A Manhattan grand jury made political history Friday when they voted to indict former President Donald Trump on charges related to illegal payments by the Trump Organization to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about sexual encounters between her and the then-candidate prior to the 2016 election. The 30 charges, though sealed until a judge signs an arrest warrant that would force Trump to appear in court, are the culmination of a years-long investigation into Trump and his business led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. In addition to two separate cases against Trump — one of which he is traveling to New York for as I write this to appear in a $250 million civil fraud trial and another involving direct attempts to alter the results of the 2020 election in Georgia — this tidal wave of litigation is crashing straight toward the former president, who has otherwise seemed to maneuver around the law with impunity.
In this light, I sympathize with people celebrating this indictment — and likely upcoming arrest. To many Americans, particularly liberals, it represents a reassertion of American rule of law and constitutes proof that “the system” not only works, but is capable of holding its own leaders accountable, even on technicalities. To this point, Dennis Aftergut writes for The Washington Post that “Not only has no former president ever been charged with a crime before, but we are also witnessing the long-overdue reinforcement of a foundational principle of our republic: No one, however powerful, is above the law.”
It is this patriotic view affirming the mythological American project that I disagree with vehemently; not only does it naively ignore other real instances of criminal activity perpetuated by presidents in living memory, but it also further limits our collective understanding of what accountability is and which crimes are actually considered “criminal.” This indictment should push us to think critically of a legal system that, after two centuries of being used to facilitate slavery, systemic racism, colonialism and exploitation, has only now made steps to hold a former leader accountable.
The most inoffensive critique to be made of the discourse around the Trump indictment is that it doesn’t actually penalize him for what many consider to be his most pronounced crime: inciting the capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021. Although recent and past investigations around Trump have drawn comparisons to the infamous gangster Al Capone’s arrest in the 1920s on the technicality of tax evasion, this is not an apt comparison to a former President of the United States. For Trump, “getting him on a technicality” means as little as a slap on the wrist — a massive fine, in rich people terms. No single case against him could possibly encapsulate the extent of the economic and human destruction he has caused to people in the United States and around the globe.
Jan. 6 aside, it is deeply problematic that Trump’s catastrophic negligence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed at least 400,000 Americans during his term (and presaged the even more acute failure of the Biden administration after him, under which the COVID-19 death toll has risen above one million) has not provoked any inquiries, much less actions, regarding legal responsibility. Liberals and conservatives alike who cast Vladimir Putin as a villain for Russia’s deadly war in Ukraine — and simultaneously endorse legal action against him — are nonetheless content to shrug off as an afterthought what amounts to a national eugenics campaign against disabled people and workers.
Similar should be said of Trump’s equally heinous foreign policy, which saw increased economic sanctions on Iran, Syria, Venezuela, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Cuba. These restrictions on trade that unilaterally suffocate sovereign countries’ access to imports like life-saving medicine and food, constituting an act of economic warfare against the most vulnerable of these populations. Independent CEPR reports even estimate the human toll of sanctions to have been 40,000 deaths in Venezuela alone between 2017-2019. To complement this, Trump also ordered the military occupation of Northern Syria to illegally commandeer its vast oil reserves. By any humane standard, these dictatorial impositions of mass death, suffering and theft would constitute an atrocity; however, to borrow from Kwame Ture’s quote on non-violent protest, our opponent has no conscience.
The 2019 report by special counsel Rober Mueller on the investigation into potential Russian interference set an important precedent in our understanding of criminal law as it relates to sitting presidents: They cannot be indicted while in office. As such, the only recourse against crimes by a sitting president is impeachment and a subsequent conviction, which is as unrealistic as it is time-consuming. Even then, the ruling consensus in American politics is that acts of systemic violence against the working class, people of color, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups on a systemic scale are not considered crimes at all. If the pursuit of justice against Donald Trump — or any other President responsible for facilitating genocide, war crimes and other attacks on vulnerable people around the globe — is to have any meaning, we must overhaul the scope of law to explicitly factor in systemic injustices committed by the ruling class, and to be used for the oppressed by the oppressed. Until then, I’ll begrudgingly pop a metaphorical bottle of champagne in anticipation of the upcoming trial.