*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.
Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrey Kortunov discusses possible reasons for prosecuting former President Donald Trump.
This spring, Donald Trump is the center of yet another scandal. Political observers link increased public interest in the former president’s activities to the upcoming presidential election. Although the presidential election is still a year and a half away, the countdown to Nov. 5, 2024 has long started. Moreover, the upcoming fierce battle between Democrats and Republicans is already affecting the political tactics and strategies of both parties.
Inevitably, other priorities, objectives and plans are pushed aside once the election campaign begins. It’s a particular attribute of the American political system that determines its strengths and weaknesses as well as its capabilities and constraints.
Trump is the first former president to be indicted on a criminal charge, which sets an important precedent in American politics and history. On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Trump allegedly falsified business records to conceal a $130,000 hush money payment that Trump’s lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels. In early April, Cohen testified in Manhattan Criminal Court. He will face a subpoena again near the end of the year before Trump’s trial is scheduled to begin. So far, hardly anyone is in a position to confidently predict exactly how long the trial will last or its likely outcome.
There are different reasons for prosecuting Trump, but there are at least three likely scenarios that explain why Trump is being prosecuted and who may gain from it.
The first scenario is rather boring and unoriginal. Democrats are simply trying to get rid of the most influential critic of Joe Biden’s administration. They want to deal with Trump as quickly as possible to prevent his reelection in 2024. Democrats and the U.S. justice system are extremely eager to completely discredit the former president before the 2024 election.
However, this scenario has one weakness. Trump’s criminal prosecution may well be a factor in mobilizing his supporters and strengthening, not weakening, his election chances. Like everywhere else in the world, American voters often sympathize with those who have been humiliated and persecuted. Polls show that Trump’s support has recently been growing, and the former president has been gaining political points, at least among fellow Republicans.
Moreover, the law does not bar Trump from running for office while he under investigation or even in prison. Incidentally, if the Democrats had intended to discredit Trump as a candidate at any cost, it would have made more sense to charge him with more serious offenses. For example, the charges could have been related to his alleged attempts to interfere with the vote count in Georgia in November 2020 or his indirect involvement in storming the Capitol, something a group of his supporters managed to pull off on Jan. 6, 2021.
The second scenario is the complete opposite and is closer to one involving a conspiracy. It has been suggested that the current administration and, in particular, incumbent President Biden, appear to prefer to run against Trump in next year’s election. An alternative Republican candidate, who could well be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, would be much harder to deal with simply because he is 36 years younger than Biden.
Democrats may assume that a Trump trial will force the Republican Party leadership to rally around the former president, thereby completely eliminating any other more dangerous opponents. Therefore, by having initiated a scandalous case against Trump, his Democratic opponents are deliberately playing along with Trump’s growing popularity hoping to beat him strategically next year.
This theory is probably worth considering. However, such a complicated long game is inevitably fraught with significant risks for the Democratic Party, especially given that in 2016, many Democratic political analysts believed that Trump was the most suitable opponent for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was perceived as the undisputed leader in the presidential race.
In the end, it was Trump who won against all odds and triumphantly moved into the White House in January 2017. Trump’s resourcefulness, vigor and political vitality cannot be underestimated, nor can the vitality of his supporters. Democrats are now going to inevitably face another danger. Politically motivated attacks on Trump are bound to backfire when the Republican majority in the House of Representatives opens another investigation into the suspicious business dealings of President Biden’s immediate relatives.
The last scenario is rather cynical. There is no uniform Democratic strategy, simple or subtle, that aims to discredit Trump. There are only certain political figures who want to promote themselves at the expense of Trump’s indictment. By confronting Trump, they want to increase their popularity and expand their political career. For example, many think Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who also happens to be a Democrat, is pursuing his own political ambitions by prosecuting Trump. There is no doubt that a number of liberal politicians from both the West and East Coasts, as well as Democratic-leaning journalists, bloggers, public figures and political experts, want to participate in this “holy war” against Trump.
In any case, the continuing violent confrontation between liberals and conservatives is having a devastating effect on the U.S. political system, its institutions and its process. Both sides are showing resolve to go even further in violating existing unwritten norms and historically established rules and traditions in the belief that the noble end justifies the unspeakable means. This confrontation does not bode well for American democracy.
The author is a general director of the Russian International Affairs Council.