Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
June 13, 2023
It was quite a chyron from CNN, marking the first time in the history of the United States that a former president has been charged with federal crimes. And in this case, what crimes they are: the willful retention, sharing, and hiding of classified documents that compromise our national security. Trump’s own national security advisor John Bolton said, “This is material that in the hands of America’s adversaries would do incalculable damage to the United States. This is a very serious case and it’s not financial fraud, it’s not hush money to porn stars, this is the national security of the United States at stake. I think we’ve got to take the politics out of this business when national security is at stake.”
Cameras were barred in the courtroom as Trump pleaded not guilty to the 37 charges in Miami today. Presiding magistrate judge Jonathan Goodman ordered Trump not to communicate with witnesses about the case, including co-defendant Waltine Nauta, then released him on his own recognizance, that is, without needing to post bail. Special prosecutor Jack Smith was in the courtroom; ABC’s senior congressional correspondent Rachel Scott reported that Trump did not look at Smith.
Then Trump went back to his residence in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he gave a speech that New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who is close to the Trump camp, described as low energy, focusing on his insistence that he had a right to keep the classified documents (which experts agree is nonsense and amounts to a confession) and that the indictment was “the most evil and heinous abuse of power.” Right-wing Newsmax and the Fox News Channel (FNC) carried the speech; CNN and MSNBC did not.
FNC has been hemorrhaging viewers since it fired Tucker Carlson, a threat to its bottom line that might have been behind its chyron tonight attacking Biden by claiming “WANNABE DICTATOR SPEAKS AT THE WHITE HOUSE AFTER HAVING HIS POLITICAL RIVAL ARRESTED.”
In statements similar to the one from FNC, right-wing pundits spent the day flooding Twitter and other social media with furious insistence that Trump is being unfairly prosecuted, followed by attacks on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and with allegations that there are tapes of President Biden accepting bribes—allegations that Biden openly laughed at this evening.
But that performative outrage among leaders did not translate into support on the ground in Miami. Law enforcement had been prepared for as many as 50,000 protesters, but only a few hundred to a thousand turned out (one wearing a shirt made of an American flag and carrying the head of a pig on a pole).
The lack of supporters on the ground was significant. Since the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, much of Trump’s power has rested on his ability to call out his base to silence opponents by threatening violence. That power was in full force on January 6, 2021, when his loyalists set out to stop the counting of the electoral votes that would make Democrat Joe Biden president, believing they were operating under the orders of then-president Trump.
Since then, though, more than 1,000 people who participated in the events of January 6 have been charged with crimes, and many have been sentenced to prison, while Trump, who many defendants say called them to arms, has skated. That discrepancy is likely dampening the enthusiasm of Trump’s supporters for protest.
Today Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo pointed out that the audacity of Nevada’s militia-related Bundy family simply grew as family members launched successive stands against the federal government without significant legal repercussions. Republican politicians cheered on their attacks on federal officials for political gain, while Democratic politicians didn’t push to go after them out of concern that a show of federal power would alienate Nevada voters.
Trump’s threats and determination to stir up his base seem to reflect a similar consideration: if he can just rally enough support, he might imagine, the federal government will back off.
Federal officials permitting politics to trump the rule of law in our past have brought us to this moment.
After the Civil War, officials charged Confederate president Jefferson Davis and 38 other leading secessionists with treason but decided not to prosecute when the cases finally came to trial in 1869. They wanted to avoid the anger a trial would provoke because they hoped to reconcile the North and South. They also worried they would not get convictions in the southern states where the trials were assigned.
In the end, between President Andrew Johnson’s pardons and Congress’s granting of amnesty to Confederates, no one was convicted for their participation in the attempt to destroy the country. This generosity did not create the good feeling men like General Ulysses S. Grant hoped it would. Instead, as Civil War scholar Elizabeth Varon established in her book on the surrender at Appomattox, it helped to create the myth that the southern cause had been so noble that even the conquering northern armies had been forced to recognize it. The ideology of the Confederacy never became odious, and it has lived on.
The same quest for reconciliation drove President Gerald R. Ford to grant a pardon to former president Richard M. Nixon for possible “offenses against the United States” in his quest to win the 1972 election by bugging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Washington, D.C., Watergate Hotel.
Ford explained that the “tranquility” the nation had found after Nixon’s resignation “could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States.” The threat of a trial would “cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”
In an echo of 100 years before, Ford’s generosity did not bring Nixon or his supporters back into the fold. Instead, they doubled down on the idea that Nixon had done nothing wrong and had been hounded from office by his “liberal” enemies. Nixon himself never admitted wrongdoing, telling the American people he was resigning because he no longer had enough support in Congress to advance the national interest. Although his support had collapsed because even members of his own party believed he was guilty of obstructing justice, violated constitutional rights of citizens, and abused his power, Nixon blamed the press, whose members had destroyed him with “leaks and accusations and innuendo.”
The willingness of government officials to ignore the rule of law in order to buy peace gave us enduring reverence for the principles of the Confederacy, along with countless dead Unionists, mostly Black people, killed as former Confederates reclaimed supremacy in the South. It also gave us the idea that presidents cannot be held accountable for crimes, a belief that likely made some of the presidents who followed Nixon less careful about following the law than they might have been if they had seen Nixon indicted.
Holding a former president accountable for an alleged profound attack on the United States is indeed unprecedented, as his supporters insist. But far from being a bad thing to stand firm on the rule of law at the upper levels of government, it seems to fall into the category of “high time.”