No other incumbent or former U.S. president has yet faced criminal charges. Will this strengthen American democracy? We don’t know.
In the free world, some countries have already gone through a similar experience; others are not yet mature enough for this kind of move. In France, in the fall of 2021, Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to prison (he is under home arrest) for spending tens of millions of euros more on the election campaign than permitted by law. In Brazil, the former and incumbent president Ignacio Lula da Silva was convicted for his involvement in a massive Lava Jato corruption scandal: He was released after nearly two years in prison after the procedural errors committed during the investigation came to light. The conviction of a head of state in both countries has undoubtedly strengthened democracy because it was a proof that no one is above the law. In contrast, Poland, just like most of the EU states, is not yet ready for this kind of move. In Spain, after serious corruption cases were uncovered, King Juan Carlos abdicated and left for voluntary exile to the United Arab Emirates, although he was not convicted.
To date, this has not happened in the U.S. Although it was proven that then-President Richard Nixon had knowledge of wiretaps at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate scandal, and as a result had to resign in 1974, he was still not convicted, and his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him for all his offenses.
Though Donald Trump was indicted by the New York grand jury, the trial will not start sooner than a year from now, according to experts quoted by Reuters.
The jury’s decision to press charges against Trump, at the request of the Black Democratic Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg, is therefore a sign of American democracy’s maturity. At issue are serious accusations: over 30 cases of illegal business practices. One of them has a strongly sordid aspect, involving the sum of $130,000 being transferred during the election campaign to porn star Stormy Daniels for her silence about the affair she had had with Trump years earlier.
But in this case, the legal aspect is as important as the political one. Will Tuesday’s sight of the former president being fingerprinted and photographed for court, or maybe even appearing in handcuffs, mobilize his supporters, or will it rather make them conclude that they do not want this kind of person in the White House?
It’s too early to draw conclusions, but the first signs do not bode well for Trump. He himself speaks of a “witch hunt,” yet 59% of poll respondents think the charges are serious, and 57% say that in this case, he should refrain from running for the presidency. Having learned from the experience of those who occupied Congress on Jan 6, 2021, hundreds of whom are serving prison sentences, Trump’s followers didn’t block the court in New York despite his appeals. The billionaire’s leading rival vying for Republican nomination, Ron DeSantis, seems to have criticized Bragg, but stressed he doesn’t understand why anyone would get involved with a porn star. There are signs that moderate Republicans, without whom Trump will not win the election, are also embarrassed.
As a result of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen having paid the $130,000 to Daniels, the New York grand jury decided to put the former U.S. president on trial. But that is not the only investigation that Trump is facing.
The former president himself hoped that charges would not be pressed. He has always been successful in avoiding convictions thanks to the ample financial sums that he would give to the victims. He was surprised that this time it didn’t work. And he seems to be at a loss as to what to do next. We have not seen Trump as insecure as this before.