NOT since George Washington in 1789 was an American president indicted for alleged crimes committed by reason of abuse of his office. For the first time in 2023, it had to be the 45th president, Donald Trump.
Indeed, because Trump here is peerless, the “historic and unprecedented” nature of Trump’s indictment is of course seen as beyond compare. Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal comes to mind for sure, but Nixon was never charged with a crime since he was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford as soon as the latter took office after Nixon resigned the presidency.
Nixon resigned to avoid the ignominy of impeachment and removal from office because it had become apparent to him that the clamor for his impeachment was now bipartisan. In a nutshell, Nixon’s troubles were chronicled by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters of the Washington Post, alleging that Nixon had been complicit in the coverup of the 1972 break-in at the Watergate Hotel which was then the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
While Trump was impeached twice, his removal from office never took place because he still managed to obtain support from the Republican members of both houses of Congress. After he lost the presidency to Joe Biden in November of 2019, which he refused to concede, he mobilized a multitude of his supporters to storm the US Capitol purposely to halt the canvassing of votes by the electoral college by a joint session of congress presided by then vice-president Mike Pence acting as senate president.
The desecration of the symbol of American democracy, the loss of lives of some law enforcers and injuries sustained by others; the threat to the life of the vice-president and members of Congress, and the threat to democracy itself, resulted in multiple federal and state investigations on Trump, including his associates.
Special counsel Jack Smith was appointed by the justice department to investigate the January 6 attacks while Fulton County, Georgia district attorney Fani Willis looked into Trump’s attempts to overturn presidential election results in the state. One might recall the infamous call made by Trump to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger when he urged the latter to “find” votes for him because he claimed to have “won” the state.
Now Trump is indicted on both of these premises, not to mention being charged with the payment of hush money in exchange for the silence of adult film actress Stormy Daniels, with whom he allegedly had an affair shortly before the 2016 presidential elections. Allegations of mishandling classified government documents complete a four-way indictment of Trump which is repeatedly described as unheard of.
As Trump seeks the US presidency once again in the upcoming 2024 general elections, politics and the rule of law collide in this apparent high-stakes attempt to utilize politics to escape legal accountability. In the crowded field of personalities seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Trump apparently leads in the surveys.
In campaign rallies, Trump spins his legal troubles by playing the victim, insisting that the system is “rigged” against him and therefore, rigged against his supporters too. What is obvious in his pronouncements is that he does not actually address the charges against him but rather offers a sweeping “indictment” of the legal system, alleging the “weaponization” of the Department of Justice against political opponents like him.
The loophole in this argument, however, is found in the Fulton County indictment itself where lawyer Jeffrey Clark, a former functionary of the justice department, was charged as a co-conspirator in Trump’s attempt to overturn election results in the state of Georgia. Trump also considered the attorney general as his personal lawyer such that as president he was intimately involved in finding grounds to charge then rival Hillary Clinton with a crime (they found nothing), or to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter for utilizing political influence to enrich himself (a special counsel is assigned in the ongoing investigation).
Accusations of “weaponization” notwithstanding, Trump also engages in culture wars calling Democrats as engaging in “wokeism” which by his definition is contrary to the conservative values America is known for. But again, he contradicts himself, for if the Republican Party which he leads is the “party of law and order,” his multiple indictments only manifest his propensity to scoff at the law.
The danger here is his ability to incite his followers into violence. Lately, we hear that Judge Chutkan who presides over Trump’s January 6 indictment is being threatened with violence by a Trump supporter; also calling her all sorts of names including the “N” word. Is “wokeism” more destructive to American society than racism manifested by the unbridled use of the “N” word, or even the political divisiveness that Trump perpetuates with his culture wars?
An indictment is not a judgment of guilt, however. This is just the equivalent of the filing of criminal information in the Philippines. Thus, the paradox of this whole Trump affair is that he can still win the presidency. This is his apparent strategy (or gambit). If he wins, the likelihood is that this will put to a halt all the legal proceedings on account of presidential immunity. Moreover, this creates the absurd situation where a sitting president can “pardon himself” which is also “unprecedented.”
Why does this matter here in our own little corner? A superpower like the United States has a hold on the global balance of power. Political instability can tip this balance in favor of “undemocratic” nations like Russia, China, North Korea or Iran. In the Philippines, we neither have the military or economic power to assert regional much less world influence. Like it or not, we can only have allies like the United States.
The doctrine of balance of power implies that the presence of the US Pacific Fleet is a deterrent (détente during the Cold War) against Chinese aggression, and a leverage by the Philippines in talks about a “code of conduct” in the West Philippine Sea given that we are still establishing “confidence building measures.” Instability in US politics signifies weakness and this has a global rippling effect.