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Donald Trump: It’s not politics, it’s accountability

The indictment over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election will become dangerously intertwined with the 2024 presidential campaign, but the potential risks of not prosecuting the former president are greater than doing so

Donald Trump

The most tumultuous presidential transition in U.S. history did not take place between November 3, 2020, and January 6, 2021, but more than 160 years ago. A new Republican president-elect had to take over from a government that seemed incapable of holding together a nation in crisis. He had only garnered about 40% of the popular vote, with the rest split among a long list of opponents. He was Abraham Lincoln and the year was 1860. During the presidential transition, seven states declared secession. The southerners took over forts and rearmed. Lincoln’s hope that the secession movement was a passing phase was dashed when rebels attacked Fort Sumter just over a month after the inauguration, plunging the country into a bloody civil war.

A century and a half later, another stormy presidential transition has led to the indictment of a former U.S. president on four charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding; obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding; and conspiracy against rights. Of all the indictments facing Donald Trump, this one is the most serious. And it’s also the most important ever to safeguarding American democracy and the rule of law in any U.S. court case against any person. All the world is watching.

The indictment is not limited to the specific events of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, nor is it limited to what Trump said about alleged voter fraud during the presidential election. The document refers to the specific actions that Trump carried out in an effort to change the result of the election: presenting alternative lists of electors (the people who vote for the president in the Electoral College), and lobbying state legislators, election officials, Justice Department officials and his own vice president to manipulate the arcane and complex electoral rules in order to change his status from loser to winner. And during the violent assault on the Capitol, for opting for inaction. That is the definition of election subversion.

The fact that Trump is now the favorite to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for the 2024 election complicates the political optics. Especially since each new indictment seems to go against President Joe Biden’s own political interests. Just look at the millions raised by the Trump campaign in the second quarter of 2023, precisely when he was indicted by the Manhattan district attorney for hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, and for classified documents found in his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago. Despite this, the Department of Justice has deemed the alleged crimes serious enough, and the evidence compelling enough, to proceed. Because it’s not about politics, it’s about accountability.

Trump now can pursue two legal strategies. The first is to appeal to the First Amendment of the Constitution (freedom of expression, religion and press). But Special Counsel Jack Smith’s decision not to file possible charges related to incitement to violence, insurrection and sedition — which some had called for — means that the case will avoid the full range of constitutional challenges attached to the amendment.

The second is stalling. If Trump can delay the final outcome of the various criminal proceedings against him and get elected again in 2024, he could name a new attorney general who would dismiss the federal cases. Alternatively, Trump could test the limits of presidential power by trying to pardon himself. Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, a Republican president would likely face enormous pressure to drop the charges against him and placate his supporters. But while Trump could skirt the federal cases, those efforts would not apply to the state criminal charges he faces in New York or could face in Georgia. In other words, he still faces the possibility of being convicted in a state trial for something less consequential. As the saying goes, it took an accountant to catch Al Capone.

The success of his efforts to suspend and push back the cases will not only depend on the effectiveness of Trump’s legal defense, but also on Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s determination to move the proceedings forward at a fair but determined pace. In her favor, she had the fact that — despite the almost overwhelming factual density of the indictment — it will be procedurally easier to litigate than the Mar-a-Lago papers case, which involves a lot of classified documentation.

The tension between the political and judicial calendar is palpable. It was already evident when Trump decided to launch his Republican primary campaign early on, driven precisely by the fear of being prosecuted. He denies this, insisting that he would not have been charged if he wasn’t running for president. But his campaign and legal issues are intimately intertwined. Perhaps he didn’t take into account that if he wants to avoid conviction, he may have to spend a lot of energy and time addressing his legal issues, to the detriment of the campaign — he has already said he won’t participate in the first debate of the Republican primary on August 23. But he also failed to calculate that Americans are beginning to draw distinctions between his various legal problems. While the first indictment for the Stormy Daniels case did not hurt him politically, with the second indictment for withholding classified documents, his median support in the primaries fell slightly, and his net valuation fell a couple of percentage points. Working in his favor is the unsuccessful search for a Republican alternative. His rivals mistakenly try to manage a difficult balancing act by taking advantage of Trump’s legal troubles, while trying not to alienate his devoted supporters. Because no one can win the candidacy without the support of the 35% of Republican voters loyal to Trump, a percentage that, however, is not enough to reach the White House.

Bringing Trump before a jury does not ensure his conviction and certainly comes with risks. But the risks to the system of not prosecuting the former president outweigh those of doing so. A trial on these indictments may not only be the best opportunity to show Americans again, in the midst of election season, the actions that Trump took for his own personal benefit while putting lives and the country at risk. It may also serve as a deterrent to anyone who might want to attempt a similar attack on American democracy in the future.

The vulnerability of democracy is not unique to the U.S. If Washington does not lose confidence in its ability to repair democracy at home, it will help overcome any skepticism from abroad and will be a boost to this U.S. administration’s support for democracy in the world, which is so key in these times. That is why what most alarms the international community are the polls that suggest a rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024. It would be very close and very competitive, in other words, not very different from 2020. And we already know who won.

As Lincoln stated: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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