In January 1998 the American news cycle blew up with news of a scandal between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Clinton looked straight into a camera and denied having an 18-month long affair with Lewinsky, beginning in 1995 when he was 49 and she was 22, using words that have now gone down in infamy: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” By October that year Kenneth Starr, appointed special counsel, had assembled enough evidence to present to the House of Representatives, alleging grounds for impeaching Clinton, including lying under oath and abuse of power.
Presidents cheating on their wives was nothing new. Historians need look no further back than Jack Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt. The House Republicans didn’t particularly care that Clinton was having an affair with an intern. In fact, at the exact same time the Republican Speaker of the House leading the impeachment proceedings, Newt Gingrich, was busy cheating on his second wife with a political aide. What mattered was that Republicans wanted to stick Clinton with a crime, and any crime, including lying about something they had all done themselves, would suffice. On cue the Democrats screamed foul and rightfully argued that Clinton should never have been asked about his sex life in the first place.
Donald Trump has now become the first former president in US history to be indicted on criminal charges. Although the charges remain sealed, it is speculated that the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, has brought charges against Trump for violating federal campaign finance laws. The story goes that during the 2016 presidential election Trump got his personal attorney to pay Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, $130,000 in hush money through a shell company, which Trump later reimbursed and logged as business expenses. In no universe is hush money a “business expense” and according to New York state law, falsely accounting for legal expenses is a misdemeanour. Elevating the crime to a felony requires using an untested legal theory whereby Bragg must prove that Trump intended to commit a second crime, which in this case experts believe would be violating federal campaign finance laws.
There is no doubt that Trump has done many bad things. So long is the list of allegations against him that naming them all would mean exploding the word count for this article. But just to give a general summary, there is eroding democracy, emboldening racists through his inflammatory language, and multiple allegations of sexual assault, which Trump denies.
Yet this hasn’t stopped Trump and his enablers from screaming from every platform that the indictment is nothing more than a political witch hunt. Campaign finance laws are long and numerous, and any politician risks being accused of running afoul of them sooner or later if someone goes through their financial statements with a fine-toothed comb. To the regular Fox News viewer, accusing Trump of violating campaign finance laws sounds about as hypocritical as accusing Clinton of lying about sex with an intern. The risk Bragg faces is that if he fails to convict Trump in this case, he could delegitimise the other very serious investigations into the former president, which include allegations of tampering with the election results in Georgia and stealing classified documents. Not only does this case have enormous legal implications, but it has also fanned the already blazing flames of Trump’s victimhood complex. Coming out unscathed from this trial could make Trump look like invincible.
Living in a democracy means holding everyone, including presidents past and present, accountable for their crimes. But not all crimes are the same, and knowing the difference between the really bad ones and the negligible ones isn’t so much a test of the law as a test of wisdom. For the sake of American democracy, I hope that the Bragg indictment is watertight and that he has enough evidence to convict Trump. Otherwise it will become a lot easier for Republicans to convince Americans that Trump’s been the victim of a witch hunt all along.