Trump trial poses existential threat to U.S. democracy

June 19, 2023 10:10
Photo: Reuters

The trial of former President Donald Trump on Federal charges poses an existential threat to U.S. democracy.

Last Tuesday (June 13) he pleaded not guilty in a Miami courthouse to 37 charges, the most serious ever served on a former president. They involve violations of the Espionage Age and mishandling of classified material in his Florida resort home. The maximum prison term for each count ranges from five to 20 years.

After leaving the courthouse, Trump flew in his private jet to his golf club in New Jersey, where he made his first public comments on the case, in a 30-minute tirade against President Joe Biden. He did not address the details of the charges.

“Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country,” he said. “It’s a political persecution like something straight out of a fascist or communist nation. When I’m re-elected, and we will get re-elected  . . . I will totally obliterate the deep state. We will obliterate the deep state and we know who they are. On November 5 2024, justice will be done.” He turned 77 last Wednesday. He described the chief prosecutor Jack Smith as “psycho” and a “deranged lunatic.”

Trump is the front-runner to win the nomination of the Republican Party as its presidential candidate in the election in November next year. If he won, he would be able to give himself amnesty for these, and all other charges, against him.

Facing such serious charges, a normal politician would have kept silent and let his lawyer speak for him; or he would have retired from politics until the case was settled. But Trump did the opposite, making the charges the main item in his re-election campaign.

Commentators in the U.S. say that one reason Trump is choosing this line of defence is that the legal case against him is so strong.

Jack Smith is one of the most experienced prosecutors in the Department of Justice (DOJ). A career prosecutor since 1999, he worked in the Eastern District of New York for nine years before the DOJ made him head of a unit to bring cases against corrupt government officials.

He also served as chief prosecutor in a special court hearing Kosovo war crimes in the Hague. One of the defendants he indicted was former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci. Such high-profile defendants demand a very high level of proof. Smith likes endurance sports and has completed the triathlon Ironmans course in 12-13 hours.

In announcing the charges against Trump earlier in June, Smith said: “Applying law, collecting facts. That is what determines the outcome of an investigation. Nothing more, nothing less.”

To show to the public the solidity of his case, Smith published a 44-page indictment that shows how Trump made repeated attempts not to hand back classified documents and boasted about possessing them. The indictment included photographs of boxes with classified record piled high in a bathroom in Trump’s Florida residence. Under U.S. law, a president must hand over such documents as soon as he leaves office.

Despite the seriousness of these charges, few leading Republicans dare to criticise Trump. Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the House, said that it was a political prosecution aimed at damaging Trump’s re-election campaign.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is competing against Trump to be Republican nominee said: “what we’ve seen over the last several years is the weaponisation of the department of justice against the former president.” Vivek Ramaswamy, another Republic candidate, said that, if he was elected, he would pardon Trump and that he would challenge the other candidates to make a similar promise.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll published after the indictment was made public, 43 per cent of self-identified Republicans said Trump was their preferred candidate, compared to 22 per cent who picked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, his closest rival. It is such data that makes other Republicans too afraid to criticise Trump, despite such serious charges.

So what will be the end result? Next year’s presidential election will be a referendum on the rule of law. Biden will promise to apply the law, whatever the outcome of the Florida case. Trump will promise to dismiss all the charges against him and take legal revenge against Biden and others he believes responsible for the many cases against him.

The best outcome is that, while Republican party members will choose Trump, a majority of the electorate as a whole will vote against him and keep him from returning to the White House. But, if he wins, what will be the future of the world’s oldest democracy?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.

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