common sense, patriotic Americans to carve this any other way.”
Others worry about what would happen if Mr. Trump is acquitted.
“If it is substantiated in court and he is not convicted, it will be a huge blow to the already woefully low trust in the government, DOJ, the courts and the justice system as a whole,” said Liano Sharon, a progressive activist from Michigan.
And still others feared that convicting Mr Trump could bounce back to hurt Mr Biden’s re-election chances.
“The only political risk is if Trump’s indictment and possible conviction causes him to lose the nomination and Biden face someone else,” said William Owen, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Tennessee.
Biden’s presidential campaign, her closest allies and the Democrats who expect a fierce re-election battle next year seem to have collectively decided it’s best to say as little as possible and avoid becoming part of a news cycle about the impeachment. against Trump.
Asked about the charges Tuesday, Alaska Representative Mary Peltola went out of her way to release as bland a statement as possible. “I am aware of the most recent indictment against former President Trump,” she said. “I will continue to focus on advocating for Alaskans.”
Some Democrats who have been publicly skeptical of Trump’s prosecution in the past are beginning to whisper: Lock him up.
Matt Bennett, one of the founders of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, warned days after Jan. 6 of “torturing” Mr. Trump (he later apologized). After Mr Trump was indicted in Manhattan this year, Mr Bennett questioned whether the prosecution was “worth it”.
But now he’s finally sold on suing Mr. Trump.
“There’s just no way you could read that indictment and think he should evade judgment for such egregious conduct,” Bennett said Monday.
However, not all Democrats have been swayed by the indictment.
Bruce Ledewitz, a veteran of the presidential campaigns of Gary Hart and Al Gore and now a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, has written 2019 columns warning against trying Mr. Trump in court. He advised Democrats to follow the example of President Gerald Ford, who pardoned his predecessor, the recently resigned Richard Nixon, to spare the country the trauma of litigating over his term.
“No one asked the Ford question: Is this in the best interest of the country?” said Mr. Ledewitz. “Trump could be president and be in prison. I don’t know who thought this would be wise for the country. It just isn’t.”
Still other Democrats remain concerned about what prosecuting a former president might do to the country’s image abroad, especially in places with still-developing democracies.
“This is not good for this country in terms of our standing in the world,” said Sheikh Rahman, a Bangladeshi-born Georgia state senator. “Everyone is looking at us, the whole world is looking at us and they say, ‘How could this happen to the United States?'”