Trump’s jail spectacle is historic, but it won’t harm him politically

One by one this week, they’ve made their way to 901 Rice Street, the address of the notorious Fulton county jail. Lawyers, government officials, a former state party chair and others have all surrendered to authorities after being charged as part of an alleged criminal effort to overturn the 2020 election.

On Thursday, the head of that enterprise, Donald Trump, himself surrendered, marking another historic moment for a president who has reshaped the rules of American politics. This is the closest that Trump has been to a jail cell to date and serves as a blunt reminder that no American or former president is above the law.

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Like nearly everything Trump does, his surrender was orchestrated to be a spectacle. He deliberately timed his surrender, 7.30pm, to maximize cable news coverage. Reporters camped outside the jail all day on Thursday as temperatures reached mid-90s F and Trump supporters gathered for a demonstration. There was wall-to-wall news coverage of Trump’s motorcade and arrival at the jail. While politicians typically try and shift attention away from their criminal legal troubles, Trump has embraced it, feeding into the circuit by advertising his surrender time.

Despite Trump’s brashness, the gravity of the moment is underscored by the venue where Trump surrendered. In his other three cases, Trump has surrendered in courthouses and then quickly appeared in a courtroom for an arraignment. On Thursday, he’ll turn himself in at a jailhouse that has been so beset by horrific conditions that it’s under investigation from the Department of Justice. For the first time, he’ll have to post a cash bond – $200,000 – to guarantee his release.

In the other three instances, Trump has avoided the indignity of a mugshot. On Thursday, he got one that will be released to the public. For a man who cares deeply about perception, the image released on Thursday by the Fulton county sheriff will be inescapable, forever establishing him as the only president to ever be criminally prosecuted with a mugshot. It is also likely to be one that is forever part of America’s story – a snapshot of the president and a movement who tried to bend American institutions and tested the contours of American governance and the rule of law at every opportunity.

In a sense it marks the end of a two-year chapter of investigating Trump’s efforts to lead a coup to overturn the 2020 election results. It also marks the beginning of the next chapter – the trials to convict him.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that the mugshot and the spectacle of Trump’s surrender at jail on Thursday will harm Trump politically. Instead, it is only likely to more deeply entrench support from those who back Trump and believe he is being persecuted.

As both a candidate and president, Trump has made the politics of grievance, the feeling of being persecuted and wronged, central to his political identity. Trump is already using his indictments to rally his supporters. When he surrendered in New York earlier this year, officials waived a mugshot. Trump’s campaign quickly released a fake one and began fundraising with it instead.

The booking, and the indictment that came before it, is also the latest step in what is likely to be a sustained and nasty battle, both in the public domain and in court, between Trump and Fani Willis, the Fulton county district attorney. Trump has already attacked Willis, a Democrat and the first Black woman to hold her office, saying – of all things – that she is racist. Willis has not responded to those attacks, and urged those in her office to ignore them, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

“You may not comment in any way on the ad or any of the negativity that may be expressed against me, your colleagues, this office in the coming days, weeks or months,” she wrote in an email earlier this month. “We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any.”

Trump allies, both in Georgia and in Washington DC, have already begun separate efforts to make Willis’s work as difficult as possible. But Willis, who has a reputation for being an aggressive prosecutor, hasn’t blinked. So far, she’s headed off last-ditched efforts by Mark Meadows and Jeffrey Clark, two of Trump’s co-defendants, to avoid surrendering.

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For all the fanfare of Trump’s surrender, the most significant developments may be what happens far away from Rice Street and the Fulton county courthouse. Trump wields a commanding lead in the polls for the Republican nomination for president.

Asked during the first Republican debate on Wednesday if they would support Trump if he was the nominee, nearly all of the candidates said yes.

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