Other democracies prosecute their ex-leaders. Trump should be no exception

Donald Trump believes he shouldn’t be held accountable for any crimes he’s been accused of before, during, or after his presidency. But on Monday, he found himself sitting in a courtroom as the first former U.S. president ever to go on trial for criminal charges. It’s the case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg accusing Trump of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.  

But while this might be unprecedented in U.S. history, other democracies, including France, South Korea, and Israel have charged, convicted, and even jailed former presidents and prime ministers. So why are we having such a hard time wrapping our head around this as a country?

RELATED STORY: Donald Trump's first criminal trial, Day One

Two previous U.S. presidents were in danger of facing criminal charges. President Warren G. Harding died in office in August 1923 and thus avoided being implicated in the notorious Teapot Dome oil lease bribery scandal and other corruption cases involving top administration officials.

Harding was also a notorious womanizer who had a child born out of wedlock. During the 1920 presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee gave Harding’s long-time mistress a monthly $2,000 stipend as hush money and paid $25,000 to send her on a cruise to Japan and China before the election. 

President Richard Nixon came very close to being indicted for his role in the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation in August 1974. Nixon could have faced charges of bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and obstruction of a criminal investigation, CNN reported. But Nixon’s successor and vice president, Gerald Ford, granted Nixon a full pardon, justifying his decision by claiming that long drawn-out litigation would arouse “ugly passions” and “our people would again be polarized  in their opinions.”

As The Washington Post wrote last week:

In the half-century since Ford announced that pardon, other nations have charted a different path, prosecuting former presidents or prime minsters in France, Brazil, South Korea, Israel and elsewhere for numerous alleged crimes, among them embezzlement, corruption, election interference and bribery.

Some cases have illustrated the virtues of trying to hold the most powerful political officials accountable under the rule of law — as well as the formidable challenges that arise when prosecuting such figures. These former leaders can rely on ample bully pulpits to assail the process, maintain influence, shore up support and, in some cases, reclaim power.

Trump has certainly used his “bully” pulpit to assail the process by attacking judges, prosecutors, and witnesses and claiming that putting him on trial would be ruinous for the country. Here’s what Trump posted on his Truth Social platform on the eve of the start of his trial in which prosecutors claim Trump paid hush money to Daniels to avoid a scandal that could have hurt his 2016 campaign:

Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Criminal Court, before a totally conflicted Judge, a Corrupt Prosecutor, a Legal System in CHAOS, a State being overrun by violent crime and corruption, and Crooked Joe Biden’s henchmen “Rigging the System” against his Political Opponent, ME! I will be fighting for myself but, much more importantly, I will be fighting for our Country. Election Interference like this has never happened in the USA before and, hopefully, will never happen again. We are now a Nation in serious Decline, a Failing Nation, but we will soon be a Great Nation Again. November 5th will be the most important day in the History of the United States. MAGA2024! SEE YOU TOMORROW.

Republicans seem to be in a certain state of denial regarding the upcoming trial. The Daily Beast conducted interviews with more than 20 Republican lawmakers over the past week. They made clear that they were supporting Trump even if he is a convicted felon.

“I don’t think that it matters to the American people, because they don’t believe it to be a fair trial,” North Carolina Sen. Ted Budd, a strong MAGA acolyte, told the Daily Beast. “They believe that all these trials are completely unfair against him to drain him of his resources and it’s completely done the opposite thing, it’s rallied the American people behind him.”

And Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a more establishment Republican who recently became chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he will continue to support Trump even if he’s convicted.

“First of all, I don't think that’s going to happen,” Cole said. “But second, I think some of these prosecutions are simply ridiculous on their face, and some of them are clearly harassment.”

Trump is also trying to rebrand himself as the victim of political persecution, even having the temerity to compare himself to former South African President Nelson Mandela. Trump somehow connected the anti-apartheid icon’s 27 years spent in prison to the possibility that he could be jailed by Judge Juan Merchan for violating a gag order in the hush money case.

“If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela—It will be my GREAT HONOR,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

Mandela’s grandson told the Times of London that Trump is “definitely delusional.”

Trump probably wishes that he could be like Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2020, Putin signed legislation that grants former presidents immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during their lifetime. Trump has argued for presidential immunity repeatedly without success.

RELATED STORY: Make America like Russia: Trump wants same presidential immunity as Putin

Trump also shares much in common with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has used a similar strategy of “delay, deny, deflect” after he was charged in 2019 with fraud, breach of trust, and bribery while still in office. Netanyahu has also accused prosecutors of waging a “witch hunt” against him.

Netanyahu left office in 2021 after losing a vote of confidence in the parliament, but returned to power in December 2022 as the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu and his allies then tried to overhaul the judicial system to give ruling parties more power to override Supreme Court decisions and select judges. Under the proposed legislation, courts would no longer have been allowed to bar politicians convicted of crimes from holding top government posts. These proposals triggered mass protests, and may have helped distract the government from warning signs about Hamas’s plans for a major attack.

But two other Israeli leaders ended up serving prison sentences. Former President Moshe Katsav was sentenced in 2011 after being convicted of rape and other sexual offenses against subordinates, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted in 2015 of fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion.

In France, two former presidents were convicted of criminal charges. Jacques Chirac was convicted in 2011 of influence peddling, breach of trust, and embezzlement during his time as the mayor of Paris and received a two-year suspended jail sentence. In 2021, former President Nicolas Sarkozy was convicted of corruption and influence peddling. An appeals court spared him from serving any time in prison. In a separate case, Sarkozy is to go on trial in 2025 on charges or corruption and illegal financing related to alleged Libyan funding of his successful 2007 presidential campaign.

South Korea remains one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies even though four ex-presidents have  been jailed for corruption since the 1980s. Another ex-president committed suicide in 2009 while under investigation. Most recently, President Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2017, and convicted of abuse of power, bribery, and coercion the following year. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison, but received a presidential pardon in 2021 due to poor health.

South Koreans ousted a military dictatorship in the 1980s. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2023, South Korea is a top-tier democracy, ranked 22nd in the world—seven spots ahead of the United States, which was labeled a “flawed democracy.”

Trump has been charged with 88 criminal offenses in four criminal cases. But former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who died last year, also had quite the rap sheet. Berlusconi faced 35 criminal court cases since entering politics in 1994, but only one of his trials resulted in a conviction, Reuters reported. Berlusconi was convicted in 2013 for tax fraud, false accounting, and embezzlement related to his media empire, but what was originally a four-year prison sentence ended up being reduced to a year of community service.

And that brings us to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing populist known as the “Trump of the Tropics.” Bolsonaro cast doubts over the results of the 2022 presidential election which he narrowly lost to left-wing former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, claiming without evidence that the country’s electronic voting machines were prone to fraud.

Then on Jan. 8, 2023, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the Congress and other government buildings in the capital Brasilia in a scene mirroring that of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Security forces regained control and arrested several hundred people.

Bolsonaro has been charged by Brazilian authorities with forging a coronavirus vaccine card before he traveled to Florida in late 2022 after his election loss. Authorities are also investigating whether Bolsonaro was involved in plotting a coup to remove Lula from power.

But last July, judges on Brazil’s highest electoral court barred Bolsonaro from running for office again until 2030, making it unlikely that he will ever return to the presidency.

That’s something the U.S. Senate could have done by convicting Trump in his second impeachment trial. At the time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but it was more appropriate for the former president to be held accountable by the criminal justice system and civil litigation. Maybe some GOP senators thought Trump would just go away, but he’s now their presumptive presidential nominee, and McConnell and most other GOP senators have bent the knee and endorsed Trump.

So now as Trump’s first trial begins, our country is rated a “flawed democracy.” Trump and his MAGA cultists have tried to undermine our justice system, the rule of law, and the public’s faith in democracy. The Washington Post reports:

“The notion that not just charges would be brought, but that a former president and possibly future president might be convicted and sent to jail is truly extraordinary,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “How the system and how the American public will respond is going to be really revealing about the nature of our democratic commitments.”
If other democracies can hold their leaders accountable, there’s no reason why we can’t do the same.