Editorial | Hush money saga
The American justice system took a huge leap towards accountability on Thursday when former President Donald Trump was indicted for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star on the eve of the 2016 presidential election.
Historical notes confirm that past presidents have also had brushes with the law. The case of Richard Nixon comes to mind, as he was named by a 1974 Grand Jury as a co-conspirator in the Watergate affair. His resignation might have saved him from further punishment. Then, in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Both escaped criminal charges.
This historical first involving the former president, who is making another run for the White House in 2024, could have monumental consequences for the future of American politics. For one thing, Trump and his supporters are casting this indictment as judicial hounding by his political opponents. This argument is expected to grow louder as investigations continue into other alleged crimes involving Trump.
Note that, under the US constitution, there is no requirement that a candidate for the highest office possess a clean record, and a criminal indictment is not a disqualification for a potential candidate. Having survived two impeachment hearings, many doubt whether this or any other charge will stick to the resilient 76-year-old Trump, who has consistently shown contempt for the rule of law, both in and out of the White House.
There are a number of reasons why this development merits our attention. For one thing, America has long been the harbinger of future political developments. Just think back to 2017, the year after Trump’s improbable victory, how populist leaders surged to power all over the world. Suddenly, populations admired tough-talking leaders who were given to ignoring civil and political liberties. According to Freedom House assessment, this marked the time when America retreated from its traditional role as a champion and exemplar of democracy.
‘WHAT IF’ MOMENT
This is certainly a what-if moment for the rest of the world and, in particular, democracies like ours which are struggling to put a lid on corruption. What if this indictment of a US president could lead to a period of soul-searching and self-evaluation of politicians in our own country? What if this indictment emboldens other democracies to swiftly investigate allegations of corruption, gather the evidence and conduct prosecutions where they are warranted?
Though this is the first indictment of a former American president, in recent times, sitting or former leaders who have faced the courts include leaders of Italy, Israel, France, Brazil, Malaysia and South Korea, who have variously been charged with crimes such as misuse of public money, illegal conflict of interest, tax and bank fraud and illegal campaign financing. Some have been fined or imprisoned. Criminal prosecution for alleged misdeeds does not weaken a democracy, in fact, it strengthens it.
The most powerful signal a government can send to its people is that no one is above the law. A democracy grows when it is transparent. However, to ignore the misdeeds of politicians is one sure way of damaging the justice system and leaving a population disillusioned and indifferent. These feelings of showing up at the polling station where significant number of electors have snubbed the electoral process.
Fans of Donald Trump have described his indictment as “Third World banana republic lunacy”, suggesting that to hold him accountable would somehow damage the image of America and destroy its justice system. It is indeed unfortunate that Trump’s fans and members of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) crowd are making out the investigations and evidence gathering as undemocratic, whereas it is the most democratic thing to do.
Of course, an indictment is only a first step, there is much more to come.