The first indictment of a former US president creates a uniquely dangerous moment for a polarized republic that has been repeatedly sidelined by Donald Trump’s endless norm-breaking.
The impeachment of the 45th President – and his attempt to trigger a partisan storm of self-defense – is likely to sweep across America’s poisoned politics, threaten to destabilize another presidential election, and could pose the most critical challenge yet to his justice system.
It is the latest formidable barrier that the nation’s most defiant president has had to overcome. And that means that another national nightmare could befall us after a tumultuous four-year term, two historic impeachments, an election marred by Trump’s lies about fraud, and mob attacks on Congress by his supporters.
In a landmark move, a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Trump on more than 30 counts of business fraud in a case stemming from secret funds paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels, possibly to suppress a scandal before the 2016 election.
Nothing in American history has come close to the furor over the indictment and possible trial and conviction of former presidents — especially since Trump and his supporters have argued that the indictments represent the armed politicization of the justice system.
“We’ve come close before (but) we’ve never been to this point,” John Dean, former Watergate-era special counsel to President Richard Nixon, told CNN. “No previous president – former, incumbent or otherwise – has ever been impeached.”
With extreme national political alienation exacerbated by Trump, this case will likely change the country. However, it turns out. For example, there would be fears that it would shatter one of the last remaining precedents for political restraint, leaving future presidents vulnerable to prosecution in a way more akin to fragile failed states than the world’s most vibrant democracies. However, if Trump did commit a crime, failure to prosecute him would send a message that those in power can get away with behavior that ordinary Americans cannot.
The move is shocking given Trump’s long impunity, which has seen his turbulent personal, business, and political career constantly push him to the limits of the law and accepted conventions of conduct. Suddenly, Trump’s decades of evasion of responsibility came to an end. The former president faces accountability for his behavior, likely in court on Tuesday, after traveling to New York to confront his past incitement to violence in what will be a maximum security spectacle.
Trump launches a furious counter-attack
Trump maintains his innocence on all charges in this case and several other charges that could pose a more significant legal threat, including a special counsel investigation into the safekeeping of classified documents and conduct related to the 2020 election. and a separate investigation into his attempt to steal the election swing in Georgia. States.
The former president quickly demonstrated that he was prepared to plunge the country into a deep political crisis as he defended himself against accusations of wild persecution. He accused Democrats of using justice to thwart his bid for the White House in 2024, a claim that will shake confidence in the next election in the eyes of millions of his supporters and further undermines the threat to US democracy.
“This is an attack on our country as we had never seen before,” Trump wrote in all capital letters on his Truth Social network. “This is also a follow-up attack on our free and fair elections. The US is now a Third World country in serious decline. Very sad!”
As all Americans charged with crimes, Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence and his full rights under the Constitution, which he sought to overturn on January 6, 2021. Acceptance of this extraordinary case will answer two critical questions for America’s judicial credibility: Are all citizens— even the most powerful, such as former presidents and candidates for the White House—equal before the law? Or was Trump elected for who he is?
The indictment voted on by the grand jury remained sealed, leaving the charge unclear and the extent of the evidence against him. However, many legal experts doubt whether a case likely involving fraudulent financial statements and ensuring voting rights violations will reach a scale that justifies the nation-shattering act of impeaching the former president and front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Some observers have warned against the case, which may rely heavily on the testimony of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who made payments to Daniels and has served time in prison on charges including lying to Congress.
While there was plenty of evidence to make this relatively easy to sell to a jury, the fame and power of the accused led to the case being fought in the courts of public opinion. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is under intense pressure because if he does not get a sentence, he will be accused of building a politicking case that could create new divisions in this country.
Trump’s most ardent supporters in the House of Representatives criticized Bragg despite seeing no accusations or evidence against the former president. The angry reaction is consistent with Trump’s previous attempts to intimidate Bragg, which was sparked nearly two weeks ago by his inaccurate prediction that he would be arrested earlier this week. The strategy was designed to bias public opinion against the case even before Trump appeared in court and to support the former president’s supporters and the conservative media machine.
“Outrageous” was the only comment from Chief Justice Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the former president’s most staunch cronies.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted, “The American people will not tolerate this injustice,” adding, “The House will hold Alvin Bragg accountable for his unprecedented abuse of power,” a comment that appeared to signal a new attempt to wield government power. To intervene in cases actively moving through America’s independent legal system.
Republican Number 2 in the House Majority Leader Steve Scalise called the indictment “one of the most blatant examples of Democratic extremists weaponizing the government to attack their political opponents.” Representative Elise Stefanik, the House GOP conference chairman, released a statement calling the accusations a “political witch hunt” and a “dark day for America.” However, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell did not immediately comment, underscoring divisions within the Republican Party over Trump’s past attacks on democracy and America’s political aspirations.
Indictment shakes up 2024 White House race
It is too early to predict how voters in the GOP primary or in the national electorate will react to Trump’s accusations. It’s also unclear whether the trial will likely take place before the 2024 election or where many other investigations into Trump’s behavior will take place until then.
But Thursday’s historic news out of Manhattan immediately ignited the GOP nomination contest.
The move forced the ex-presidential Republican’s rival nominees to swiftly pass the sentence in order to preserve their own survival among GOP voters.
“I think the unprecedented indictment of the former President of the United States over campaign finance issues is outrageous,” former Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “To millions of Americans, this appears to be nothing more than a political lawsuit being run by a prosecutor who actually delivered on a promise to impeach the former president.”
Trump accused Pence of failing to step in to confirm President Joe Biden’s election win from Congress, a position that could limit the former vice president’s political ceiling in a party still filled with Trump loyalists.
Any immediate political momentum Trump can generate from impeachment could hurt his primary challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Like other potential candidates, DeSantis has had little political room to do anything other than denounce impeachment—though he presents himself as a presidential candidate who will be far calmer, more organized, and more effective than Trump at pursuing an uncompromising conservative agenda.
But DeSantis also issued an extraordinary threat that if Trump refused the surrender, he would refuse to participate in any attempt by New York to extradite him — a move that, if it happened, could trigger a constitutional crisis.
“Arming the legal system to advance a political agenda changes the rule of law. These are not Americans,” DeSantis tweeted. “Florida will not cooperate with an extradition request given the ambiguous circumstances surrounding this Soros-backed Manhattan attorney and his political agenda.”
The Florida governor’s threat is just an ominous sign, indicating that the coming months will be divisive and dangerous for American democracy – whether Trump is found guilty or not.