The literally unprecedented indictment against Donald Trump marks an outright dangerous—and politically fraught—moment for the United States and serves as a reminder of the unparalleled level of criminality and conspiracy that surrounded the 2016 election.
It’s easy to look back at the 2016 election as though its outcome was inevitable—that Hillary Clinton was too weak of a candidate, one whose years of high-priced speeches had made her lose touch with the working-class voters of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; that “but her emails” and Jim Comey’s repeated, inappropriate, and misguided meddling in the election turned the tide. But the new indictment of Trump is an important historical corrective, a moment that makes clear how the US, as a country, must reckon with the fact that Trump’s surprise victory was aided by not one but two separate criminal conspiracies.
In the 2016 race’s final push, in an election that came down to incredibly narrow victories in just three states—10,704 voters in Michigan, 46,765 in Pennsylvania, and 22,177 in Wisconsin—and where Trump lost the overall popular vote by some 3 million votes, he was helped along by a massive and wide-ranging official Russian government operation. That effort was funded in part by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is now behind the brutal combat of his Wagner Group mercenary army in Ukraine, which targeted US social media companies and activists on the ground. According to the US Department of Justice’s exhaustive report, in the second arm of the Russian operation, the military intelligence service GRU hacked top Democratic officials, leaked their emails, and shifted the national narrative around Clinton and other Democrats. (Not to mention that this gave rise to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and, arguably, QAnon.)
Then there was the separate criminal conspiracy that was the subject of today’s new indictment in New York: the plot in the final weeks of the 2016 election by Trump’s campaign, Trump family fixer Michael Cohen, and the National Enquirer to pay hush money to bury stories of two of the candidate’s affairs, including infamously one with porn star Stormy Daniels.
While it may seem like news of such an affair would have ended up being a nothingburger amid the campaign’s final weeks, it’s worth remembering the specific context that Cohen and the Trump orbit faced in those finals hours of the campaign. They were performing a fraught and knife’s-edge balancing act to hold onto support from conservatives and evangelicals in the wake of the devastating Access Hollywood tape, a moment where vice presidential nominee Mike Pence seriously considered throwing in the towel himself. The follow-on of more non-family-values-friendly stories might well have begun an unrecoverable spiral. (It’s also worth remembering the still-suspicious interplay of these two threads: how, on a single Friday in October 2016, US intelligence leaders announced publicly for the first time that Russia was behind the election meddling, the Washington Post scooped the existence of the lewd Access Hollywood tape. And then, hours later, Wikileaks began dumping a fresh set of stolen emails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.)
The new criminal case related to that second Stormy Daniels conspiracy, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, also is a reminder of the historic mistake by the US Justice Department to not pursue its own charges against Trump in the same matter. This was a mind-boggling abdication of responsibility given that the Justice Department—in the midst of Donald Trump’s own presidency, no less!—prosecuted Cohen for the same conspiracy, naming Trump in the charges against Cohen as “Individual 1” and, according to a new book by Elie Honig, outlined in a draft indictment Trump’s personal direction and involvement in the case.