I apologize for the delay. I know, it’s irresponsible that I’ve waited to comment on Donald Trump’s indictment until after I knew what it contains. And now that it’s unsealed, there’s not much to add after all these weeks of hyped-up prognosticating. Except: time to calm down.
Much has been made of how “unprecedented” it is for a former president to be indicted. But that should not obscure that there is also continuity with the past: Former American presidents have faced the prospect of criminal charges, and the leaders of other major democracies were placed on trial. Presidents sometimes commit crimes, and in a democracy, they are not above the law.
What’s truly novel and unsettling about Trump’s case is how he is deploying the same semi-encoded rhetoric he used to induce the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Much as he blamed Mike Pence for the Capitol assault, Trump now claims on social media that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg would be responsible for any violence that Trump induces. As he wrote in a March 24, 1:08 a.m. post on his Truth Social company’s platform:
What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country? Why & who would so such a thing? Only a degenerate psychopath that truely [sic] hates the USA!
In another post, he railed against Bragg: “He would rather indict an innocent man and create years of hatred, chaos, and turmoil, than give him his well deserved ‘freedom.’ The whole Country sees what is going on, and they’re not going to take it anymore. They’ve had enough!”
The repetition of how “unprecedented” the Trump indictment is will help Trump once again portray himself as the victim, first of a plot to steal the presidency from him, and now of a supposedly political prosecution. “Take our nation back,” he posted on social media, echoing the bombast that helped incite his ardent supporters toward their seditious attack on the Capitol.
It makes one long for the old days when a president could be forced to confront his crimes without threatening civil war. Rather than face a possible indictment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, Bill Clinton agreed on his last day as president to admit he had given false testimony under oath (for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky when asked about it during testimony for a sexual-harassment lawsuit that Arkansas state employee Paula Jones filed against him). Clinton got off fairly easy—a $25,000 fine and a five-year suspension of his Arkansas law license—but then again, Clinton understood “the art of the deal.” For independent counsel Robert Ray, the agreement salvaged a small trophy from an intensive investigation that lasted through every day of Clinton’s eight-year presidency, starting with a probe of his role in the failed Whitewater real-estate scheme.
Richard Nixon was able to elude indictment without any admission of guilt, thanks to a pardon from his successor, President Gerald Ford. He became the first U.S. president to resign, on August 8, 1974, less than two weeks after the House Judiciary Committee passed an impeachment article charging Nixon with obstruction of justice. In the pardon, Ford noted that Nixon “has become liable to possible indictment and trial,” but added that he wanted to avoid “prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”
Those are the chief precedents for pursuing criminal charges against the nation’s forty-fifth president, although it can be added that former leaders in other democracies have been prosecuted as well. They include former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, convicted of corruption in 2021, and his predecessor Jacques Chirac, convicted in 2011 of corruption stemming from his earlier role as mayor of Paris. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was prosecuted many times and convicted of tax evasion.
As for the newly released Trump indictment, it’s pretty much as the news reports indicated in advance: bare-bones, statutory language that alleges repeated falsifications of business records to conceal hush-money payments to unidentified people informed readers know to be porn star Stormy Daniels, Playboy Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal, and a Trump Tower doorman who made apparently false claims that he knew a child Trump had fathered out of wedlock.
The accompanying statement of facts indicates that, contrary to many analyses, the case doesn’t rest entirely on the word of Michael Cohen, the former Trump attorney who served as the middleman for the payments. The document also ascribes an important role to the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, referring to Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty to tax charges and then testified against his employer, leading to the Trump company’s conviction on charges of tax fraud and falsifying business records. Weisselberg would be in a position to corroborate some of Cohen’s testimony.
One thing to be sure of: should it come to pass, Trump will make sure his trial is not as sleep-inducing as the court file portends.