Donald Trump made history on Thursday. The 78-year-old former president and front-runner in next year’s Republican presidential primaries announced he has been indicted on federal criminal charges. None of his predecessors, since the United States declared independence in 1776, has ever faced such legal peril.
While politics is a zero-sum game in many countries, including some democracies where rival leaders will use the levers of powers to neutralize their predecessors, that has not traditionally been the case in America.
When he was president, Trump’s critics accused him of lurching towards authoritarianism and trying to use his political office to stay in power after he lost his bid for reelection.
Of course Trump, in his trademark approach to politics, is now alleging just such an abuse of office, accusing the Democratic administration of Joe Biden of weaponizing the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its parent agency, the Department of Justice, in “warfare for the law.”
Trump, who like all defendants is presumed innocent pending the outcome of a trial, has been claiming the system is rigged against him since the first votes were cast in the Iowa caucuses in 2016. Back then he blamed rival candidate Ted Cruz and demanded, without success, that “a new election should take place or Cruz results (be) nullified.”
Even when he won the general election later that year, he claimed fraud. Trump won the Electoral College vote (based on a majority of votes in each individual state) but lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump stated without any evidence.
During his four years in office, in which he was impeached twice by the House but not convicted in the Senate, Trump repeatedly stated he was the target of witch hunts and that he never did anything wrong. There was the “perfect phone call” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which he repeatedly pressed for the foreign leader to investigate Biden in a suggested quid pro quo. That led to the first impeachment.
Then there was the ignominious day at the U.S. Capitol when Trump supporters stormed the symbol of American democracy after their president incited them to “fight like hell” or “you’re not going to have a country anymore. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Trump returned to the White House while the crowd headed into the Capitol. He then tweeted that his vice president, Mike Pence (now a Republican primary opponent) “didn’t have the courage” to thwart the ceremonial counting of ballots to declare Biden the victor of the 2020 election.
That led to Trump’s second impeachment in the waning days of his presidency.
A signature line of his political rallies was: “We will never give in, we will never give up, and we will never, ever back down.”
During his presidency, Trump sometimes did back away from his more outlandish proposals, appointments and rhetoric, usually under intense pressure from Cabinet secretaries, key aides and family members. Trump always seemed to regret it, however, telling his lawyers and his advisers that he trusted his instincts more than their expert advice. That usually put him into greater jeopardy.
Eventually he had a falling out with nearly everyone in his inner circle. Some of those whom he cast out would occasionally return to the fold. Top White House officials observed Trump seemed to have no true friends; all relationships were transactional and loyalty to the boss (who had never worked for anyone except his own father) was the ultimate desirable trait.
Legal observers have little doubt Trump will fight these federal charges every step of the way and is unlikely to plea bargain, as that would be tantamount to admitting guilt to something, not a Trump trait.
Within hours of announcing the indictment, Trump sent out fundraising letters imploring supporters: “Please make a contribution to peacefully stand with me today and prove that YOU will NEVER surrender our country to the radical Left.” The note concluded with suggested contributions between $24 and $250.
Political observers do not expect the indictment to hurt Trump much with his core supporters, about a third of Republican Party voters. But overall, before news of the fresh charges, six in 10 Americans told pollsters Trump should not be president again.
The current expectation is that with perhaps a dozen other Republicans vying for the nomination by the time the first 2024 votes are cast at the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the former president will remain the front-runner and be the most likely to capture his party’s nomination for a third consecutive time – although this time while battling serious criminal charges of violating the Espionage Act, making false statements and conspiring to obstruct justice.
Only once has an American president, out of office, returned to the White House. That was Grover Cleveland after defeating the incumbent president, Benjamin Harrison, in 1892.
Only once, in 1920, has a relevant political party nominated a convicted felon. That was Eugene V. Debs, who had run unsuccessfully for president four times previously and was a household name of the era.
Debs had been convicted of violating the Espionage and Sedition acts but was chosen by the Socialist Party again in 1920. He was allowed by authorities to issue one written statement weekly from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He captured more than three percent of the vote in the general election. He remained a popular figure after President Warren Harding pardoned him the following year.
If Trump loses the 2024 election for a second time, would Biden (the presumptive Democratic Party nominee again), even consider pardoning his vanquished rival if the Republican is convicted of one or more felonies?
Many in America never forgave Gerald Ford for pardoning his fellow Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face certain impeachment for the Watergate scandal. And Ford paid the price in an election loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Biden talks often of healing and bridging the deepest political divide since the Civil War. A devout Catholic of Irish ancestry, he takes solace in the words of popes who call for forgiveness and in the lines of his favorite poet.
Perhaps in Seamus Heaney’s line there lies a hint:
History says, Don’t hope
On the side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles.
And cures and healing wells.
Editor’s note: VOA’s chief national correspondent Steve Herman, was VOA’s White House bureau chief during the Trump administration and extensively interacted with the 45th president.