A day for the history books: a former president has been indicted

By Ande Jacobson

30 March 2023 was a day that will loom large in our nation’s history. Given all that has transpired, it had to happen eventually, but only after extensive investigation. While we cannot know for sure, it’s likely that we’ll see more such days as the continuing investigations complete. Donald J. Trump, a former president of the United States of America, has been indicted. We don’t yet know the specific charges. Those will be unsealed in due time when he is arraigned.

In the U.S., the last 8 years have yielded many unprecedented events, some of which are undoubtedly criminal activities directed by the former president. His personal criminal past may well go back long before he entered politics, but because the investigations are ongoing, we can’t know the full content of what has been discovered surrounding those activities just yet. Now they are starting to land squarely in the courts with him as the focus of attention in criminal rather than just civil matters. This is a big change. In the case of the former president, this is all of his own making, and now he’s being held accountable, something he likely never believed could ever happen to him. While someone’s misfortune is not a cause for celebration, it’s a little hard not to view the events of 30 March 2023 with a bit of pride that we are still a nation of laws that apply to everyone, even former presidents.

The U.S. has a history of holding elected officials accountable even in criminal matters. Heather Cox Richardson noted the following in her 30 March 2023 letter:

This is the first time in history a former United States president has been indicted, although it is worth remembering that it is not new for our justice system to hold elected officials accountable. Mayors have been indicted and convicted. So have governors: in fact, four of the past ten Illinois governors have gone to prison. Vice presidents, too, have been charged with crimes: Aaron Burr was indicted on two counts of murder in 1804 while still in office and was tried for treason afterward. And in 1973, Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to tax evasion to avoid prison time.

That we’ve never before had a former president criminally charged shows how far from the norm this particular former president lies. As a voting member of the American public, I am encouraged that this is happening no matter the trial outcome down the line. Accountability matters. The rule of law matters. Truth matters, and in court, Trump’s reality show antics won’t fly.

There is no shortage of legal experts and journalistic pundits speculating on how this will unfold, but as of the time of the indictment, nobody outside of the prosecutor, the grand jury, and the judge with whom the indictment has been filed know the charges yet. Once Trump is arraigned, those charges will become public.

Teri Kanefield has been warning us all for years that this is the beginning of a long and harrowing process. The process is designed to protect our rights. It is a process where there will be many rulings, not all of which will go the way some of us might wish them to. There is also a history that Trump tends to lose in court because he generally has no viable defense for his actions, but to date those losses have all been in civil, not criminal matters. The potential consequences this time are not just about paying some kind of a fine. They are about us as a nation. They are about Trump as an American being held to account for his actions just as any other person should be under the law. And for now at least, they are also about Trump having the right to defend himself in court with a presumption of innocence unless and until he is proven guilty.

None of us can possibly know whether this indictment, and others that could follow, will serve as a deterrent to those vying to follow Trump’s lead or even to Trump himself. What we can be sure of is that this isn’t going to end quickly or quietly.

We’ve faced numerous challenges as a nation, but the Trump presidency brought to a head a minority movement that had been building for decades. It doesn’t represent the vast majority of the people of this country, and it threatens us all. That our legal system is doing its job despite substantial political interference is encouraging.

It had been a while since I could honestly say that I was proud to be an American. Seeing the Biden administration working hard for all of the people of this nation started to give me hope that things could get back on track. Seeing a corrupt former president being held to account for his criminal activities increases that hope. It’s not going to be over any time soon, and the justice system cannot fix a political problem such as the authoritarian threat we face. While we still have numerous systemic issues in our justice system that must be addressed, the events of 30 March 2023 point in the right direction.

The indictment of a former president has never happened before in the U.S., but then this same former president set another first when he was impeached twice. Through both impeachments, he and his defense team admitted that he committed the acts that prompted those impeachments but insisted that he was above the law. He claimed that as the president that he couldn’t be touched. He is now no longer president and can feel the full weight of judicial system.

What is to come will be a long process. Much of it will be focused on mundane procedural matters, but it will also be a spectacle that will in part help determine whether we remain a democratic nation of laws or yield further to the authoritarian whims of a vocal and violent minority of Americans. This is a story many couldn’t imagine happening in the U.S. even a decade ago. The country is watching this unfold, and the world is watching us.


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