A President Faces Prosecution, and a Democracy Is Tested

For more than two centuries, American presidents were effectively shielded from indictment. But the case against former President Donald J. Trump breaks that taboo and sets a new precedent.

Svayam Malhotra
Last Updated : Mar 31, 2023

For the first time in American history, a former president of the United States has been indicted on criminal charges. It is worth pausing to repeat that: An American president has been indicted for a crime for the first time in history. So many unthinkable firsts have occurred since Donald J. Trump was elected to the White House in 2016, so many inviolable lines have been crossed, so many unimaginable events have shocked the world that it is easy to lose sight of just how astonishing this particular moment really is.

For all of the focus on the tawdry details of the case or its novel legal theory or its political impact, the larger story is of a country heading down a road it has never traveled before, one fraught with profound consequences for the health of the world’s oldest democracy. For more than two centuries, presidents have been held on a pedestal, even the ones swathed in scandal, declared immune from prosecution while in office and, effectively, even afterward. No longer. That taboo has been broken. A new precedent has been set.

Will it tear the country apart, as some feared about putting a former president on trial after Watergate? Will it be seen by many at home and abroad as victor’s justice akin to developing nations where former leaders are imprisoned by their successors? Or will it become a moment of reckoning, a sign that even someone who was once the most powerful person on the planet is not above the law? “Whether the indictment is warranted or not, it crosses a huge line in American politics and American legal history,” said Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor and former top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush.

If that were not enough to shake the timbers of the republic, the first may not be the last. Mr. Trump could face a second indictment in Georgia and a third from federal prosecutors and potentially even a fourth. There is consternation that the barrier-shattering indictment would involve something as unseemly as paying hush money to cover up a sexual romp. Given that the defendant has been involved in far more earth-shattering events like trying to overturn an election and inspiring an attack on the Capitol to prevent the transfer of power, the allegations by Manhattan prosecutors seem less than epochal.