I’ve often wondered why all of Donald Trump’s co-defendants and co-conspirators in his assorted criminal cases are sticking with him as they face financial and professional ruin, to say nothing of jail time.
The twice-impeached, four-times indicted on 91 felony counts former president has been called many things – compulsive liar, misogynist, racist, antisemite, immature, narcissist, mob boss, intellectually uncurious, philanderer, tax cheat, and more – but there’s one thing he isn’t: loyal.
For him, loyalty is a one-way street, all headed in his direction. He demands it from everyone, gives it to no one, and woe is anyone who doesn’t offer it with the desired intensity. He demands employees, aides, and even top government officials pledge their loyalty and sign non-disclosure agreements. He’s shown no remorse for putting so many people in jeopardy for serving him.
Some of his high-profile co-defendants have argued that they were acting at the personal direction of the disgraced former president – Peter Navarro, Jeffrey Clark, Mark Meadows – but judges aren’t buying it and Trump isn’t rushing to their defense.
To borrow a phrase from Watergate, he’s content to let them twist slowly, slowly in the wind. That should come as no surprise, so why are they willing to risk all for him?
His power can be summed up in one word. Fear.
Take it from Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator with the courage to vote twice to remove the impeached former president. The Utah senator is spending $5,000 a day to hire private security for himself and his family in response to threats from Trump’s cult. “There are deranged people among us,” he told his biographer. “It only takes one really disturbed person.”
It is a fear shared by many of his congressional colleagues, he said. Many voted for Trump’s acquittal not because they believed him innocent but because they feared he would turn their constituents against them, and more importantly, they feared for their own personal safety and the safety of their families.
Romney lamented to his biographer, “A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” He considered Trump a buffoon and a conspiracy theorist, and quickly discovered, “Almost without exception [his fellow senators] shared my view of the president.” In Trump’s presence they were obsequious, but behind his back they laughed at him and ridiculed his ignorance and child-like behavior, said the senator who is retiring at the end of this term.
But fear – political and physical – turned them into enablers. Among those Romney found most contemptuous were fellow Republican senators Josh Hawley, J.D. Vance, and Ted Cruz.
Trump, who has turned the GOP from a political party to a cult of personality, has never been hesitant to incite violence against his critics and foes. In social media posts, he warned any indictments targeting him may lead to “potential death & destruction” around the country, The Hill reported.
At one rally he offered to pay the legal expenses for anyone beating up hecklers (he really wouldn’t because he’s a notorious deadbeat).
Vox.com reported “As far back as 2015, Trump has been connected to documented acts of violence, with perpetrators claiming that he was even their inspiration.”
Axios listed a few instances including asking his secretary of defense about demonstrators protesting the George Floyd killing, “Can’t you just shoot them... in the legs or something? Telling police audiences “Please don’t be too nice” when arresting people. Saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Wanting to fill a ditch at the southern border with snakes and gators to stop migrants and “just shoot them in the legs.”
He tries to bleach his calls for hate and violence with occasional denunciations of violence, but they come out sounding like Richard Nixon engineering a cover-up while saying for the tape “but that would be wrong.”
The New York Times reported in 2016, “Donald J. Trump has appealed to the raw anger of voters and encouraged crowds at rallies to use force against protesters who are disruptive.”
State and federal prosecutors and judges are well aware of the fear factor and his penchant for violence, forcing them to beef up their own security.
That prompted Special Counsel Jack Smith to ask Judge Tanya Chutkan to impose a limited gag order on the former president, saying he has a history of “disparaging and inflammatory messages” aimed at the court, prosecutors, witnesses and potential jurors. Smith is convinced Trump’s public statements could pose a “serious and substantial” danger to his federal case. The same can be said for state-level cases in New York and Georgia.
As the pressure on Trump intensifies so does his violent rhetoric. The problem facing the courts is where to draw the line for a presidential candidate with his history.
Beyond fear, many of his co-conspirators and others charged or waiting for that shoe to drop are said to feel Trump in his second term would grant them pardons.
Trump this month said he is “very, very seriously” considering “full pardons” for those prosecuted for the January 6 breach of the Capitol if he is reelected. Don’t bet on it. Just ask those whose requests he turned down before he left office in 2021, like Republican reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Scott Perry, Andy Biggs, and Mo Brooks, whose pleas were revealed in the January 6 hearings. They got bupkis.
Prosecutors are trying to peel off Trump’s co-defendants with plea deals. The fear of financial ruin, professional disaster and jailtime are weighed against fear of Trump’s retribution.
Politico reports some of his aides, allies and co-defendants are starting to turn on the former president. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is rumored to have flipped on his former boss in both the federal and Georgia cases.
Some witnesses flip to the prosecution
Jenna Ellis, Trump’s former attorney who was indicted in the Georgia case, is reportedly upset her ex-client won’t help pay her legal bills, and prosecutors consider her ripe for flipping. She recently blamed his “malignant narcissistic tendency” for his refusal to admit he’s ever done anything wrong.
Prosecutors said a key witness in the classified documents case “retracted his prior false testimony” after dropping his lawyer paid for by a Trump PAC and hiring a new one, Axios reported.
A man who should know about such things advised the former president’s partners in crime. “History has shown the 18 co-defendants that Donald doesn’t care about anyone but himself,” said Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer.
That should be obvious to everyone by now.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.