Trump's return to centre stage could bode well for the Democrats

Suddenly the Democrats appear to have a real shot at a historically improbable victory

Donald Trump departs Trump Tower for a deposition two days after FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach home, in New York City, on August 10. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Summer is traditionally derided as the "silly season" in US politics. Swampy Washington gets abandoned by everyone who can afford to leave and little, if anything, tends to happen. But these days, American political norms are shattering, one after another.

And what a difference a few weeks can make. Since early July, US President Joe Biden and his razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress, have been making a spectacular case that even under terrible conditions they can produce major legislative and other breakthroughs. And in August that positive case has been compounded by the return of former president Donald Trump to national attention given the growing severe legal jeopardy he faces.

Mr Trump could have kept a low profile, but instead he seized upon the increasing likelihood that he is going to be indicted for major crimes to press his characteristic politics of grievance. Few are as skilled at playing the victim, and the former president has been performing that to the hilt.

Pages from the government’s released version of the FBI search warrant affidavit for former US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on August 27, in California. Getty

All that means the November midterms have been upended. Everyone, including the Democrats themselves, fully expected a major Republican victory, and Republicans were confident of a "red wave" giving them a sizeable House of Representatives majority and renewed control of the Senate. That scenario no longer appears likely.

Republicans will still probably retake the House. They have secured lots of underhanded gerrymandering, which Democrats also attempted but largely failed to sustain.

Historically a new president's party faces defeat in congressional midterms because of buyer's remorse among the public, which generally likes divided government. So, midterm elections have served as referendums on the new president's (generally perceived as disappointing) initial performance.

But not only is it increasingly difficult to call Mr Biden's performance disappointing, the re-emergence of Mr Trump as the key American political figure means the midterms will be as much about the former president as the current one.

Mainstream Republicans are reduced to trying to suggest, 'it's no biggie,' but are clearly shaken

That is terrible news for Republicans, because not only is Mr Trump increasingly unpopular, he is also dominating headlines because various authorities are getting so much closer to charging him with major crimes.

The release of the FBI affidavit justifying the August 8 search warrant execution at Mr Trump's southern Florida hotel, where he often lives, demonstrated that the most plausible defence against all three underlying crimes suspected, and by finding the hundreds of pages of classified documents at his residence, would be for Mr Trump to claim that he somehow didn't know he had them.

Any such assertion is contradicted by several apparent facts, including his reportedly repeated insistence to numerous aides, who were imploring him to hand over the highly sensitive material, that "it's not theirs, it's mine". By law, all presidential records belong to the public in the care of the National Archive.

The more is learnt about the 20-month long efforts by the Archive and the Department of Justice to retrieve these documents, and the evasions and excuses used to withhold them, the harder it is to imagine a prosecutor like US Attorney General Merrick Garland, who operates strictly by-the-book, deciding not to charge Mr Trump with, most obviously, obstruction of justice, if he believes his own pronouncements about no one being above the law.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland with federal prosecutor Kevin Chambers, right, after appointing him to be the Justice Department's chief pandemic fraud prosecutor, on March 10, in Washington. Pool Photo via AP

The thundering outrage on the right against the FBI fizzled into whimpers, mixed with threats of violence from the fringes, as the facts about Mr Trump's conduct became clear. The main defence now is to dismiss it as "a dispute over the handling of documents," as if laws and precedents about the strict guarding of national security secrets – in this case reportedly including "among the most sensitive we have" such as the identities of key foreign human assets – were not crystal clear.

Mainstream Republicans are reduced to trying to suggest, "it's no biggie," but are clearly shaken. And Republican candidates are in the unenviable position of either defending this misconduct or infuriating Mr Trump’s passionate base.

And then there is the state of Georgia. Mr Trump is on tape apparently breaking several major state laws when, on January 2, 2021, he tried to high-pressure officials to miraculously "find" him the exact number of votes he needed to win. Fulton county district attorney Fani Willis appears to also be considering racketeering and other potential anti-conspiracy laws that usually used to go after organised crime, but which may apply neatly to this sustained attack on Georgia's election.

Rudolph Giuliani, who was Mr Trump's lead attorney at the time, last month was formally told he faces potential indictment regarding this campaign. But Mr Trump could be even more vulnerable, seemingly caught red-handed on the tape recording.

In addition to the re-emergence of Mr Trump as a second key figure in a drama that is only supposed to have one protagonist, Democrats are being buoyed by the Supreme Court's overturning of the constitutional guarantee of women's right to an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

Republicans are in the position of the proverbial dog who finally caught the car it was chasing and has no idea what to do next. Republican state legislatures are passing sweeping bans, often with few, if any, exceptions, that have stunned a public that has regarded this as an established constitutional right – which several of the justices who just voted to overturn it assured the country, under oath, during their confirmation hearings, that it indeed was settled law and a constitutional right.

Outraged women and men, horrified by the first loss of an established individual constitutional right in US history, also seem to be emerging as a much more powerful factor in upcoming elections than was initially anticipated.

Republican Senate hopes have seemed dim for weeks because of what Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell described as "candidate quality" problems. Former football player Herschel Walker, celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, and other Trump-endorsed nominees who pleased the leader and his base, but apparently not the general public, seem to have made it likely Democrats will keep control of the Senate.

Republicans still have every possible advantage to retake the House. And it's going to take a minor miracle for Democrats to stop that. But between Mr Biden's remarkable string of successes, Mr Trump's return to centre stage amid mounting legal jeopardy, outrage at the elimination of abortion-rights, and the nomination of Trump-approved but implausible Republican candidates, suddenly the Democrats appear to have a real shot at a historically improbable victory that seemed completely impossible a few short weeks ago.

Published: August 29, 2022, 3:00 PM