Florida: Where Trump's Uprising Went to Die

by Neil H. Buchanan

Happy Flag Day!  Not that that has anything to do with the big story of the day, but there is also a new Buchanan-Dorf column available today on Verdict that is similarly irrelevant to the current news cycle.  In "Joe Versus the Volcano: How Biden’s Debt Ceiling Deal Could Engulf the World Next Time," we take our final (for now) swing at the topic that dominated the news until only ten days ago, explaining how the debt ceiling's current hibernation could end badly in early 2025.

There is no reason to go into that column's arguments in any more detail here, but there is a linguistic connection between that column and today's news.  Specifically, Republican defenders of Donald Trump are again playing fast and loose with the meanings of words as they try to dismiss and minimize the seriousness of what is going on, relying in part on the kind of wordplay that those who turned the debt ceiling into a political weapon of mass destruction have used to hide their true intentions.

But the big issues related to Trump's most recent felony indictments are, of course, more than rhetorical.  After running through the latest Republican silliness, therefore, I will discuss the best news of the week, which is that there was no political violence associated with yesterday's proceedings, either in my for-now home state of Florida (albeit 337 miles away in downtown Miami) or anywhere else in the country.  Is there reason for optimism, at long last?

Before getting to that, however, it will be enjoyable to take a look at those Republican word games.  To be clear, I am fully aware of the important power of rhetoric, for good and ill.  Anyone who wants to deal with people needs to tell a story, which involves framing issues and choosing words that are necessarily selected to change people's minds or to reinforce what they already believed.

This can involve simple things like a politician referring to "my opponent," because putting a name on the bad guy can humanize them.  I go out of my way never to use the acronym "GOP" to refer to the Republican Party, and I have never (as far as I recall) put the word President in front of the names Donald Trump or George W. Bush, choosing not to honor those dishonorable men with a respectable title (even though I am not denying that either one of them won that office under the absurd rules that govern our elections).

In the context of something technical like the debt ceiling, word choices matter because they need to be precise in communicating the legal and constitutional requirements that we analyze.  It thus is important not to describe, say, the decision not to pay some of the federal government's bills as they come due as a "spending cut," because the spending has already happened.  Just as importantly, and as a matter of advocacy, many people hear "government spending cuts" and have a positive reaction, whereas they hear "default on legally owed payments to America citizens and businesses" and have a negative reaction.  That the legally accurate wording is also the wording that invokes a negative reaction is a plus for those of us who know that debt ceiling-induced default would be catastrophic.

But as Professor Dorf and I describe in today's Verdict column, there is an even more basic rhetorical problem with the debt ceiling debate, which is that the word "debt" should not even be used in that context.  The debt ceiling does not in fact put a ceiling on debt, and it is therefore obviously not what limits debt (appropriations and revenue laws do that); yet everyone calls that law the "debt ceiling" without a second thought.  We point to the headline from a recent article in The New York Times, "The Debt Ceiling Debate Is About More Than Debt," and note with some bemusement that that "is like saying that the boxers-versus-briefs debate is about more than astronomy or that the debate about basketball’s greatest player is about more than baking."  Using the word "debt" there is hugely misleading, but it is difficult to communicate how silly it is because the law purports to be about limiting debt.

All of which ties nicely into this week's Trump indictment under the Espionage Act.  Trump toady Lindsey Graham -- who does have a law degree and has even practiced law -- continues to debase himself by making insane claims that what Trump did is not "espionage," which Graham says means that that law is being abused.  Graham is, for some reason, still being invited onto the political talk shows, and he offered this doozie on one such program on Sunday:

Espionage charges are absolutely ridiculous. Whether you like Trump or not, he did not commit espionage.  He did not disseminate, leak or provide information to a foreign power or to a news organization to damage this country. He is not a spy. He’s overcharged.

As Aaron Blake put it in The Washington Post, "Donald Trump was charged under the Espionage Act. Donald Trump was not charged with espionage."  The section under which Trump's actions fall, 18 U.S. Code § 793, is titled "Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information," and the word "espionage" appears nowhere in that section.  But Graham is chirping away, saying that the debt ceiling is all about debt and that the Espionage Act is only about espionage.

I would say that it is shameful wordplay, and it is, but one dubious gift of the country's most recent go-round on the not-really-a-debt-ceiling statute was the most outstanding example of what should have been shame-inducing sophistry, where a law professor wrote -- actually wrote, apparently without intending to be facetious -- that if the government were to default on a debt, that would not bring the validity of the debt into question.  (Why?  Because it has not been formally repudiated by Congress!)  This means that Graham and others are in no danger of sliding underneath the lowest of the low moments of conservative dishonesty, but only because someone else excavated a new sub-basement last month.

And the attempts to downplay Trump's actions by playing with words are hardly limited to the senior senator from South Carolina.  That state's former governor, Nikki Haley, has always been in over her head and is graded by the political press on a very generous curve (the same one that treated, say, Paul Ryan as a deep thinker rather than a flimflam man).  She also has that deer-in-headlights look that my state's senior senator, Marco Rubio, could almost copyright at this point.  The other day, Haley gulped her way through a trial balloon statement that criticized Trump, but the next day she said: "I think it would be terrible for the country to have a former president in prison for years because of a documents case.  So I would be inclined in favor of a pardon."

Again, I recognize that politicians use words as weapons, so there is nothing categorically wrong with choosing words in a way that minimizes the damage to one's allies.  But it matters which words they choose, and the idea that this is merely a "documents case" is beyond deranged.  Driving with an expired driver's license is a "documents case," in some sense, as is identity theft or even murder-for-hire.  "We have the receipts" has become a cliche precisely because the presence of documents matters so much. 

More to the point, the crime depends on what is written on the documents.  The problem is not that Donald Trump took random documents, lied about doing so, and conspired to prevent the govenrment from finding out about his actions.  It is that the specific documents he took have words written on them that (especially when shared with random party guests) can put lives in danger.  Even dollar bills are documents -- pieces of paper that would be worthless if not for what is printed on them -- but we do not trivialize armed robbery as a mere "documents case."

Yes, I am belaboring an obvious point here, but it very much matters that Trump's enablers are reduced to this kind of childish flailing.  Graham's argument, as useless as it is, at least purports to engage with the law on some level that could be meaningful -- Is the charged behavior in fact illegal under the statute at hand? -- but Haley is simply saying that we can wave away the seriousness of the situation by acting as if all document-related behavior is unimportant.  It is the same problem with calling the Manhattan DA's indictment of Trump a "hush money case," or a "porn star case."  It is a case about filing fraudulent documents, which is a crime because the words printed on documents matter.

As always, one can judge a situation by evaluating what the two sides are saying.  The prosecution has the facts and the law on its side.  Those who are trying to defend Trump have nothing of substance to say, so they are simply changing the subject (whataboutisms about Hillary Clinton and President Biden) or trying to lull everyone to sleep with blather meant to drain the meanings out of the words used to describe serious and dangerous crimes.  With apologies in advance for the groan-inducing pun, if I were to murder someone by smothering them in their bed, could I say that my indictment was a mere "pillow case"?

Above, I noted that in addition to this important (though frustrating) excursion into analyzing Republicans' adolescent word games, I also have some thoughts on the very serious question of political violence.  Or in this case, the lack thereof.

Even though I live nowhere near Miami, it so happened that I was out of town and scheduled (through the genius of airline hub-and-spoke systems) to fly from Toronto to Miami, where I would catch a puddle-jumper back up to Gainesville.  That itinerary would have had me in Miami on Tuesday evening, a few hours after Trump was scheduled to be indicted downtown.

Trump and his most unhinged media supporters made a very big show late last week and over the weekend to suggest (both descriptively and prescriptively) that there would be a mass protest in Miami, as Trump's legions of adoring supporters would turn out to defend him by whatever means necessary.  Even though they paid lip service to the idea that the protests should be peaceful, Trump had warned several months ago that there would be "big problems" if he were ever indicted, which carried a strong whiff of his "will be wild" call to action before the January 6 insurrection.

And some of his supporters were hardly shy about invoking the threat of violence, with one saying over the weekend: "And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA [National Rifle Association]. That’s not a threat – that’s a public service announcement.  We will not let you lay a finger on President Trump. Frankly, now is the time to cling to our guns and our religion."

My reaction was to change my flights.  Even though I was scheduled only to be in the airport, that is where many of Trump's supporters would also need to be.  And if things went very badly at the courthouse, one never knew what would happen to travel into and out of South Florida later in the day.

Happily, none of that came to pass.  As had happened in April in Manhattan, and even after Trump posted "See you in Miami on Tuesday!" to his cultists, a tiny number of people showed up to support him, along with a bunch of counter-protesters and a gaggle of reporters covering what turned out not to be a story.  A New York Times reporter could not hide his bemusement at the non-event, writing that "[t]he atmosphere outside the building was circuslike," including a pro-Trump supporter singing songs while riding a hoverboard, as well as a "woman with a unicorn horn affixed to her forehead who wore an 'Aunt-ifa' shirt and chanted derisively about the former president, and [a] man in a black-and-white jail jumpsuit carrying a sign that read, 'Lock Him Up.'"

The more pointed reactions from MSNBC included a clip titled: "Trump humiliated as protests he called for fail to materialize."  Ouch, but yeah.  A man who cares obsessively about crowd sizes and ratings just had a second straight bomb (not the literal kind), and mockery was completely appropriate.  In that short clip, one of that network's evening anchors, Laurence O'Donnell, could not help but take a victory lap, because he had predicted even before the first dud that the Trumpists would not show up.  He said flatly: "He doesn't have that anymore.  They're not gonna do it for him again."

When the FBI executed its search warrant of Trump's property last August, in fact, O'Donnell had (as I discussed here on Dorf on Law at the time) similarly dismissed the Trumpists' outcry and their calls for civil war.  I was skeptical then, but adding that event to the two indictments, O'Donnell is three for three on predicting that nothing significant would happen.  Am I feeling embarrassed about having personally tried so hard to avoid being near a conflagration that never arrived?

No, but I am happy to update my knowledge and say that, as the MSNBC panelists noted, a combination of deterrence and incapacitation post-January 6 might have made us all a lot less vulnerable to political violence than seemed possible in the aftermath of that horrible day.  With each new opportunity, however, something tragic could play out, even though it has not happened in the last 29 months.  Moreover, political violence can take many forms, and a horde of several thousand uncoordinated Trump supporters mobbing the Capitol was in some sense the least likely form that it could take.  Lone wolves are out there, and it only takes one to change the whole story.  It makes sense to be relieved and to reassess probabilities, but clearly vigilance of the sort that never seemed necessary prior to 2021 continues to be essential.

My governor says that this state is where "woke" goes to die (even though he cannot define that word).  Many people start out in the northeast, lose their vibe in New York, and then move to Florida to wait to die.  Trump's ability to summon murderous mobs seems to have followed that pattern.  Maybe his lost mojo will soon be seen playing mah-jongg and arguing about condo regulations on a park bench near Palm Beach.