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How Was Your Delivery? — Trump’s Indictment Will Boost His Bid for the Presidency

SCRIPTS Think Piece No. 16 by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 16/2023 from Apr 11, 2023

The coverage of Donald Trump’s hearing on April 4, 2023, in front of a Grand Jury in Manhattan reads like the delivery of an Amazon package: Trump is leaving Mar-a-lago +++ Trump lands in New York +++ Trump has arrived at Trump Tower +++ Trump posts while en route +++ Trump enters courtroom. The difference: Once an Amazon package arrives at your door, the stream of messages stops. This is likely not going to be the case with Donald Trump. And that is a problem.

Domestically and internationally, Trump continues to mesmerize broadcasters and journalists alike.

Domestically and internationally, Trump continues to mesmerize broadcasters and journalists alike.
Image Credit: Brian Kusler

While the charges of falsifying business records against Donald Trump now amount to 34, he has long been under investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg over bribery and related charges, most notably over money given to an adult film actress while running for president, in 2016. What does this mean, within the larger contours of liberal democracy?

There are, really, three different angles to look at this: history, the present, the future. Historians like to say that nothing is unprecedented. Yet, the indictment of Donald Trump marks an unique historical moment: a U.S. president faces nearly three dozen charges in a criminal court. Now, presidents and presidential candidates have been in trouble with the law before. Aaron Burr in the early 1800s [1] and Ulysses Grant in 1872 come to mind. Grant even got arrested (for speeding with a horse-drawn carriage). One might also argue that Trump comes close to the case of Richard Nixon. Nixon willingly broke the law to win the 1972 presidential election. [2]

What is so different, in 2023, is the peculiar political climate coupled with the enormous significance of the presidential office. Originally, the presidency was meant to be a representative but not the most important branch in U.S. politics. Of the three powers, however divided they may be, it was to be the weakest one concerning domestic issues. Yet, the more important the office became, since the 19th century, the more attention voters began to pay to the president’s personality, his (yes, his) charisma, values, and ethics.

Richard Nixon resigned, in August 1974, because there was bipartisan pressure: The man had failed the office morally and legally. He had to go. Moreover, Nixon had good reasons to hope for a presidential pardon--which he received, a mere month later, from his successor, Gerald Ford.

The situation is very different today. For one thing, ethics don’t matter. Trump can count on significant support among his fellow conservatives. His chances for a renewed candidacy are promising, to say the least. For another, it is unlikely that U.S. President Joe Biden will pardon Donald Trump, even though historian Rafaele Fierro just made an interesting case for such a scenario, in the Boston Herald. [3]

This is what is unmatched: Yes, Trump has become the first current or former U.S. president to be indicted. More importantly, though, he is now officially a symbol of the fact that for an individual holder of the highest office in the nation, public ethics and the law range far behind factionalism, personal and lobby politics.

Will this complicate his Bid for reelection? No. This will not undermine his bid for candidacy or reelection, for two reasons: First, most people among his followers believe that the Northeast, among other regions, forms a deplorable pit of liberalism populated by leftists determined to harm Donald Trump. Which is exactly what Trump has been propagating so effectively. Second, everyone has heard at nauseam that Trump has been leading a personal life full of scandals, that he has abused his power in office when president, even after his presidency: bullying people, destroying documents[4], attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. None of this new. None of what we will hear in New York is entirely new. None of this will matter to his attempt to run for president because he continues to be willing to carry out the policies that his supporters demand.

When it comes to legacy, the story looks a bit different. Trump’s appearance in front of the Grand Jury is likely going to affect the historical memory of the presidential office, perhaps even more so than of him as a person. In the history book of U.S. American presidents, he will feature as the example of a president who tested to what extent presidential power can challenge criminal law to a hitherto unparalleled degree. In U.S. history books, snapshots like those taken in court on April 4,[5] will remind generations of students of the fact that presidents not only could be but, in fact, are arraigned. And it is just a question of time til the Trump saga will hit Hollywood, controversial as the outcome may be. Actor Russell Crowe who recently wrapped up “The Pope’s Exorcist,” was asked whether he’d be willing to play Trump in a movie. Russell said, reportedly, that he was “really busy.” [6]

Which brings us back to the media and the Amazon package. Domestically and internationally, Trump continues to mesmerize broadcasters and journalists alike, more so than any other recent state leader. In an ironic twist, every single mugshot, every livestream, headline, speculation, every minute-by-minute live coverage of his appearance, play into his hand, his campaign and his self-portrayal as a victim.

It’s time to consider cancelling that order.

[1] Louis Fisher, “The Law: Jefferson and the Burr Conspiracy: Executive Power against the Law,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 45, 1 (March 2015): 157-174.
[2] Brian R. Fry and. John S. Smolarek, The Nixon Impeachment Vote: A Speculative Analysis, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 11, 3 (Summer 1981): 387-394.
[3] Rafaele Fierro, “Why President Biden Should Pardon Donald Trump,” Boston Herald, 4 April 2023, https://www.bostonherald.com/2023/04/04/rafaele-fierro-why-president-biden-should-pardon-donald-trump/
[4] Jessica Gienow-Hecht, "Presidential Libraries and the Liberal Script or: How (Not) to Remember Donald Trump", SCRIPTS Blog No. 24, 16 Feb 2021, https://www.scripts-berlin.eu/blog/Blog-24-Presidential-Libraries-and-the-Liberal-Script-or_-How-_Not_-to-Remember-Donald-Trump/index.html
[5] “Trump Indictment Live Updates,” CNBC, 4 April 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/04/04/trump-arraignment-new-york-indictment-live-updates-and-news.html
[6] Emily Lefroy, “Russell Crowe Responds to Request He Play Donald Trump in a Movie,” New York Post, 4 April 2023, https://nypost.com/2023/04/04/russell-crowe-on-whether-hed-ever-play-donald-trump-in-a-movie/

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht is a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, professor of history, and chair of the department of history at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin.