A moment of ignominy and glory for U.S. democracy in Trump indictment

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

That both U.S. democracy and its legal system would be severely tested by an alleged hush money payment to an adult movie star only adds to the stunning development that a former president has been indicted for the first time in history for a crime.

As former President Donald Trump prepares for his arraignment on April 4 in the face of over a 30-count indictment, for U.S. democracy it is at once a matter of historic ignominy as well as glory.

Ignominy because a former president has been indicted for allegedly paying off a porn star, Stormy Daniels who has claimed she had an affair with him. Glory because the legal system has been robust enough for a New York district attorney to hand a former president such an indictment.

What makes the indictment remarkable beyond its unprecedented historic nature is that conviction is not necessarily assured in the case being brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin L. Bragg. The exact nature of the 30-plus counts, which center on suspected violation of federal campaign finance laws, will be known only when the indictment is unsealed on Tuesday.

During the final period of the 2016 presidential election in October of that year Daniels had tried to sell her story to the National Enquirer claiming she had an affair with Trump. It was expected that the Enquirer’s owner and publisher, David Pecker would buy the story and kill it in a practice known as “catch and kill”.

However, instead he and the tabloid’s editor Dylan Howard facilitated a meeting between Daniel’s lawyers and Michael Cohen, then Trump’s high-profile fixer-attorney. Cohen paid Daniels’ $130,000, a sum that Trump as president reimbursed him. In 2018, Cohen was sentenced to a year in prison after he pleaded guilty to several charges, including violating campaign finance laws.

According to the prosecutors, the reimbursement by Trump to Cohen was “falsely accounted” as legal retainer fees. They argue that the action amounted to falsifying business records which is a crime in New York. The fact that it is just a misdemeanor the decision to indict a former president on that ground is seen as risky by many who say that in the event he is not convicted, other far more potentially damaging cases against him about the January 6 uprising that he incited and how he kept several top secret documents in his possession after demitting office could lose some of their sting in the battle of perceptions.

What makes the hush money case vulnerable is that the central testimony will come from Cohen, whose credibility will be attacked by Trump’s lawyers as part of their defense. However, in practically staking his prosecutorial reputation and even career on this dramatic indictment, Bragg is viewed by many as being certain to win a conviction.

Legal experts have pointed out that everything about the case is untested since this has never been tried, particularly in the context of a sitting or former president.

Politically, the case is fraught with Trump projecting himself as a victim of not just prosecutorial overreach but even a political hatchet job since Bragg is a Democrat. For someone so accustomed to casting himself as a victim, this case offers him a powerful opportunity to claim to be one even though at heart it is about laws of the land being exercised without fear or favor.

Trump has called the indictment  “political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history”, a characterization that has a large number of takers within his Republican Party.

Irrespective of its outcome, the porn star hush money indictment has at least sent a message around the world that U.S. democracy has the moral fiber to take on a former president even if it means triggering a great deal of uncertainty in its polity as well as society.

When Trump surrenders himself on Tuesday he will be fingerprinted and photographed like a common accused, a terrible prospect for someone who has lived a life baiting laws and conventions. It is not known whether his mugshot will be made available to the media since New York does not follow that practice. It is conceivable that some sections of the media may raise that demand.

The indictment brings to a head something that began nearly seven years ago in the heat of unvarnished political campaigning by Trump. It has taken long but it is here now.

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