Donald Trump in the White House, or a prison cell?

August 10, 2023 09:22
Photo: Reuters

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice charged Donald Trump with attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. It was the second Federal indictment against him in two months.

“The defendant (Trump) aimed to obstruct a bedrock function of the U.S. government – the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election,” said special counsel Jack Smith in explaining the indictment.

In another blow, a major donor, Oklahoma oil tycoon Harold Hamm, said he told Trump to drop his bid for the White House, because the Republican Party needed a candidate free of the “chaos” surrounding him.

In May this year, a court in New York found Trump guilty of sexually abusing columnist E. Jean Carroll in 1996 and awarded her US$5 million in damages.

Do all these cases mean the end of the political career of Trump, who aims to return to the White House in the election in November next year?

For people outside the U.S. – and many inside – it beggars belief that a person facing such serious charges can consider himself and be considered by electors as a candidate for the most important job in the world.

What is more, Trump plans to continue campaigning even if he were sent to prison. There is precedent for this. In 1920, Eugene V. Debs, candidate of the Socialist Party, was serving a 10-year sentence for urging people not to serve in the military during World War One. He received nearly one million votes, three per cent of the total cast. If Trump won the election and were elected president, he could pardon himself of his convictions, leave prison and go peacefully to the White House.

Another startling fact is Trump’s continuing popularity despite the charges. A New York Times/Siena College poll published on July 31 found that 54 per cent of likely Republican primary voters supported him, three times the 17 percent for his closest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The other candidates have less than three per cent.

It is these statistics that have made nearly all Republican leaders in Congress and outside afraid to criticise Trump, let alone tell him not to run. The only one who dares is Chris Christie, one of the candidates. He has called Trump “a liar and a coward and a puppet of Putin” and said he should not run. His polling numbers are below three per cent.

Other Republicans who do not want Trump to run are wealthy donors like Harold Hamm. Federal figures released last week showed that these donors gave nearly US$30 million to candidates other than Trump in the first half of this year. In this period, Trump’s campaign raised more than US$50 million and spent US$57 million, including more than US$20 million to over 40 law firms.

Jack Smith and other prosecutors want the cases to be brought to court as soon as possible and settled before the presidential election. In response, his legal team said last week it was “absurd” to take Trump to trial on the four most recent criminal charges.

“Right now [prosecutors] want to go to trial so that instead of debating the issues against Joe Biden, that president Trump is sitting in a courtroom — how is that justice?” said John Lauro, one of his lawyers. Their strategy is to postpone all the trials until after the election.

Trump wants to make the cases against him the centre of his campaign. The war in Ukraine, the state of the economy, the national debt, gun control, reform of medicine, the climate crisis and foreign policy – he wants to push all these key issues to one side and make the campaign about himself as the victim of an unjust system.

The New York Times/Siena College poll also asked people how they would vote in a 2024 election between Trump and President Joe Biden. The answer was a draw, each with 43 per cent.

Is this the world’s oldest and greatest democracy? Can nearly half the American electorate want as President a man who tried to overthrow their constitutional system? The enemies of the U.S., especially Vladimir Putin, are rubbing their hands in glee. Trump’s re-election is his best hope of winning the war in Ukraine.

In a commentary in the Financial Times last week, Gideon Rachman wrote: “the future of democracy in America will turn on the trials of Donald Trump – and the political turmoil that will surround them … If Trump wins election in 2024, he will hope that the power of the presidency will free him of the danger of future convictions. It is a stark choice – the Oval Office or a prison cell.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.