“Donald has eluded accountability for so long and left so much destruction in his wake that there is a lot to take in,” she tweeted, with the hashtag #HappyIndictmentDay.
The New York Times blazed the news of the first former US president facing criminal charges across its front page. Channelling Forrest Gump – “hello, my name’s Forrest Gump; people call me Forrest Gump” – the paper’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, repeated that fact twice in the first paragraph of his front-page story.
“While no one wants to be indicted,” Baker wrote, “Mr Trump in one sense finds himself exactly where he wants to be – in the centre ring of the circus, with all the spotlight on him.”
That’s not how it went down at PJ Clarke’s. As the Trump motorcade arrived outside the Criminal Court building in Lower Manhattan, the TV screen perched above the saloon bar was showing a baseball game until one drinker – okay, it was me – suggested switching to live coverage of Trump’s “historic” arraignment.
The pleasant barman on duty, who spoke with an Irish lilt, obliged. But the volume button remained on mute, making Trump’s short court appearance even more low-key – for PJ Clarke patrons, anyway.
Not that we missed much. Trump uttered nine words during his court appearance: “Yes,” “thank you,” “I do,” “yes,” “yes,” and “not guilty.”
‘Grievance state politics’
“He appeared in the doorway of the courtroom just before 2:30pm, sombre and alone, and he approached the defence table so reluctantly that his long red tie swung more than his arms did,” the New Yorker reported.
In Miami, Trump did not utter a word in the courtroom, and it was up to his legal team to plead not guilty. Later, his SUV-escorted convoy stopped briefly just minutes away at the famous Cuban-American bakery-cafe Versailles, where he told local Latinos it was “one of the saddest days in the history of our country”.
Appearing simultaneously on CNN, Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush Republican administration, accused Trump of pursuing “grievance state politics” with comments like “they’re not coming for me; they’re coming for you”.
Meanwhile, back at PJ Clarke’s on that fateful April day, a high-powered New York attorney glanced at the five-second grab of Trump arriving at the courthouse and, between generous gulps of Guinness, lamented that foreigners must regard the US as a “joke”.
At the other end of the bar, a group of hearty drinkers spilled on to the Third Avenue footpath at the same moment as Trump’s court appearance. Laughing at their own jokes, quaffing beers and chatting left little time for glancing at the TV screen.
Minutes later, a large group of relaxed New York families were strolling along the wide path leading from “Plaza corner” into Manhattan’s oxygen zone: Central Park. Children were licking ice creams, and Chinese tourists were sitting for fast-turnaround kerbside portraits.
Like at PJ Clarke’s, there was lots of laughter and chatter. The Central Park crowd seemed oblivious to, or at least uninterested in, the history-making taking place further downtown.
But, hey, this is America, where just about every “truth” is contested by an opposite “truth”. The positive vibe in New York’s streets amidst such a dramatic and menacing constitutional and political upheaval may have been a harbinger of the rosier economic picture presented 70 days later on the morning of Trump’s second court appearance.
According to the latest figures, US inflation stands at 4.1 per cent, or less than half the figure in the middle of last year, while unemployment is 3.7 per cent, growth is continuing and the Nasdaq index of US stocks has risen more than 35 per cent since the beginning of the year.
No mystery of his bigotry or sexism
Moreover, the April court appearance was not Trump’s first “first”. He was also the first US president to be impeached twice, and, as subsequent events have unfolded, the first former US president to be convicted in civil court proceedings of sexual assault and defamation.
As The New York Times columnist Ezra Klein points out in his book Why We’re Polarised, Trump was also the first aspiring US president to mock John McCain – the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential election – “for being captured in Vietnam”. He “suggested [failed Republican presidential aspirant] Ted Cruz’s father had helped assassinate” President John Kennedy, “bragged about the size of his penis and mused that his whole life had been motivated by greed; he made no mystery of his bigotry or sexism; he called himself a genius while retweeting conspiracy theories in caps lock.”
Amid the rhetorical tumult, it’s healthy to maintain some sort of perspective. A century ago, US newspaper headlines were dominated by the so-called “Teapot Dome” scandal. Secretary of the interior Albert Fall, a long-time crony of President Warren Harding, was jailed for accepting bribes to lease government oil reserves to his mates at giveaway prices.
At the height of the crisis in 1923, Harding suddenly died – “almost certainly felled by the stress of the ‘unprecedented scandals’ that were unfolding within his administration”, Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at London University, recently opined.
“While it is true that no former US president has before been indicted on criminal charges, little else about the indictment of Donald Trump is as ‘unprecedented’,” Churchwell wrote in the Financial Times.
Wikipedia has accumulated a list of 134 federal US politicians who have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing. This does not include disgraced former US president Richard Nixon. Puppet master behind the Watergate Scandal in 1973-74, Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.
Democratic president Bill Clinton avoided indictment for false testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky when he left office in early 2001. The affair, or Clinton lying about the affair, led to his impeachment, although, like in Trump’s two impeachments, this was not confirmed in the US Senate.
Sexual assault case
But there are few precedents for the current level of political vitriol. After his April four court appearance, Trump launched a vicious attack on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg – “a degenerative psychopath”, according to Trump – and Criminal Court judge Juan Merchan, and members of his family.
He warned about the prospect of world war – “we’re not far away from it, believe it or not” – and was equally apocalyptic about an “economy that has been crippled by the biggest inflation we have seen in more than 60 years”.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” he said.
It was wild stuff, even for Donald Trump, but nothing compared with subsequent events. In the following weeks, the former advice columnist for US Elle magazine, E. Jean Carroll, mounted a successful sexual assault civil case against Trump in a New York Court.
Carroll won $US5 million in damages from Trump after a jury in the civil case found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation. Twelve days after her first court win, she filed a further claim, seeking a “very substantial” additional damages as recompense for Trump’s post-court decision attacks on Carroll, and denial that the abuse ever took place.
Around the same time, Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, appeared before a grand jury hearing evidence about his former boss’ efforts to cling to power after he lost the 2020 election. Further, The New York Times reported last month that the district attorney of Fulton County in the southern US state of Georgia, Fani Willis, is weighing up presenting a slate of charges against Trump and others over attempts to meddle with the 2020 presidential election result in Georgia.
Later, Pence announced he would face off against Trump for the Republican nomination to contest the 2024 presidential election. So, too, did Trump’s former aide, one-time Republican governor of Maryland and former US federal prosecutor Chris Christie. The latter said the secret documents’ indictment was “a very tight, very detailed, evidenced-laden” charge “and the conduct in there is awful”.
Christie said Trump could not accept that he had been defeated by Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election, still regarded himself as president, and referred to his secret file stash as “my documents”.
The decisions by Christie and Pence to contest the Republican nomination follow the entry of woke-baiting Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis. All told, a cricket team of aspirants are now duking it out for the GOP nomination, with Trump.
Trump’s legal travails have further strained the GOP. His former attorney general, William Barr, on Sunday (Monday AEST) defended US Special Counsel Jack Smith’s 37-count indictment against Trump on Fox News, saying if the allegations the former president wilfully retained hundreds of highly classified documents are proven true, then “he’s toast”.
Still the frontrunner
At this stage, however, Trump remains the frontrunner, according to recent polls.
But the next stage in such a combustible mix is hard to call. According to American historian Timothy Naftali, Donald Trump is a “demagogue” and America is not good at dealing with demagogues.
Examples of political demagoguery in the US over the past century include the populist antics of Depression-era figures like Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was assassinated in 1935, and Michigan Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin. At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, there was Republican demagogue senator Joe McCarthy, who launched an anti-communist witch hunt. A more recent example is George Wallace, the former segregationist governor of Alabama, who contested the 1972 election as an independent.
After the federal charges against Trump relating to allegedly stolen classified documents were announced on June 10, The New York Times′ Peter Baker said, “history’s first federal indictment against a former president poses one of the gravest threats to democracy the country has ever faced”. Baker quoted one former Republican congressman, David Jolly, warning “we could have very dark days ahead. I do worry.”
But on April five, one day after Trump’s Manhattan Court appearance, New York turned on another early spring treat, with brilliant sunshine. Despite a plethora of grave headlines, Manhattan’s streets were abuzz with good cheer.
The day also started on a positive note for this reporter. Entering a subway station in midtown Manhattan, I asked three yellow-vested maintenance workers which train was going uptown.
“Where you from?” one asked.
“Gedday mate,” the three responded.
Reflecting the upbeat mood, it was fitting New York’s imposing Metropolitan Museum of Art was exhibiting the work of Afro-Spanish painter, and one-time slave, Juan de Pareja. The “Met” exhibition offered an “unprecedented look at the artistic achievements” of a man mainly known as the subject of a portrait by his slave master, the great 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez.
And in sync with Black Lives Matter-aware times, the exhibition was “the first to tell” Juan de Pareja’s story, according to Met publicity.
From the Met it was just a 10-minute stroll to Orsay, a French bistro on the corner of 75th Street and Lexington Avenue. There was plenty of air kissing among patrons, and mid-week pre-lunch cocktails were back – in Manhattan Upper East Side, anyway.
Just 25 years ago, Orsay was Mortimer’s, the place where anyone who was anyone in Manhattan hung out. Regulars included socialites like C.Z. Guest, Nan Kempner, Jerry Hall, Iman, Truman Capote (him again), Henry Kissinger, Calvin Klein, Claus von Bulow, Elizabeth Taylor, Dominick Dunne, Jackie Onassis, Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera, and Brooke Astor.
C.Z. Guest was so well-connected that her book on gardening was illustrated by her “very dear friend” Cecil Beaton, with an introduction by – you guessed it – Truman (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood) Capote.
She was married to Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, an international polo star, heir to the Phipps steel fortune and a second cousin of Winston Churchill. Their 1947 wedding ceremony was held at the home of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. Hemingway was best man.
Mortimer’s owner, Glenn Bernbaum, often declared “I’ll never leave this place”. According to his lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub, Bernbaum died in his apartment at Mortimer’s in the small hours of September 8, 1998, with his boots on, peering into his murky bathroom mirror.
“My only specific instruction, as recited in Glenn’s last will and testament, which I painstakingly drafted, was: ‘The minute I die, close Mortimer’s, padlock the front door’.” Golub wrote.
“He bequeathed all of his worldly possessions to the animals in the Bronx Zoo. I urged him to be specific, but he refused to name any of them personally.”
In a will drafted by Roy Cohn, who acted as Joe McCarthy’s henchman during the anti-communist senate hearings in the early ’50s, Bernbaum named Mortimer’s maitre d, Stefanos Zachariadis, as his sole heir. “However, after Stefanos was convicted of plotting to murder Glenn in order to expedite his inheritance, there was more than ample reason to draft a new document,” Golub wrote.
If you want to get to President Trump, you are going to have to go through me, and … 75 million Americans just like me.
— Kari Lake, losing Arizona candidate for governor
But name-dropping in Manhattan can’t distract attention from the rising body count from mass shootings across America. After the shooting deaths of six children and teachers at a private school in Nashville, Tennessee, The New York Times called it “the latest episode of gun violence that has devastated American families and communities”.
In the aftermath of the Nashville shootings calls for gun control at first took on an almost ritualistic tone, but in the following days outrage grew. Two African-American members of the Tennessee legislature were expelled for a few days for using bullhorns while expressing outrage over inaction regarding gun control.
Days later, a new low was reached near the town of Cleveland, Texas, when a man went next door with a rifle and fatally shot five of his neighbours, including an eight-year-old boy, after they asked him to stop shooting in his yard because they were trying to sleep.
The suspect, Mexican national Francisco Oropesa, was found in a house just miles from the home where the killings took place. He was “caught hiding in a closet underneath some laundry”, San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers told reporters.
Beyond a few minor changes to federal gun ownership laws, however, Congress failed to act. Since then, there have been increasing threats of gun violence by Trump’s supporters.
An example is Kari Lake, who refused to concede after losing last year’s election to be governor of Arizona. Lake said later: “If you want to get to President Trump, you are going to have to go through me, and you are going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me. And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA.”
Whether it’s gun control, race relations, or increasing strains in US politics, there’s no shortage of theories about what’s gone wrong, from the rise of China to the collapse of swaths of American manufacturing, to Rupert Murdoch’s editorial fabulist Fox News.
It may also have something to do with a shift in America’s two-party system. For much of the just about 250 years of American independence, Republicans and Democrats housed conservatives and “liberals” – American parlance for those on the centre-left – in their ranks.
As Thomas Dewey, a one-time New York governor and the Republican Party’s candidate in the 1944 presidential election, once wrote: “the secret” of America’s “enormous power” was that a change in power from one party to the other “has usually involved a continuity of action”.
In 1959 then US vice president Richard Nixon said, “it would be a great tragedy if we had our two major political parties divide on what we would call a conservative-liberal line”.
Since the 1990s US politics has become more partisan. As Klein wrote in his book Why We’re Polarised: “We became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more – indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for even less – but because we came to dislike the opposing party more.”
“Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed,” he wrote.
Amid this frenzy, American middle-class life continues. Two hours north of New York by train is the suburb of Hamden, Connecticut. Walking around the streets, there are well-kept gardens and attractive two-storey homes. Neighbours wave to each other, couples walk their dogs, and signature yellow school buses slowly pass by.
I walk into a Hamden bar, which turns out to be a microbrewery. It’s hipsterish, reflected in the names of the drinks on offer. These include La Dee Da, Say It Loud, Paddy’s Lament, Subtle Hustle and Love Tractor.
The bar’s name is “No Worries”. It’s hoping too much to say it’s an omen for America’s future.”