Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Stripped of the executive power that once let him evade accountability, former president Donald Trump appears to be losing his fight to keep his secrets from the American people. It’s a remarkable development for a man long recognized for his powerful use of secrecy – and for those who have yearned for the truth and feared they’d never get it.
On Monday, Trump asked a federal judge to block the handover of records relating to his presidency and the January 6 insurrection to the House select committee investigating the insurrection. As she denied Trump’s request, Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote, “Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President.”
With these nine words she addressed the heart of the matter and pushed the former reality TV star closer to a collision with the truth. (Trump has indicated that he will appeal the ruling.)
From the time that the American people denied him re-election, Trump has reached for extreme measures in an effort to destroy the well-documented and objective truth of his election defeat and replace it with a fantasy of profound corruption at the polls. He acted as if he would be restored to power, through one bizarre process or another, once enough people believed in the fantasy he was selling.
Throughout his life, Trump has gained power, especially the kind that comes with celebrity, by controlling what others know. In business, he did this by producing a blizzard of claims about his fortune but keeping the verifiable data private.
As a politician, he simply refused to release his taxes, as others have done for decades, which meant he alone was the source of information about his businesses. Finally, as president, he offered the American people claims about his wealth that were divorced from reality. Although records appear to show he made $1.6 billion in outside earnings while in the White House, he publicly said that the presidency had cost him billions. It seems likely he made this claim to play up the notion that he had selflessly sacrificed in order to serve.
It’s Trump’s stonewalling (among other things) that Judge Chutkan seems to reference as she declares, “Presidents are not kings.”
Of course, she is right. Our government is set up with three branches to allow for checks and balances, and to prevent an all-powerful authoritarian from taking control. This scheme was fashioned by those who abhorred monarchy and sought to build a resilient democracy. Trump was, it seems, the president least interested in democracy and most envious of the world’s dictators and strongmen, who are not burdened by oversight.
When Judge Chutkan then noted that Trump, “is not President,” she struck a blow to whatever it is that energizes his fantasies that he is rightfully owed the seat in the Oval Office.
In Trump’s heart, there beats a force that refuses to accept certain unhappy realities and then mobilizes him to create an alternative. It is this part of Trump that led him to rally his supporters behind an unproven idea that he was cheated in the election. This led to the bloody January 6 attack on the Capitol by those who believed they could overturn the results.
That day of violence means Americans can no longer assume our political system is reliably peaceful.
The documents that Trump sought to hide includes communication logs, video records, handwritten notes and more. This kind of evidence, developed outside Trump’s story-making whirlwind, represents a calling to account of the sort the former President has avoided (despite two impeachments) and that many of his opponents feared would never come.
It’s safe to say that for years the Trump’s opponents, critics and victims have stood in frustration as he evaded accountability. To those shell-shocked citizens who fear Trump will get away again, like a squid disappearing in a cloud of ink, I’d say that this time is different. Just as Trump no longer possesses the executive privilege that the office can cite to withhold documents, he no longer has the power to pardon allies who practice criminal deceptions on his behalf. He also can’t give people cushy or prestigious jobs, hang medals on their necks, or treat them to rides on Air Force One.
Diminished in his power, Trump will join the rest of us who will watch to see how his former aides and key supporters respond to subpoenas issued by the select committee to investigate the January 6 Capitol attack.
Former national security adviser and Trump-pardon recipient Michael Flynn, 2020 Trump campaign chairman William Stepien and former campaign adviser Jason Miller are among those who have already received subpoenas. Last week the committee chair Rep Bennie Thompson, said he had signed about 20 new subpoenas that would be out “soon.”
The steady, somewhat normal pace of the committee’s work has attached a feeling of inevitability to its efforts. Trump, who has always seemed to wriggle away from the usual checks that keep others on the straight-and-narrow, appears to have limited options. He cannot promise, or even signal a promise of a pardon for those who face criminal conviction for refusing a subpoena or even lying to authorities. He no longer has that power.
Similarly, Trump would be challenged to provide the lawyers, financial assistance or moral support required to help people maintain their refusals. In years past, when his key allies were in the government or worked for Trump’s businesses, he had much to offer. Today he has less.
Altogether, the picture suggests that the realities of government are catching up to one of the most creative escape artists ever seen in American politics. The truth is out there. It’s coming soon.