Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Donald Trump became the first ever former US president to be indicted on Thursday. Like so many other instances with Trump, we’re venturing into new terrain. And while President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested in 1872 for speeding through Washington on a horse-drawn carriage, we can all agree it’s hardly the same.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office had been investigating Trump’s alleged role in a hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. Though the charges are still sealed, Trump faces more than 30 counts related to business fraud, CNN has reported.
As the nation awaits the details of the charges — with questions swirling about his scheduled arraignment on Tuesday — the implications of the decision are starting to sink in.
The indictment is important on two levels, each of which might have very different consequences.
The first element of the indictment has to do with accountability. A pivotal turning point in American politics took place on September 8, 1974. Just one month after Richard Nixon announced his resignation, then-President Gerald Ford pardoned the former president for any crimes that he may have committed while in office.
Ford issued the controversial pardon in an effort to heal the nation and move past Watergate at a time when the US was reeling from stagflation and turmoil overseas as a result of Vietnam. But Ford’s strategy didn’t work. Instead of healing the nation, the pardon helped magnify suspicions of corruption.
Many Americans were outraged by the pardon, believing that Ford had struck a deal with Nixon, who had appointed him as vice president in 1973 after his former Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace for pleading no contest to tax evasion as part of a plea deal that dropped more serious charges of political corruption. Now Ford, they said, had delivered for Nixon and become an unelected president in the process. His approval ratings plummeted from 71% to 50% after the pardon, and protesters congregated outside the White House waving a large banner that proclaimed: “Promise Me Pardon and I’ll Make You President.”
By avoiding the attempt to hold Nixon accountable, Ford circumvented the judicial process, and the nation never tested what could be done about presidents or former presidents who were accused of violating the law.
This issue came up again with President Bill Clinton. In Clinton v. Jones, in 1997, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that concluded sitting presidents were not immune from civil law litigation arising from events that had taken place before entering office. In 1998, the House impeached him for perjury and obstruction of justice over his response to an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate rejected both charges. After the acquittal, Clinton cut a deal with a special prosecutor at the end of his presidency to avoid being prosecuted after he left office for his false statements about the affair.
As a result, we just didn’t know if it would ever be possible to hold a president to account after he left the White House. The issue was not simply a legal question, but one that concerned the will of prosecutors and juries.
With Trump, however, the New York grand jury, along with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, has given us an answer. On Thursday, the jury has concluded that nobody is above the law. Even a former president of the United States must be held accountable. Although an indictment is a long way from a conviction, the decision is one that sets an important precedent.
The second reason the indictment is important comes down to politics, and on this front there is a distinct possibility that Trump not only survives but also thrives. Regardless of how the case turns out, Trump has an uncanny instinct for using moments of peril to his advantage and his political career is built on punching back against the people and institutions he claims are unfairly attacking him.
He has already fallen back on the well-worn strategy of presenting himself as the victim of a corrupt establishment and rallying his supporters behind him. It wasn’t a surprise that soon after the news of an indictment broke, Trump issued a statement that this was “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history.”
It must be said that of all the legal troubles Trump faces, the indictment in New York appears to pale in comparison to others, such as the potential racketeering and conspiracy charges Atlanta-area prosecutors are considering in connection to the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
Regardless, Trump understands how to weaponize moments of danger to his advantage, and we’ve already seen Republicans rally to his side, as they did during both impeachments. Former Vice President Mike Pence called the indictment an “outrage,” while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, potentially Trump’s biggest rival in 2024, publicly stated that the prosecution’s action was “un-American.”
The political consequences of the indictment – along with any other potential charges that may come his way — must be set aside when we consider the importance of reestablishing accountability. In the end, the grand jury has made an important contribution to contemporary politics by choosing to hold Trump to account and settling the question of whether that is possible, once and for all.
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They have taken an important first step by reversing some of the damage that Ford inflicted on the body politic when he refused to allow the legal process to play out with a former president who had engaged in immense wrongdoing and abused his power. And if the nation fails to continue the long process of reestablishing the important standard of accountability, we will be perpetually trapped by the perils of an imperial presidency that holds commanders-in-chief to a different legal standard than all other Americans.
Now we must see what others – from the grand jury in Georgia to the Department of Justice – have to say about this important question.