If you heard former President Trump was indicted and immediately popped the champagne cork, you might want to set that bottle on ice.
After years of patiently waiting for accountability at the highest levels, news of the first-ever criminal indictment of a former president feels like validation. In some ways, it is. It’s an undeniably huge deal; so big that it will certainly be marked in the history books for future generations to study — assuming, of course, those history books aren’t banned or burned by Republicans first.
But digging deeper, this indictment is not the moral or legal victory Americans need and deserve. There’s also a decent chance it could do more harm than good.
Details of the current indictment out of New York remain largely unknown, at least for now. However, it’s widely understood that the charges are related to hush money paid by Trump to former porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, pursued the charges, presumably under violations of New York law.
In theory, this is all good. If Trump blatantly violated the state’s laws during his campaign, and if he engaged in actions that potentially altered the outcome of elections accordingly, then by all means he should be held accountable.
Yet as more established columnists and legal scholars have already pointed out, charging a former president on state law, when federal laws are just as or more likely to have been broken, could become problematic in the long run. Like it or not, there is a partisan aspect of state-level justice in a way that doesn’t persist federally, and Trump and his goons have already been laying this narrative for years. So what’s to keep an equally Republican state from vigilante-style justice on Democrats in the future?
Fear of backlash alone would not be enough to curb my support for the pursuit of justice. But what does concern me is that of all the things Trump has done to undermine this nation’s democracy, the alleged wrongful cover-up of hush money to a porn star would be the least of those concerns.
Trump’s most damaging acts far supersede what he’s currently being indicted for. This includes attempts to overturn a free and fair election on and leading up to January 6, as well as efforts to find more votes through coercion of election officials and hiding classified documents on personal property. All of these concerns are being investigated further, two at the federal level, and all would far outweigh any conviction in New York regarding campaign hush money.
This seemingly out-of-order legal pursuit worries me. The potential indictments at the federal level are what America needs most. But if all doesn’t go right in the New York case now, things could quickly get murkier in pursuing the justice that matters most.
Consider for a moment one year from now. Let’s say that the New York indictment doesn’t pan out. Perhaps there’s no conviction, or a weak one. How will this present politically as the more serious federal-level charges become ready? Will it weaken federal action?
Or what if Republicans do as some scholars expect and start going after Democrats before the more serious charges against Trump can be finalized? How will that play out?
Worst of all, what if Trump is brought to justice in New York over hush money, and that leads to the general public misunderstanding his greatest misdeeds? Would this appease enough voters to let U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland skip issuing charges?
None of this is to say the charges in New York shouldn’t be pursued. They should, although the charges are similar to those brought against former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards in 2011 of which he was ultimately acquitted.
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But timing and strategy matter. It’d be one thing if the New York DAs had pursued the 2016 issue more quickly, not interfering with potential federal indictment timelines. They didn’t. So other than Bragg wanting to be first, why not wait a little longer? Especially given how the Edwards’ case turned out, it feels risky to plunge in with this indictment first.
There’s an old saying that one should never count their chickens before they hatch. In the pursuit of justice for our democracy, we would all be wise to heed this wisdom. Americans deserve far more in accountability than state-level charges for porn star hush money, so until the twice-impeached former president is held federally accountable for his most damaging acts, I, for one, will not be celebrating.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio
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