The pillars of America’s democracy might appear wobbly from time to time, but they appear to have endured a lot better than anywhere else
The unthinkable has happened in America. For the first time in history, a former US President has been indicted on criminal charges. Former President Donald Trump appeared before a New York court on Tuesday where he was formally charged with the crime of falsifying business records in an alleged conspiracy to influence the 2016 presidential election by suppressing past extramarital affairs.
Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty to the 34 felony charges in the case and has claimed he is the victim of a political “witch hunt”. On his personal social media platform, he posted: “Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
No matter what Mr Trump does or does not believe, the fact is that he is set to rewrite American history by becoming the first former US President to face a criminal trial. The next hearing for the case has been set for December this year, but the actual trial might take longer to start. In fact, many have predicted that the hearings could drag on even after the US presidential elections scheduled for November next year.
The fact that the accused plans to run for another term as US President makes this a high-stakes case as well as a defining moment in American history. It is also a story of America’s unending battle against powerful wrongdoers. Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting the case against the former President, declared: “We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law…No amount of money, no amount of power changes that enduring American principle.”
The case is thus not just a judicial contest but also a political one, with all the elements of a sordid cover-up involving sex and money. According to the charges, Mr Trump had paid hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels as well as to a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, two women he had extramarital affairs with. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Daniels was paid $130,000 by Mr Trump’s lawyer to keep quiet about the affair.
According to Mr Trump’s prosecutors, these payments made through Donald Trump’s company were falsely classified as legal expenses. Under New York laws, falsifying business records is a crime that attracts a maximum of a year’s imprisonment. However, if this misdemeanour involves anything done to cover up another crime, such as election law misconduct, then the felony is compounded and can attract up to four years’ imprisonment. In 2018, Mr Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to criminal charges that included paying hush money on Mr Trump’s behalf and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The Trump case has predictably raised concerns about the state of American democracy. Millions across the world are aghast at the fact that a US President could have been involved with porn stars, hush money and electoral wrongdoing. The case also comes at a time of a widening political chasm between the Democrats and Republicans, a slowing economy and geopolitical tensions with China and Russia.
America’s critics have been quick to pounce upon the developments in the Trump case.
Columnist Wan Weng, writing for the South China Morning Post, commented: “Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, declaring the ideal of a ‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people’, has long been a source of inspiration to Chinese scholars past and present. We now mourn this broken, unfulfilled American dream.”
To be sure, it is fashionable to scoff at American democracy where the sordidness is out in the open, for all to view, judge and respond. In many other countries, China included, such political misdemeanours are hidden, ignored or simply condoned.
India is also a case in point. It is reported that the number of criminal cases pending against elected representatives in India is a humungous 5,097 (excluding data from Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, which do not consider such data to be of any public importance).
Worse, the Supreme Court was told that this number is consistently increasing over the years and has risen by 25 per cent in just five years. India’s Representation of the People Act 1951 does not bar individuals with criminal cases from contesting elections. An elected representative faces disqualifications only if he or she is convicted for certain offences and given a jail term of more than two years.
Legislators are disqualified only selectively as in the case of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was indicted by a Gujarat court for defaming people with the surname “Modi” and was awarded the maximum possible sentence of two years. At the same time, hundreds of legislators suspected of heinous crimes, including murder and blackmail, are sitting unperturbed in our legislative bodies, enjoying all the perks of office.
India’s political class have steadfastly refused to decriminalise the political system. In July 2021, the Supreme Court had observed that the legislature was “not likely to do anything” to prevent criminals from entering politics and standing for elections. In response to the court’s comments, a lawyer representing the Bahujan Samaj Party had ranted: “Just because a candidate has criminal antecedents does not mean he is not doing social work or the people are not choosing him to win.” He maintained that laws that allow the freezing of an erring political party’s symbol and contempt proceedings against it were too stringent!
Even the present law under which convicted politicians are automatically disqualified from holding office was the result not of any legislative action but a judgment issued by the Supreme Court in 2013. The then Congress government tried to overturn this ruling through a hasty ordinance, but this was thwarted by Rahul Gandhi. It is ironic that Mr Gandhi has been punished by a law that he helped to institutionalise.
Interestingly, in the 10 years since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, only 15 politicians have been disqualified for being convicted by a court of law.
Not an inspiring record by any means.
The Trump indictment and the political ecosystem that surrounds it is certainly not inspiring and reflects a dark aspect of US democracy. However, the very fact that a rich, powerful individual like Mr Donald Trump could be dragged to a New York courthouse to face criminal charges suggests that some things are still not broken in the US political system. The pillars of America’s democracy might appear wobbly from time to time, but they appear to have endured a lot better than anywhere else.