Donald Trump’s indictment threatens to tear up a polarised America again
There are moments in history when great countries begin their decline and fall, losing the respect of allies and foes around the globe.
It is not hyperbole to say that after 246 years the United States, the most powerful nation there has ever been, could be on the verge of such a crisis.
The unprecedented spectacle of a former president, Donald Trump, facing the prospect of being criminally charged under his successor’s administration threatens to rip apart what is an already polarised and febrile America.
Millions of citizens with little love for Mr Trump, or his MAGA movement, are stunned and appalled by the unedifying prospect.
It is something they never thought they would see, and undermines their faith in the integrity of the justice system.
A Quinnipiac poll, taken just before Mr Trump was charged, showed 93 per cent of Republicans believe the indictment against him is politically motivated.
Perhaps more importantly, 70 per cent of independent voters think so too.
And even 29 per cent of Democrats - rather than feeling triumphant - believe Mr Trump is being pursued through the courts for political reasons.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Speaker, said the indictment had already “irreparably damaged” the country.
Other Republicans lined up to denounce a “weaponisation of the justice system” that compromised the separation of powers set out in the Constitution.
The prosecution of Mr Trump would tarnish America’s image abroad and draw comparisons with more corrupt nations, they said.
Mark Green, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said: “Daniel Ortega arrested his opposition in Nicaragua and we call that a horrible thing - Mr Biden, Mr President, think about that.”
US in uncharted political territory
The argument, not just from Republicans but some Democrats too, was that it would send a “terrible message” about American justice, encouraging dictators and authoritarians to abuse power.
In pursuing their rivals such “un-American” rulers would now simply point to America as an example.
The case means the US is now in uncharted political territory, exploring a new frontier in scandal. But it was nearly at this point before.
When Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal half a century ago he did so precisely to avoid a crisis that would tear the country asunder.
The Justice Department itself has long had a policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but the Constitution does allow for them to be charged after leaving office.
However, it is not the Justice Department bringing the case against Mr Trump.
Instead, it is a local prosecutor, who is an elected Democrat in a strongly Democrat city, where a jury would also presumably be heavily Democrat.
Regardless of whether Mr Trump ends up in jail it could set a precedent for other prosecutors to launch cases against other former presidents.
When Mr Biden leaves office a local Republican prosecutor in Texas could conceivably bring criminal charges against him, perhaps alleging that he was complicit in crimes committed by an illegal immigrant who his policies allowed to cross the border.
Democrats too see the danger in abandoning the convention that former presidents should not be prosecuted.
As it became clear recently that Mr Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, was determined to proceed, some Democrats had urged him to “step back from the brink”.
They also recognised the problem of bringing a case that some officials at the Justice Department have expressed doubts over, in terms of strength of the evidence.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Left-wing grassroots organisation, said: “It’s embarrassing and infuriating that the first indictment against Trump is about…Stormy Daniels.”
Other legal entanglements
A frustration for Democrats is that Mr Trump has other legal entanglements which, it is widely believed, could carry a greater chance of conviction.
Chief among them is an investigation in Georgia into Mr Trump’s involvement in attempts to overturn the 2020 election result.
Prosecutors there are considering charges of racketeering and conspiracy but will take time to reach a decision.
The hush money payment had been repeatedly kicked into touch by other prosecutors for the last seven years.
It was so dead that, when Mr Bragg recently resurrected it, other prosecutors called it the “zombie case”.
David Urban, a former Trump campaign adviser said: “Why? Seven years later? If you're going to indict the president, there should be a dead body laying next to him. This is far from it. The DA should look deep in the mirror and ask himself that question.”
Vitriol aimed at Mr Bragg is increasing daily as Republican-led committees in Congress launched investigations into how he was conducting his investigation.
He accused the Republican politicians of “collaborating” with Mr Trump to “vilify” his case.
Trump 'very calm' amid the storm
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who spoke to Mr Trump shortly after the indictment was announced, said the former president was “upset and disappointed” but “very calm” amid the storm.
Mr Graham, a lawyer, said the case was, in his own opinion, “legal voodoo”.
He added: “How does it end? Trump wins in court. And he wins the election.”
Immediately after the indictment Mr Trump’s team began sending out fundraising appeals, asking supporters for $24 to “defend our movement from the never-ending witch hunts”.
The email said: “We are living through the darkest chapter of American history.”
It was a sentiment with which many Democrats, as well as Republicans, would agree.