In its closing months, 2022 is looking like an annus horribilis for Donald Trump – or to put it in the former president’s terms, a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year. The January 6 committee’s recommendation on Monday that criminal charges be brought against him over his attempt to subvert the 2020 election results and the deadly storming of the Capitol was unprecedented – the first time that Congress has referred a former president to the Department of Justice. Though largely symbolic, it has set down a marker. And it is the latest in a string of recent setbacks.
His candidates triumphed in Republican primaries, but then tanked in the midterms. His announcement on his 2024 bid was lacklustre and bathetic. A New York jury found his business guilty of tax fraud. On Tuesday, a House committee was set to vote on whether to release six years of his tax returns to the public. And, of course, the list of civil actions and criminal investigations targeting him is growing.
The congressional committee’s referral does not change the legal position, though some of the evidence it turned over to the justice department theoretically could. In its impact on public opinion, however, it may have an indirect effect on whether charges are brought. The evidence the committee amassed and its presentation of the facts are compelling. In televised hearings and presentations, in the executive summary published on Monday, and presumably in the full report to follow this week, it has shone an unflinching light on the brutality of that day and Mr Trump’s culpability.
His own aides have testified that he was repeatedly told he had lost, and that they urged him to tell the crowd to be peaceful. Instead, he pressed Republican officials to overturn the results, then his vice-president to block Congress from approving Joe Biden’s victory. When those attempts failed, he summoned a crowd to Washington, urged it to the Capitol and for hours failed to call off supporters as they rampaged and hunted down elected politicians. Unlike Mr Trump himself, at least some participants have since admitted their responsibility. One described his involvement as “part of an attack on the rule of law”; another conceded that “I guess I was [acting] like a traitor”.
The referral will, if anything, spur on Mr Trump’s fight for the Republican candidacy, further convincing him that power is the best form of protection. Charges, if laid, may reinforce rather than shift the minds of his diehard supporters. More than two-thirds of Republicans still believe that Mr Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Nonetheless, they are turning away from the former president in the polls. A large majority of Republican voters or independents who lean towards the party think someone else should be its candidate in 2024. Mr Trump wanted to clear the field, to run unchallenged. But those who trade on a strongman image cannot afford to look weak. Support for Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, has surged. Mr Trump’s media cheerleaders, every bit as cynical as the ex-president, have turned on him. Ivanka Trump wants nothing to do with her father’s 2024 bid.
It would be immensely foolish to write off the 45th president. For years he has defied the laws of political gravity, surviving scandals and offences that individually would have sunk any other candidate or office-holder. The Republican elite remain notably silent or mealy-mouthed about him. Even if he cannot recover, others are already using his playbook. Yet the prospect that he will rebound, or another like him take his place, is all the more reason to establish the full record of his actions – whether or not they ultimately lead to legal consequences.