(CNN) — The first criminal charge against a former US president creates an exceptionally dangerous moment for a polarized country that has already been repeatedly pushed to the brink by Donald Trump’s relentless rule-breaking.
The impeachment of the 45th president is likelyand his attempts to inflame a partisan firestorm to protect himself, consummate America’s already poisoned politics, threaten to rock another presidential election, and may pose the most critical challenge yet to its justice system.
It is the latest impressive barrier toppled by the nation’s most rebellious president. And it means that after a tumultuous four-year term, two historic impeachments, an election falsely tainted by Trump’s lies about fraud and an attack by his supporters on Congress, a new national nightmare may be ahead.
In a momentous step Thursday, a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Trump on what sources said were more than 30 counts related to business fraud in a case that arose of the money he allegedly paid to silence adult film star Stormy Danielspossibly to calm a looming scandal in the 2016 election.
There is nothing in American history that comes close to the tumult of the impeachment and possible trial and conviction of a former president, especially since Trump and his supporters already claim that the impeachment represents the armed politicization of the justice system.
“We’ve been close before (but) we’ve never been to this point,” John Dean, a Watergate-era special adviser to former President Richard Nixon, told CNN. “No previous president, sitting or otherwise, has been indicted.”
Given the extreme national political estrangement exacerbated by Trump, this case is likely to leave a change in the country no matter how it turns out. There will be fears, for example, that he will crush one of the last remaining precedents for political moderation and leave future presidents vulnerable to prosecution in a way more like bankrupt fragile states than the world’s most vital democracy. At the same time, however, if Trump really has committed crimes, his not going after him would send the message that the powerful can get away with behavior that ordinary Americans cannot.
The move was especially shocking given Trump’s long record of impunity, which has seen him consistently push the boundaries of the law and the conventions of accepted behavior with his turbulent personal, business and political careers. Suddenly, Trump’s decades of shirking will end. The former president will have to begin to answer for his conduct, likely beginning in court Tuesday after he travels to New York for trial in what will be a high-security spectacle given his incitement to violence at the past.
Trump launches a furious counterattack
Trump insists he is innocent of all allegations, both in this case and in several others that may pose even greater legal danger, including the special counsel’s investigations into his hoarding of classified documents and his conduct surrounding the 2020 election. and a separate investigation in Georgia into his attempt to steal the election in the swing state.
The former president quickly showed that he is ready to plunge the country into a deep political crisis as he mounts his defense with wild claims of persecution. He accused Democrats of using justice as a weapon to thwart his 2024 White House bid, a claim that threatens to destroy the credibility of the upcoming election in the eyes of millions of his supporters and further damage American democracy.
“This is an attack on our country like never before,” Trump wrote in all caps on his Truth Social network. “It is equally an ongoing attack on our once free and fair elections. America is now a third world nation, a nation in serious decline. Very sad!”.
Like all Americans charged with crimes, Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence and his full rights under the Constitution, which he tried to cancel on January 6, 2021. The perception of this extraordinary case will revolve around two fundamental questions for the credibility of American justice: Are all citizens, even the most powerful, such as former presidents and candidates for the White House, are considered equal before the law? Or is Trump being singled out for who he is?
The indictment voted on by the grand jury remains sealed, so the exact charges and the extent of the evidence against him remain unclear. But many legal experts have questioned whether a case possibly alleging fraudulent accounting and subsequent election law violations would reach the scale that could justify the momentous act of impeaching a former president and frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Some observers have warned against a A case that could hinge heavily on the testimony of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who made the payments to Daniels and has already served jail time on charges that included lying to Congress.
Even if there is abundant evidence that makes this a relatively easy sell to a jury, the fame and power of the defendant means that the case will play out in a court of public opinion. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is under enormous pressure, as if he does not win a conviction, he will be accused even more than he already is of building a politicized case that could drive new wedges in the country.
Trump’s most fervent supporters in the House of Representatives lashed out at Bragg despite not having seen the charges or evidence against the former president. The angry reactions were consistent with Trump’s previous attempts to intimidate Bragg, beginning nearly two weeks ago with his inaccurate prediction that he would be arrested early last week. The strategy was clearly designed to bias public opinion against the case even before Trump appears in court and to energize the former president’s grassroots supporters and the conservative media machine.
“Outrageous” was the only comment delivered by House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the former president’s most loyal loyalists.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “The American people will not stand for this injustice,” adding that “The House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account,” a comment that seemed to indicate a new try use the power of government to interfere in an active case passing through the independent legal system of the United States.
The No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, called the impeachment “one of the clearest examples of extremist Democrats arming the government to attack their political opponents.” Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican conference, issued a statement calling the impeachment “a political witch hunt” and a “dark day for America.” However, there was no immediate comment from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell outlining the divisions in the GOP over Trump’s past assault on American democracy and political aspirations.
The impeachment shakes the race for the White House in 2024
It is too early to predict how voters, in the GOP primaries or in the national electorate, will respond to Trump’s impeachment. And it’s also unclear if a possible trial would take place before the 2024 election or where the multiple investigations into Trump’s conduct will be by then.
But Thursday’s historic news in Manhattan immediately turned the GOP nominating contest upside down.
The move forced potential Republican rivals to the former president to hastily condemn to preserve its own viability among Republican voters.
“I think the unprecedented impeachment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview. “It seems to millions of Americans that this is nothing more than a political impeachment being pushed by a prosecutor who literally ran for office on the promise of impeaching the former president.”
Trump blames Pence for failing to intervene in congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory, a position that may limit the former vice president’s political ceiling in a party still packed with Trump loyalists.
Any immediate political momentum Trump can engineer from the impeachment could hurt his main potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Like other potential candidates, DeSantis had no political space to do anything other than condemn the impeachment, even though he has cast himself as a potential president who would be far more calm, methodical, and effective in implementing an agenda. hardline conservative than Trump.
But DeSantis also made an extraordinary threat that if Trump refused to turn himself in, he would refuse to participate in any extradition effort by New York, a move that, if it happens, could precipitate a constitutional crisis.
“The militarization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law upside down. It’s un-American,” DeSantis tweeted. “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda.”
The threat from the Florida governor was just a bad omen suggesting that the coming months will be divisive and dangerous for American democracy, whether Trump is found guilty or not.
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