The Value of Charging Ex-Presidents

Readers weigh in on Donald Trump’s legal woes.

Photo illustration of the arraignment of Donald Trump
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Ed Jones / AFP / Getty.

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked readers for their thoughts on Donald Trump’s legal troubles in New York.

Diana is tired of hearing about Trump:

I was so happy when there was a short period where that guy wasn’t on the front page. Now with all the other investigations he might be indicted for, he’ll be top of the news forever. I can’t stand it. I want it all to go away.

Fred objects to Trump’s indictment:

The hatred for Donald Trump by the Democrats and the media is becoming an embarrassment internationally for America. We are now a nation divided in every way possible. We have lost our sense of humor and our ability to communicate and govern in a civilized manner. If we continue down this path, the America that most of us were raised in and some of us defended will be lost forever. This is a sad time for our country.

Rob disagrees:

I view Trump as the most consequential traitor to our democracy of any individual citizen in American history. Given this jaundiced outlook, I am less concerned that the Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg’s case is airtight than that a legitimate and justifiable criminal case—any case––has finally been brought against the heretofore Teflon Trump. I am also heartened that there are potentially other Trump indictments out there. Bragg’s case breaks the ice of precedent when it comes to charging ex-presidents: We are now on the other side.

When likely faced with even more indictments, Trump will be spewing the most toxic of his demagogic rhetoric—this will be Trump mania on amphetamines and will remind voters what kind of a person he is, and, if reelected president, what damage he will wreak. His nonstop delusional, rabid, and depraved blatherings on the campaign trail may be sufficient once again to persuade enough voters to keep this scourge away from the White House.

Dave voted for Trump in 2016 and wants to see him tried:

I’ve been a lifelong Republican, and I voted for Trump in 2016, as I bought into all the “crooked Hillary” rhetoric. In hindsight, it was Trump who abused his power. I’m fed up with Trump and his hijacking of the party to try to destroy our democracy. First and foremost, I think it’s important that our legal system proves that no one, including ex-presidents, is above the law. Even though I have my doubts that this will result in any guilty verdicts if it does make it to trial this year or next, it’s important that the effort is made if a grand jury finds there’s enough evidence to warrant the indictment and subsequent trial.

Trump’s arrogance, negligence, and contempt for his fellow humans should be what he’s on trial for, but I’ll settle for this indictment for now, while other cases continue to develop. I think it’s more likely that one (or more) of those will offer a clearer path to a guilty verdict. I also find it very telling that so many Republicans have lined up to defend Trump rather than use his indictment as an opportunity to distance themselves.  

Jaleelah is untroubled by the charges against Trump:

I think it’s fine that Trump was brought in on mundane charges. If prosecuting his more outlandish actions had some viable path to conviction, someone would’ve done it already. I also think that prosecuting him for common crimes is a better way to show that no one is above the law than going after him for an unprecedented illegal act. Waiting two or three more years on the chance that some charge from the January 6 insurrection materializes sends the following message: “No one is above all laws, but some people are above some laws, and presidents can get away with crimes as long as they aren’t too brazen.” That is not a healthy message to send to future (and current) rulers.

I think it will be hard to find 12 unbiased jurors. I don’t think it will be impossible. Pundits, influenced by the media they consume and the friends they surround themselves with, overestimate the number of people who know anything about politics. Some people truly do not have Twitter accounts or Fox News subscriptions. Lots of people are so focused on their jobs and their families that they consume almost no news at all. Lawyers have the right to reject potential jurors. If there are 12 citizens who live under rocks in New York (and I’m sure there are), the court will find them and the trial will be fair.

John objects to all the media coverage:

He deserves indictment because he appears to have committed a crime, according to the evidence presented to a grand jury. He does not deserve all the oxygen you and the rest of the press are giving him. Everyone except his supporters would be overjoyed to not hear or see anything beyond “Trump Indicted.”

Magdalene argues that he is being treated unfairly:

Prior to 9/11, the American consciousness was focused on Columbine, the Bush-Gore election, and Enron's accounting scandal. When our leaders decided to declare a War on Terror, they simply forgot about problems at home. So now we have a nation where Columbines are commonplace, the 2020 election divided the country, and corporate malpractice is the norm.

Trump is a scapegoat. He is simply the cup into which our country has poured the sum of its nihilism. Trump is not responsible for January 6. This honor belongs to every politician who forgets small-town America until election years.

I grew up in a rural area. I watched corruption trickle down from the state and federal level to rot our communities from the inside out. Our towns are continually deprived of medical care, education, and employment. Drugs, crime, and violence take their place. Trump just read the room. This trait made him a celebrity, then a president. He has never been shy about telling us who he is. But the people who put him up there have struck bargains with chaos for power.

Our nation is broken. We can all feel it like a second skin, this creeping disquiet of the spirit. My concern about Trump’s indictment has more to do with the reckoning that is surely coming. Because chaos has no allegiance to anyone.

Chadd complains that “all this about the prosecution being ‘political’ to me is nonsense.” He explains:

Every prosecution is political. In one area of the U.S. you can buy and sell marijuana in a store. In another, you can go to prison for decades for just having the stuff.

That's politics.

America is sick and tired of the rich and powerful being let off because of politics, money, fame, or their popularity. The fact that the rich and powerful get away with everything and face no consequences is what got Trump elected in the first place. And now here we are: a man with zero morals is faced with his crimes, and everyone balks! The comparison with Al Capone and his tax-dodging charges is as accurate as can be made.

And Russell favors bringing more charges against Trump:

The other cases that are winding more slowly through the judicial system are the ones that really matter. I hope this indictment emboldens the grand juries in the other cases Trump is facing to indict him now. I hope the side that favors the ideal that no man is above the law wins. But that is far from guaranteed.