Protesters gather in front of Trump Tower in New York on March 31, 2023, after a New York grand jury voted to indict former President Donald Trump over hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.
It looks like Donald Trump is now our favorite indicted former president.
Aside from the predictable celebration in some quarters, the shock in others, and the anger in still other corners, two observations persisted in media coverage of Trump’s indictment.
One: The indictment was unprecedented. No president, past or present, has ever been indicted on criminal charges.
Two: Even a president can be held accountable.
It’s never a precedent until someone has the guts to set it. I really don’t care about the “being first” part. It’s certainly not an honorable distinction, and it’s likely not the last indictment for Mr. Trump, who faces much weightier charges from ongoing investigations at the state and federal levels.
What I do care about is for us to live in a country where not only is no one above the law, but a president, especially, isn’t above the law. We should be a nation where not only can a president be held accountable, but especially a president should be held accountable. If we choose otherwise, it would be fair to ask why anyone should follow the law if a president doesn’t have to.
Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon was a subliminal blunder. In pardoning Nixon, Ford declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.” No, sir. That pardon suggested that at least someone in a democracy can be above the law.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” goes the famous line. Similarly, great power must come with great accountability. Being held to a higher standard should be the expectation of anyone in a position of greater responsibility and power.
The indictment of a former president may be unprecedented, but so, too, has been the unethical, unacceptable and un-presidential behavior of Donald Trump.
Should any charges in the indictment prove true, it will be stomach-turning to realize that a presidential candidate, his lawyers, and his team conspired to defraud a voting public by hiding potentially damaging information. Worse, though, is that no matter how much we learn about the crass, walking pestilence that is Donald Trump, millions of people voted for him twice and are prepared to vote for him again in 2024.
Consider that all members of the NYPD — 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees — were ordered to report in full uniform at 0700 hours Friday morning to be deployed across the city as a precautionary measure against potential unrest.
On social media, Trump had warned that his indictment would lead to “death and destruction.” Shortly after his warning, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg received an envelope containing white powder and a note reading, “Alvin, I am going to kill you.” (The powder turned out to be harmless.)
Blast protection has been installed around Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
How can it be that a city that has endured multiple terror attacks had to go on high alert just to charge someone with a crime? Is that how far into depravity and venality Trump has dragged this country, with his supporters happily riding shotgun? His invertebrate political sycophants in Washington quickly condemned the indictment as a witch hunt, politically motivated, and a “dark day.” Apparently, the party of law and order ... isn’t.
Did it occur to them that declaring Trump innocent and attacking Bragg, a Democrat, might also be politically motivated? If Trump came out tomorrow and announced he was becoming a Democrat, how soon would MAGA Republicans demand his imprisonment? Were they politically motivated in protecting a president who was twice impeached?
Perish the thought they take a cue from a more mature response.
“The indictment of a former president is a somber day for America,” tweeted Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat. “It’s also a time to put faith in our judicial system. Donald Trump deserves every protection provided to him by the Constitution. As that unfolds, let us neither celebrate nor destroy. Justice benefits us all.”
You might think a congressional Democrat would be doing a happy dance over Trump’s indictment, especially one representing part of California’s Bay Area. But unlike his Republican colleagues, Swalwell took the sort of restrained, dignified approach voters would hope to expect from their political representatives.
We should be a nation where not only can a president be held accountable, but especially a president should be held accountable.
The indictment of a former president may be unprecedented, but so, too, has been the unethical, unacceptable and un-presidential behavior of Donald Trump. And while his defenders will argue that the New York case is just a local political vendetta, here’s the thing about the law: The motivation does not matter. What matters is whether there is proof of guilt or innocence.
If Trump has issues with this indictment, he can go through the courts like every other citizen. If he is innocent, he has nothing to worry about. If he is guilty, the motivation behind pursuing charges will be irrelevant. (Though I would submit that innocent people don’t threaten violenceagainst a prosecutor who has yet to file a charge.)
Nor is it as if Bragg did this on his own. A grand jury of ordinary citizens doing their civic duty is a serious task. It is hardly hyperbolic to suggest that their lives might be at risk should their identities leak out.
Given that task and those risks, these citizens were convinced that Trump did something flagrant enough to warrant charges and issue an indictment. To call this indictment “politically motivated” is disrespectful to those citizens. In their view, laws were broken, and justice must be served.
The people who still support Donald Trump are beyond reach. Even if they weren’t, their innate sense of victimhood should have no bearing on any legal charges brought before Trump. If we decide to prosecute based on whose feelings get hurt, what, then, for our system of justice? Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence in a court of law. He is not entitled to the presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion.
Trump’s indictment has sparked an endless catharsis of celebration and gloating, as if another long national nightmare is over. It’s everywhere on social media. It’s understandable. You can probably find people who’d like to see Trump jailed for jaywalking.
The more important celebration, however — and I say this with fingers crossed — is that maybe, just maybe, the justice system is finally doing at least some justice, the rule of law just might prevail, and there is hope for our democracy.
Trump and Republican extremists often say they want to take back their country. Maybe we just have.