American democracy tested by Donald Trump’s criminal trial

By taking his place in the defendant’s chair in a Manhattan court Monday morning, Donald Trump not only made history by becoming the first former American president to face a criminal trial. He is also preparing to put the American judicial system to the test, confronted with a unique case: that of a former occupant of the White House – and Republican candidate for the next presidential election -, whose fate will be between the hands of a jury made up of 12 ordinary citizens.

A situation which is far from banal in a democracy already battered by the defeat of the populist in 2020 and its inability to accept a peaceful transfer of power. And whose fragility also risks being revealed in this tense face-to-face between criminal justice and the tumultuous politician.

“The trials of Donald Trump constitute the most important test of Americans’ commitment to justice and democracy,” summarizes political scientist Michael K. Fauntroy of George Mason University in Virginia in an interview. “It’s clear that many Trump supporters seem to care more about their candidate’s well-being than that of the country. They chose him over America. But they remain a minority compared to the vast majority of Americans who are attached to democracy. »

Accused of falsification of accounting documents during his 2016 electoral campaign to discreetly buy the silence of ex-porn actress Stormy Daniels on a past adulterous relationship, the ex-president has sought since the beginning of this affair to shift the center of attention to pose not as an accused, but as a victim of a political crime, of a plot aimed at silencing him. A strategy that he consistently develops in the face of the 88 charges brought against him by the federal courts and two local courts, in four separate trials.

Reminder of the facts: he is accused of having hidden a bribe in New York, yes, but also of having tried to overturn the 2020 elections in Georgia, of having incited an insurrection on January 6, 2021 and of haphazard handling of secret documents at his private residence in Mar-a-Lago.

Upon his arrival at the Manhattan court, on the first day of this historic trial, Donald Trump once again denounced a “political persecution”, plotted according to him by the government of Democratic President Joe Biden. He called his trial “an attack on America.”

The next day, on his social network, the man denounced “interference” by the judicial system “in the elections” in progress. He then complained, upon his arrival in court, of being forced to be present in a courtroom when he “should be right now in Pennsylvania and Florida, in many other states, in Carolina North, Georgia, campaigning.” All to reinforce his image as a man of integrity, a patriot committed to the defense of the common good, reluctantly subjected to abnormal treatment and controlled by his opponents, he claims.

Trump is not Nixon

“Being the first ex-president to be indicted and tried does not require special treatment,” however assures jurist Catherine J. Ross, specialist in law and the American constitution, joined by The duty at George Washington University. “Special treatment would have been not investigating allegations of numerous crimes committed during and before his tenure and not trying Trump on indictments established by grand juries of his peers.”

In 1974, this was the path that Gerald Ford advocated for Richard Nixon by granting him a total and unconditional pardon after his fall and his resignation forced by the Watergate scandal. The thing has an important place in the history books: the Republican government had orchestrated, then attempted to cover up, an operation aimed at spying on the Democrats in the office of their national committee in Washington, thus placing Nixon facing a procedure in impeachment, on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice

Ford then refused to confront the ex-president with his criminal responsibilities, so as not to contribute to dividing America and inject rancor and bitterness into the political and social sphere of the country.

“What Nixon was accused of was much less serious than the federal charges against Trump for reckless handling of secret defense and national security documents or for interfering in the legal transfer of power after Biden’s victory,” summarizes the professor of law Carl W. Tobias, joined this week at the University of Richmond, Virginia. “Taken from this angle, Trump therefore does not benefit from “special treatment”. On the contrary, as many believe, the crimes of which he is accused make him a clear and present danger to democracy. »

A democracy which is not directly at the heart of the trial which has just opened this week in New York, even if one of its principles has also entered the courtroom, alongside Donald Trump.

“This trial will educate people about the fact that no one is above the law,” legal scholar Stephen A. Saltzburg of George Washington University said in an interview, “that the rich in the United States cannot escape responsibility for a crime simply because of their status and money.”

“It is also a test of the jury system because of the enormous publicity this trial is receiving,” he adds.

On Thursday, two of the seven jurors selected after a complex selection in the preceding days asked to be excluded from the panel of citizens responsible for judging Donald Trump, believing after reflection that they were no longer impartial enough to be able to do so. At the end of the day, however, Judge Juan Merchan indicated that the 12 members of the jury had been found – much more quickly than anticipated by several experts, who anticipated a selection over two weeks due to the nature of this trial and its nature. main character.

“This trial will also determine whether the judicial system lives up to the American ideal [de justice et d’équité] », adds Catherine J. Ross. “Donald Trump should not receive any preferential treatment, whether to his disadvantage or to his advantage. »

A divided opinion

The accusations of interference, interference and witch hunts launched on the fly by Donald Trump and his defenders in the digital worlds, on the airwaves of the conservative network Fox News and on the sidelines of the trials which now accompany the populist’s political trajectory do not, however, seem to leave public opinion indifferent.

Opinion is divided, with 50% of Americans now saying the ex-president will become unfit to serve in the Oval Office again if he is found guilty in the forgery and bribery case. This was revealed Tuesday in a poll by the NORC Polling Institute at the University of Chicago conducted jointly with the Associated Press.

More surprisingly, however, only three in 10 Americans believe that the New York prosecutors leading the legal charge against Donald Trump are treating the former president “fairly.” And only two Americans in 10 say they are “extremely” or “very confident” that the judges and juries in this trial involving the ex-president will be “fair and impartial”.

And yet, says political scientist Michael K. Fauntroy, “Trump’s alleged crimes are far deeper and more dangerous than anything Nixon committed, to my knowledge.” The accusations against him are completely legitimate. Donald Trump poses a threat to the country. And if the evidence proves his crimes and he is convicted, then he should be severely punished. »

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