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Trump’s indictment creates a test our democracy can easily pass

Donald Trump’s indictment is historic, but it’s not a crisis — unless the former president and the Republican Party turn it into one.


Americans have seen their presidents do a great many things after leaving office. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. John Quincy Adams returned to Congress — and served several terms. Years after leaving the White House, William Howard Taft even became the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

What we’ve never seen is a former president face a criminal indictment — that is, until yesterday.

I found myself thinking about how these developments might be reflected in future history textbooks. “Well, students, the former president was accused of cheating on his third wife with a porn star, and then paying her illegal hush money, which he lied about, all as part of a scheme to win a national election. This ultimately led to criminal charges. It was an odd time in American history.”

But as the dust settles on the historic news, a New York Times analysis raised a provocative point this morning, characterizing Donald Trump’s indictment as a “test” for our democracy.

For all of the focus on the tawdry details of the case or its novel legal theory or its political impact, the larger story is of a country heading down a road it has never traveled before, one fraught with profound consequences for the health of the world’s oldest democracy. For more than two centuries, presidents have been held on a pedestal, even the ones swathed in scandal, declared immune from prosecution while in office and, effectively, even afterward. No longer. That taboo has been broken. A new precedent has been set. Will it tear the country apart, as some feared about putting a former president on trial after Watergate? Will it be seen by many at home and abroad as victor’s justice akin to developing nations where former leaders are imprisoned by their successors? Or will it become a moment of reckoning, a sign that even someone who was once the most powerful person on the planet is not above the law?

These are perfectly sensible questions, and I can appreciate why developments as dramatic as these would raise broader questions about the strength — or perhaps, the lack thereof — of our political system.

But it’s also worth pausing to appreciate an underappreciated truth: Trump is a scandal-plagued politician who’s been indicted — and in the United States, we have all kinds of experience with scandal-plagued politicians getting indicted.

It happens all the time. It doesn’t tear at the fabric of our civic lives. It does not open the door to political violence. It is, for lack of a better word, normal.

This is not to say that the former president’s indictment is unimportant. On the contrary, it’s extraordinary, in part because it’s unprecedented, in part because the Republican has gone so long evading serious legal consequences, and in part because it’s an open question as to what will happen in its wake.

But it’s not as if Americans are unfamiliar with the broader dynamic at the intersection of politics and the criminal justice system. The fact that it involves a former president is certainly new, but we’ve seen indictments of governors, senators, House members, state legislators, Cabinet secretaries, mayors, city officials and, in John Edwards’ case, even a former vice presidential nominee. (A former vice president by the name of Spiro Agnew came awfully close to being arrested, too.)

None of these cases threatened our republic. The suspects were charged, and they had trials. Some were acquitted, and some were convicted. The United States endured without any trouble at all.

Yes, the fact that Trump is a former president might seem different, but he’s a private citizen with no special authority or powers. The fact that he’s also a current candidate also seems to change the equation, but let’s not forget that in the recent past Rick Perry ran for president while under criminal indictment, and few thought to make much of a fuss about it.

Our political system, in other words, should be able to handle Trump’s indictment — or possible indictments — without breaking a sweat.

What would put our political system in jeopardy would be for the Republican and/or his allies to reject our system of justice, and to insist that Trump must remain above the law — because they say so.

In other words, Trump’s indictment is historic, but it’s not a crisis — unless the GOP turns it into one.