News USA OPINION | Impeachment of Trump answers a 50-year-old question

OPINION | Impeachment of Trump answers a 50-year-old question

(CNN) — Donald Trump went down in history this Thursday as the first former US president to be impeached. As in so many other cases with Trump, we are venturing into new territory. And while President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested in 1872 for speeding through Washington in a horse-drawn carriage, we will all agree that this is not a comparable situation.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office had been investigating Trump’s alleged role in an alleged hush-buying payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. Although the charges are still sealed, Trump faces to more than 30 charges related to business fraud, CNN reported.

As he waits to learn the details of the charges – with questions surrounding his scheduled appearance for next Tuesday – the implications of the decision are beginning to sink in.

The prosecution is important on two levels; each of which could have very different consequences.

The first element of the accusation has to do with accountability. On September 8, 1974, a turning point in American politics occurred. Barely a month after Richard Nixon announced his resignation, then-President Gerald Ford pardoned the former president for crimes he may have committed during his term.

Ford issued the controversial pardon in an attempt to heal the nation and put Watergate behind him, at a time when the United States was teetering between stagflation and foreign turmoil in the aftermath of Vietnam. But Ford’s strategy did not work. Instead of healing the nation, the pardon helped magnify suspicions of corruption.

Many Americans were outraged by the pardon, believing that Ford had cut a deal with Nixon, who had named him vice president in 1973 after his previous vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned after pleading not guilty to tax evasion as part of a deal that dropped more serious charges of political corruption. Ford had replaced Nixon and had become an unelected president. His approval ratings fell from 71% to 50% after the pardon, as groups of protesters gathered outside the White House waving a large banner proclaiming: “Promise me a pardon and I’ll make you president.”

Former United States President Donald Trump.

By avoiding the attempt to hold Nixon accountable, Ford sidestepped the judicial process, and the nation never tested what could be done with presidents or former presidents accused of breaking the law.

This issue came up again with President Bill Clinton. In the 1997 Clinton v. Jones case, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling that sitting presidents were not immune from civil litigation arising from events that occurred before they took office. In 1998, the House of Representatives charged him with perjury and obstruction of justice for his response to charges that he had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate rejected both charges. Following his acquittal, Clinton struck a deal with a special prosecutor at the end of his presidency to avoid prosecution after leaving office for his false statements about the affair.

Consequently, we didn’t know if it would ever be possible to hold a president to account after he left the White House. The issue was not simply legal, but affected the will of prosecutors and juries.

With Trump, however, the New York Grand Jury, along with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, have given us an answer. This Thursday, the jury concluded that no one is above the law. Even a former president of the United States must be held accountable. Although an indictment is a long way from a conviction, the decision sets an important precedent.

The second reason impeachment matters comes down to politics, and on this front there is a distinct possibility that Trump will not only survive, but thrive. Regardless of how the case turns out, Trump has an uncanny instinct for using moments of danger to his advantage, and his entire political career has been built on striking back at the people and institutions he believes unfairly target him.

He has already resorted to the hackneyed strategy of presenting himself as the victim of a corrupt establishment to rally his supporters behind him. Not surprisingly, shortly after news of an indictment broke, Trump issued a statement calling it “political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history.”

It must be said that of all the legal issues facing Trump, the New York prosecution seems to pale in comparison to others, such as the potential racketeering and conspiracy charges that Atlanta-area prosecutors are considering in connection with the attempt to nullify the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

In any case, Trump knows how to use moments of danger in his favor, and we have already seen Republicans side with him, as they did during the two impeachments. Former Vice President Mike Pence called the prosecution an “outrage,” while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—potentially Trump’s biggest rival in 2024—publicly declared the prosecution’s action “un-American.”

The political consequences of the indictment—along with any other potential charges that may arise in the process—should be set aside when considering the importance of restoring accountability. In the end, the grand jury has made an important contribution to contemporary politics by choosing to hold Trump to account and settling the question of whether that is possible, once and for all.

They have taken an important first step in reversing some of the damage that Ford inflicted on the political class when he refused to allow the legal process to proceed with a former president who had committed immense misdeeds and abused his power. And if the nation does not continue the long process of reestablishing the important standard of accountability, we will be perpetually gripped by the dangers of an imperial presidency that holds commanders-in-chief to a different legal standard than all other Americans.

Now we must see what others—from the Georgia grand jury to the Department of Justice—have to say on this important issue.

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