Possible Meanings of the Judicial Proceedings against Donald Trump

By José R. Cabañas Rodríguez on August 15, 2023

illustration: guardian design

During the first fortnight of this month of August, the U.S. press has had among its main headlines those related to new judicial charges filed against former President Donald Trump, as well as announcements about the possibility of others being added. This issue, however, has not received sufficient coverage in the international media, nor have the possible consequences of such actions been analyzed in depth with respect to the general elections of November 2024, or on that vague concept called American democracy.

As of this writing, Trump is already facing charges (34) in a Manhattan, New York court for an alleged business fraud related to the payment to an adult film actress (avoiding to say pornographic), in order to avoid an incriminating action. Additionally, he was indicted from two investigations in Florida for the mishandling of classified documents, adding another 40 charges.

There is another dimension to the four charges filed in a Washington DC Court, associated with Trump’s attempt not to endorse the results of the 2020 elections. Among these is the one related to the incitement to the violent and massive events that took place at the federal Capitol on January 6, 2021, the clearest and most visible expression of direct opposition to the constituted legislative power and its functions.

Additionally, a prosecutor from the city of Atlanta, Georgia, has just filed charges against him for his actions aimed at changing the voting results specifically in that state, so that the data would have an impact on the total records computed in 2020 at the national level.

In the accusations that are directly related to the electoral process would also be incriminated relevant figures of the Republican party that, eventually, could opt to collaborate with the prosecution to avoid being prosecuted, which would mean that new evidence against Trump would appear.

The actions taken in the long process of each of these cases will occur in parallel with the different milestones of the U.S. electoral process, both within each party (primaries), as well as the conventions, the voting itself and the proclamation of the results. There will then be a mutual impact between both processes that will be reflected in the opinion of the voters, influence on juries, subsequent judicial actions, claims and a number of other initiatives.

Although none of the aforementioned processes at the moment expressly disqualify the former president from becoming a candidate for the presidency, or even from being reelected, in and of themselves these events are unprecedented in the history of the country.

Regarding all of the above, opinions among Americans are divided into two large groups, with dozens of ramifications, as follows:

1.- Those who consider that in and of itself the filing of the charges, without even imagining that he could be convicted, disqualifies Trump politically and in fact means a deterioration of the country’s image to the outside world. Here there are those who consider that his probable election, after having been found guilty on some of these charges, would be a profound questioning of the rules agreed upon until now for the American “political game”, making it very difficult to find a subsequent balance that would avoid the multiplication of violence up to the dawn of a civil war.

2.- Those who remain firm in their belief that all these actions are part of a concerted plan from the Democratic Party to incapacitate the leading Republican pre-candidate. The main base of this sector is the significant group of supporters who three years after the 2020 elections still believe that the election was “stolen” and that Joe Biden should never have been proclaimed president. This opinion fuels the interest of Republican politicians in Congress who are considering the initiation of an impeachment process against the current president, as a way to respond to the two similar processes to which Trump was subjected during the end of his term.

From the scenario that arises with the initiation, or continuity, of these processes, countless theories are currently being woven that try to calculate how far each of them could advance or, even, the counter-offensive alternatives that the legal team of the former president could opt for, before and after a possible conviction.

In addition, there are innumerable variables of different signs, which are related to the possible actions of the courts at different levels in each of the cases, as well as the probability that any of them will come to the attention of the Supreme Court, now with a preponderant inclination towards republican positions, but facing itself accusations of corruption by several of its members.

As part of the press coverage of these facts, testimonies, documents and other evidence already being analyzed by prosecutors are emerging, some of them provided by former administrative or political officials close to Trump, including former Vice President Mike Pence himself, as well as former legal advisors who collaborate with the prosecution.

Trump himself has said that a good part of the funds raised for his electoral race have already been dedicated to his legal defense, including transportation expenses in large executive jets to the headquarters of the different courts. What continues to happen on the legal scene will impact the electoral race in one way or another and vice versa. Trump does not foresee taking a step back in any of the cases, as he believes that the only effective way for him to defend himself against the accusations is to reach a top executive position again, at any cost.

What has happened so far on this issue, and what is yet to come, points directly to a greater polarization within the U.S. political system and, eventually, to the questioning along all lines of the constitutional or consensual rules among the political elites, to share the exercise of power with a certain periodicity in time and at different levels in the federal, state and local structures.

A nomination of Trump as a candidate and his eventual election as president, without having to answer to the American legal system, would mean an immediate “anything goes”, including the most open disrespect of the rules that have served the country’s ruling class to pretend that those elected in periodic suffrages really represent the interests of the majority.

If that were the case, at least in theory that system of rules should be replaced by another, one that avoids greater chaos and prevents the different classes and groups in such a socially fractured country from promoting their interests through the use of violence. In other words, it would be the end of the so-called “rules-based government” that the United States has proclaimed for years as the basis of the globalization it built under its post-war hegemony.

If the facts move in the opposite direction, that is, if the businessman-politician is convicted of any of the charges presented and is effectively disqualified, or for loss of prestige, then we can expect to hear it repeated over and over again that the US system is a paradigm of democracy, of principles and that it has its own mechanisms of self-regulation, which corrects its conjunctural errors. This depends on whether on the other side of the American political spectrum, Democrat or not, enough forces are articulated to advocate for the survival of the prevailing state of affairs and decide to remove Donald Trump from the scene. There is enough experience in U.S. politics in this regard. The last such exercise occurred within the Democratic structure in 2020, for very different reasons, and the victim was Bernie Sanders.

For the time being, the “anything goes” of Trump and his followers, which seemed to be just an accidental event or a passing shadow in the history of the United States, has already had its external and, why not, caricatured reproduction in other countries. There are several cases of figures who do not belong to traditional party structures (outsiders), who quickly become opinion leaders based on the massive use of digital platforms and other gadgets, who create proposals for government programs with two or three recycled ideas and reach high executive levels, to deliver the nation to foreign interests.

These phenomena will have diverse consequences for each of these countries, but also for the international community as a whole, for the new order to be created and for the human capacity to build a foreseeable future.

At a time when we think that extreme Trumpism may be the last of the aberrations, news reaches us about the possibility that two multi-billionaires who dominate and decide from their respective companies the contents consumed on their digital phones by a large part of humanity, have decided to expose their masculinity in the Roman Coliseum, to ventilate alleged differences. Will it be just an experience of passing pleasure, or will we be at the gates of a new stage, in which other forms of leadership are created that will distort even more the political processes? Will it be a way to put a human face to the superheroes built from digital action games, which already have a social base of consumers?

José R. Cabañas Rodríguez is the former Cuban Ambasador to the US and is Director of the International Policy Research Center (CIPI) in Havana.