Donald J. Trump is going to be indicted by a grand jury in Manhattan, per The New York Times. The charges? That the former president paid Stormy Daniels, a porn star, $130,000 during the 2016 campaign to keep quiet about an alleged affair in 2006. (Trump denies that the affair took place; I leave the evaluation of the truth of that statement as an exercise for the reader.)
Specifically, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, alleges that Trump asked his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to give Daniels the money and then reimbursed him for it, in violation of campaign finance laws. In 2018, Cohen pled guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations related to the payment; he is now the prosecution’s star witness.
Separately, Trump is also facing a criminal investigation in Atlanta, Georgia centered on his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. The former president is on tape pressuring Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, “to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” (Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes.) On the same call, Trump told Raffensperger that “You know what they did and you’re not reporting it. You know, that’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense,” and vaguely threatened that “The people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.” According to The New York Times, the Georgia grand jury has voted on indictment recommendations; the results of the jury votes have not yet been made public.
In 2019, then-President Trump — also on a recorded phone call — asked Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden — then the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination — and his son, Hunter, in exchange for Trump releasing $400 million of aid to Ukraine appropriated by Congress. (This is, needless to say, very illegal.) He was impeached for that not-so-perfect call, but acquitted in the Senate; he now promises that if re-elected in 2024 he will solve the Ukraine war “within one day” (somehow).
What does all this mean for the United States of America? The unsatisfying answer is that I don’t know. It’s possible that the indictment will weaken Trump in a primary race against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ’01; it’s possible that it will rally the base around the former president. I find it hard to believe that the indictment will help Trump in the general election if he is the Republican nominee, but it’s possible that Trump’s supporters may resort to violence if the former president is indicted or even convicted.
The risk of violence has led some commentators, such as Vox legal correspondent Ian Millhiser, to argue that it is not worth indicting Trump for the hush money payments. The argument is that the Manhattan case is relatively weaker than the Georgia investigations, and because Bragg is an elected Democrat, the indictment opens room for Trump supporters to cry political persecution. Merrick Garland, the U.S. Attorney General, has reportedly raised similar concerns about the appearance of political bias regarding the investigation of classified documents at Mar-A-Lago.
With all due respect, I disagree. Refusing to prosecute a former president due to the fear of appearing politically motivated is itself a politically motivated choice. Making that a norm would be tantamount to the institutionalization of the insurrectionist’s veto.
If a former president is de facto immune from facing justice for committing crimes — from even going to trial for alleged crimes — then we will have made a mockery of ‘equality under the law.’ Presidents — past and present — are not above the rest of the citizenry; they are accountable to the law just like you or me. If they break the law, they should be held to the same standard as anyone else. If their supporters believe the charges are unjust, they are free to protest; if that protest becomes violent, then they should face the appropriate legal repercussions.
We don’t know the details of the Manhattan indictment yet, so I won’t comment on their substance. But here’s what we do know: Donald Trump has a habit of breaking the rules. He threatened to withhold vital aid from a foreign nation unless their president investigated his chief domestic political rival. He attempted to overturn the results of a democratic election at home; when that failed, he incited an insurrection at the Capitol. The man — and that’s a generous application of the word — is not fit to be a county dogcatcher, let alone president of the United States.
But that’s a matter for voters to decide, as it should be. I hope Donald Trump receives a fair trial by a jury of his peers, as is his right. And if he is convicted, I hope they lock him up.
MILAN SINGH is a first year in Pierson College. His fortnightly column, “All politics is national” discusses national politics: how it affects the reader’s life, and why they should care about it. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.