FBI Raid on Trump: Healthy Democracies Often Investigate Former Leaders


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If you were immersed in America’s right-wing media ecosystem, you would think the end of time had come. Monday night’s FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida was “the worst attack on this republic in modern history,” the Fox News host said. Mark Levin. This remarkable display of myopia was followed by a list of Republican lawmakers who insisted that if Trump was not immune from investigation, neither were ordinary Americans.

The FBI acted Monday with a search warrant signed by a federal judge, apparently as part of an investigation – a rarity in the annals of former US presidents but relatively common in much of the world – into the potential mismanagement of classified White House documents, some top secret. Trump could have taken them to the residence of his private golf club, it seems, rather than sending them to the National Archives, as required by the Presidential Records Act. Although Trump, in a statement, likened the search to Watergate, neither he nor his attorneys had yet released details of the warrant served on them.

There is no evidence that Trump’s political opponents, let alone President Biden, demanded the search. As my colleagues have listed, Trump, who has been impeached twice and has a long history of legal troubles, is embroiled in an extensive series of investigations into his political and personal conduct. He has also, at times, shown an open disregard for the rule of law during his tenure – raging at US generals to start firing on protesters on the streets of Washington, according to a forthcoming book by journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.

Nevertheless, Republicans rallied behind the former president. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) mocked against the “weaponization of federal agencies” and the treacherous workings of the “regime,” invoking the same shadowy specter of the “deep state” often conjured up by Trump in the White House. This is what happens in a “Banana Republic,” DeSantis suggested — whose critics, incidentally, also accuse him of militarizing local state institutions in his relentless pursuit of an illiberal culture war.

Republican lawmakers seemed clear of the irony, let alone the hypocrisy, of representing the faction that openly called for the prosecution of its main opponents on the presidential campaign not too long ago. Only now that Trump is feeling the pressure do they have reason to be outraged. “Using the power of government to persecute political opponents is something we have seen repeatedly in Third World Marxist dictatorships,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “But never before in America.”

Mar-a-Lago’s research appears focused on whether Trump and his aides withheld articles

The history of executive power in the United States is full of conspiratorial intrigues, machination and acts of corruption. It is true that very few American presidents have been held accountable for alleged criminal acts – former President Richard M. Nixon, for example, received a full pardon just weeks after leaving office. But the Republican pearl that clings to the current administration replicating the habits of autocratic rule elsewhere ignores the obvious counterexample – that it is normal for healthy democracies to investigate, convict and sometimes jail their former leaders. Indeed, the principle that no one is above the law is a fundamental cornerstone of all democracies.

Ten years ago, shortly after his presidential immunity expired, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had his Paris mansion raided by local authorities. Sarkozy’s lawyers at the time called the decision “futile.” But it was part of a long-running investigation that worked its way through the French justice system and culminated in Sarkozy’s conviction last year for bribery and influence peddling. There was a recent precedent: in 2011, Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac was found guilty of embezzlement of public funds and given a suspended prison sentence.

As my colleague Rick Noack explained a few years ago, democratic governments around the world have various safeguards to prevent politically motivated investigations of their elected leaders. This includes the protections afforded to US presidents, such as the “absolute immunity” that Trump has invoked in his various legal battles.

Most European democracies grant their heads of government or state more narrowly defined immunity. But that does not mean that their societies are more or less vulnerable to the predators of cynical political elites. Italian Silvio Berlusconi, a business tycoon turned authoritarian former prime minister, endured years of lawsuits and was convicted, separately, of tax evasion and paying for sex with an underage prostitute. But he received light sentences, still leads an influential centre-right political party and could be a major player in a future right-wing government.

Often, investigations into the alleged wrongdoings of former presidents have served as a litmus test for democracies. In South Africa, the prosecution of former President Jacob Zuma on a series of corruption charges was widely seen as a necessary step to strengthen the rule of law in the country. On the other hand, the Brazilian investigation and conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has become irrevocably tainted with political bias. Lula, who is no longer in prison, could find justification this year during the presidential elections where the polls show him in the lead.

In Asia, countries that have looked to the United States for inspiration and support in building their democracies have prosecuted and imprisoned their former presidents. In 2009, a Taiwanese court sentenced former President Chen Shui-bian to life after he and his wife were found guilty of embezzlement and receiving laundered bribes from foreign banks. The sentence was later commuted to 20 years and Chen was granted medical parole in 2015 on the condition that he not participate in politics.

South Korea may be one of Asia’s most stable democracies, but it is arguably in a class of its own for its record of imprisoned former presidents. In 2018, as one commentator noted, half of all living South Korean presidents were in prison. This is no longer the case, with the pardon last year of Park Geun-hye and the temporary release earlier this summer of Lee Myung-bak.

The two former presidents have been convicted on various corruption charges, but their venality is neither a sign of ingrained corruption in Korean society – corruption seems mostly a habit of the upper echelons of the Korean political class – nor of weaknesses of the country’s consolidated democracy, which probably only really emerged in 2002.

On the contrary, despite being home to a political scene as polarized as the United States, South Korea has managed to weather the storms over corrupt former presidents and maintain a peaceful democratic order as power shifted from right to left. and vice versa. Americans would do well to pay attention.

“A high-profile example of accountability would indeed strengthen American democracy, not undermine it, and strengthen the rule of law,” tweeted Arturo Sarukhán, former Mexican Ambassador to the United States. He added that such accountability “also ensures that the United States does not speak out of both sides of its mouth when pursuing these values ​​abroad.”