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The headlines coming out of Mar-a-Lago won’t stop. Perhaps it is what saves Donald Trump.
It’s been a wild August for the former President, an inflection point in a saga that began over a year ago. We learned first that he took a lot of classified information from the White House. We learned later that the National Archives had reprimanded Trump for taking such highly classified material from his White House home and demanded it back. Trump’s team turned over boxes of files in January—but only some of the material in his possession that belonged to the U.S. government. Talks went on, but without success. A grand jury was formed. Then a judge approved a search warrant to retrieve the leftover material from Trump’s seaside club that the FBI executed on Aug. 8.
It’s a dizzying set of developments that are unfolding like a spy novel. The scandalous details—direct correspondence with the North Korean leader hoarded in a private club, messy record keeping that has classified material intermingled with souvenirs, an ex-President who dug in his heels and refused to discuss that matter—all make for yet another strong narrative against Trump and his defenders.
But there’s a problem here for the Trump haters: this ring of the circus is drawing the spotlight away from the other one, where the House committee looking at the Jan. 6 riots is closing in on its final burst of public activity. Washington only has one spotlight. The spotlight has always been focused on Trump since 2015 and the current summer is a return to this model. Next month will see the end of public hearings for the Jan. 6, committee. The spotlight being bounced back and forth between Mar-a-Lago’s insurrection at the Capitol is an easy way for Americans not to be interested in either storyline. Muddying the two sins isn’t good for the separate narratives, even if the figure acting as carnival barker in both is Trump.
This is unless the acts become one and the same. The Jan. 6 Committee has received some materials from National Archives, while records kept at Mar a Lago might also be helpful.
For now, though, it’s a two-ring act under the big top. Summer hearings went well, with the majority of people tuning in. But it’s tougher to spark sustained interest from a mostly redacted Justice Department filing. Both stories share some similarities: A petulant President, believing his powers are absolute, can bully his way out of any situation and an apparently inability for him to listen to wise counsellors. No to no avail.
However, the events of Jan. 6 were easily visible by the rest of the world. The events were captured on camera and recorded by electronic conversation. To counter unfavorable outcomes in the future, state officials have taken conspiracy theories and changed policies and laws at home. Some of those who were present at the Jan. 6, invasion of Capitol, are on the fall ballots.
It is more difficult for the general public to be excited about documents that are hidden away, no matter how sensitive. A paper trail isn’t a mob. The evidence of Trump’s direct involvement may be stronger when it comes to spy papers in the basement, but it lacks the emotional trigger that Jan. 6 still brings. Unless there’s evidence Trump was passing those documents to hostile actors or they contained incriminating information he was desperate to hide, most Americans will shrug it off as yet another example of Trump and his orbit lacking any respect for norms or discipline to actually do their jobs. Or the bar could be even higher. Trump, as President, gave Russia intelligence from Israel without any real consequences.
At the Jan. 6 committee’s last public hearing on July 21, members announced there would be more public testimony in September. An initial report is also expected to come out next month, a preview of the committee’s full report later this year. The Jan. 6 probe and the Florida case are the two main stories that will dominate the attention of Congress as they prepare to return to Washington on Labor Day. Democrats giddy that Trump is facing scrutiny on two fronts would do well to remember that there is a finite appetite for news, and two troughs of bad-for-Trump headlines just splits the public’s serving size—unless it turns out the two stories actually are the same one.
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