The first-ever criminal indictment of a former American president creates a uniquely perilous moment for a polarized republic already repeatedly driven to the brink by the endless norm-busting of Donald Trump.
The prosecution of the 45th president – and his attempts to inflame a partisan firestorm to protect himself – are likely to consume America’s already poisoned politics, threaten to rock yet another presidential election and may pose the most critical challenge yet to its system of justice.
It is the latest stunning barrier shattered by the nation’s most unruly president. And it means that after a tumultuous four-year term, a historic two impeachments, an election falsely tainted by Trump’s lies about fraud and a mob attack by his supporters on Congress, a new national nightmare may be ahead.
There is nothing in American history that approaches the tumult of the charging and possible trial and conviction of a former president – especially since Trump and his supporters are already claiming that the indictment represents the weaponized politicization of the justice system.
Given the extreme national political estrangement exacerbated by Trump, this case is likely to leave the country changed however it turns out. There will be fears, for instance, that it will crush one of the last remaining precedents for political restraint and leave future presidents vulnerable to prosecution in a manner more akin to fragile failing states than the world’s most vital democracy. Yet at the same time, if Trump has indeed committed crimes, a failure to pursue him would send a message that the powerful can get away with behavior that ordinary Americans cannot.
The move was especially stunning given Trump’s long record of impunity, which has seen him constantly stretch the limits of the law and the conventions of accepted behavior with his uproarious personal, business and political careers. Suddenly, Trump’s decades of evading accountability will end. The former president will have to start answering for his conduct, likely beginning in court on Tuesday after he travels to New York to be arraigned in what will be a high-security spectacle given his past incitement of violence.
Trump insists he is innocent of all allegations, in this case as well as in several others that may pose even greater legal peril, including special counsel investigations into his hoarding of classified documents and his conduct around the 2020 election and a separate Georgia investigation into his bid to steal the election in the swing state.
The ex-president quickly showed he’s ready to drive the country into a deep political crisis as he mounts his defense with wild claims of persecution. He accused Democrats of weaponizing justice to thwart his 2024 White House bid – a claim that threatens to shatter the credibility of the next election in the eyes of millions of his followers and further damage US democracy.
“This is an attack on our country the likes of which has never been seen before,” Trump wrote in block capitals on his Truth Social network. “It is likewise a continuing attack on our once free and fair elections. The USA is now a third world nation, a nation in serious decline. So sad!”
Like all Americans accused of crimes, Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence and his full rights under the Constitution, which he tried to overturn on January, 6, 2021. The perception of this extraordinary case will turn on two questions fundamental to the credibility of American justice: Are all citizens – even the most powerful, like former presidents and White House candidates – considered equal under the law? Or is Trump being singled out because of who he is?
The indictment voted by the grand jury remains under seal, so the exact charges and the extent of evidence against him remain unclear. But many legal experts have questioned whether a case possibly alleging fraudulent accounting and subsequent infringements of election law would rise to the magnitude that might justify the nation-shaking act of indicting a former president and frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination. Some observers have warned against a case that might rely heavily on the testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who made the payments to Stormy Daniels and has already served a jail sentence for charges that included lying to Congress.
Even if there is plentiful evidence that makes this a relatively simple sell to a jury, the fame and the power of the defendant means the case will unfold in a court of public opinion. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is under enormous pressure since if he fails to secure a conviction, he will be accused even more than he already is of building a politicized case that could tear gaping new divides in the country.