Could a Trump indictment doom Ukraine?
If Dashiell Hammett were writing his 1930 classic, “The Maltese Falcon,” today, and John Huston’s 1941 movie adaptation of the same name, Ukraine and its trident coat of arms, likely inspired by a gyrfalcon, would be the object of everyone’s obsession, allegorically speaking. The cast of characters is assembled. Former President Donald Trump, who must control the object d’art. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who would possess it. The beguiling “dame” in the form of porn-star Stormy Daniels, and several would-be Humphrey Bogart leading man-type prosecutors angling to be the first to indict Trump for various alleged crimes. Yet, Trump may be the target but the war in Ukraine could be the victim.
Unlike in Hammett’s novel, however, a very real country located 5,030 miles away from New York City is in peril amidst this deepening plot. The war in Ukraine continues to rage as the first would-be Bogart, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, prepped for a potential indictment of Trump. Other Bogarts are at work as well. The former president faces suggestions of potential wrongdoing elsewhere, including alleged election tampering in Georgia, and the Department of Justice’s ongoing special counsel investigation of the classified documents seized by the FBI at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort appears to be gaining steam.
This intensifying national conflagration is at risk of devolving into an “all-out war” between the former president and anyone who would oppose him and his core “MAGA” supporters. That the first case up in Manhattan is likely what U.S. constitutional expert Jonathan Turley characterizes as “legally pathetic” only complicates the political imbroglio and its possible second- and third-order effects on U.S. national security — particularly as they relate to Washington and NATO’s defense efforts in Ukraine.
As it is, U.S. and European Union support for the war in Ukraine has been trending downward. Equally disconcerting, this decrease is being driven by political partisanship. According to a Pew Research Center poll, “40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents” believe the U.S. is providing Kyiv with “too much support,” compared to only “15 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.”
Given this highly charged political ecosystem, Bragg’s targeting — if not weaponizing — of Trump is likely to be perceived as hyper-partisan. Many Democrats will revel in it, while many hardcore Trump supporters will be reviled by it. If that turns out to be the case, there is a very real danger that the fallout of U.S. public support for Ukraine from GOP and conservative-leaning voters could harden, and possibly deteriorate significantly.
Bragg would be wise to step back and consider whether his case should be first out of the prosecutorial gates — if it moves forward at all. Prosecutorial discretion is an essential component of our judicial system and, in this instance, Bragg must gauge that not only from the perspective of his Manhattan borough, but also from a national security standpoint. If, as Turley theorizes, Bragg’s “Manhattan Falcon” is as legally hollow as Hammett’s fictional “Maltese Falcon” turned out to be, not only will the New York City prosecutor have emboldened Trump, he will have amplified Trump’s anti-Ukraine war voice — to the detriment of U.S. national security.
Two other juries, after all, are sitting in judgment of Bragg’s actions. The first one is not made up of 12 “reveling” or “reviled” Americans but a totalitarian jury panel of two: Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom undoubtedly cheered on the Manhattan spectacle during Xi’s three-day summit with Putin in Moscow. Widening American disunity over Trump plays to the two autocrats’ overt show of bilateral unity, which was capped by the signing of an energy pact on Tuesday. It also is buying Putin valuable time to revive his “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The other jury is made up primarily of Republicans. Not just MAGA supporters, but also many Republicans who ardently prefer to politically move on from Trump. While it may be expedient electorally for Democrats to pin a toxic Trump on the GOP’s donkey, the risk of “freezing” GOP voters into supporting him likely will come at two self-defeating costs: waning Republican support in Congress for the war in Ukraine and undermining, or Teflon-coating, the investigations of Trump in Georgia and in Washington.
In terms of the former, Republicans’ ability to distance themselves from Trump’s anti-Ukraine stance on the war was already complicated because the former president is pinning his own electoral comeback on doubling down against the war. Trump’s braggadocio that he could end the conflict in “24 hours” is forcing others to consider a similar view, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who initially absurdly asserted that Ukraine is “not a vital U.S. interest,” only to purportedly reverse himself days later, according to Piers Morgan.
By pursuing his legally dubious “Manhattan Falcon,” Bragg is giving Trump a formidable new “megaphone” to wield, especially as it relates to undermining the Biden administration’s support of the Ukrainians. It is making it harder than ever for the GOP’s pro-Ukraine faction to make their case, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Now, instead of 2024 presidential contenders being able to focus on separating Trump’s MAGA supporters from his anti-Ukraine rants, they are forced to defend him against Bragg.
Nor is this latest Trump drama playing out in a domestic vacuum. According to Russian media expert Julia Davis, Russian state-controlled media talking heads are ridiculing Bragg’s “banana republic” pursuit of Trump. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador decried Bragg’s pursuit of Trump, characterizing it as a “fabrication.” Plus, it could not have come at a more opportune time for Putin: It has allowed the Russian strongman to deflect attention away from his own arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Ukraine.
Priorities in wartime matter. Bragg should reconsider his “strategic corporal” decision. Chasing an elusive “Manhattan Falcon” — especially if Turley and others are correct in their legal assessments — serves no one except, perhaps, Putin and Xi. Democracy’s survival is at risk and the fight must be in Ukraine, not Washington. All Americans, regardless of where we stand on Trump, should be mindful that at the end of Hammett’s novel, no one got what they wanted. The “falcon” proved to be a fake. Its purported “hidden” treasure turned out to be “fool’s gold.” But Ukraine’s “Golden Falcon” in pursuit of liberty is very real and defending it fully and decisively should be atop of our national security goals.
Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
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