Our commentary comes from Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer, editor of the book, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.”

The new indictment of former President Donald Trump constitutes a historic turning point. This promises to be the most important criminal trial in American history.

Under special counsel Jack Smith, the Department of Justice has boldly declared that accountability is essential to our democracy. 

Smith’s damning indictment has charged Trump with four counts of attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Trump’s actions threatened the peaceful transfer of power, a process that separates us from non-democratic countries.


Department of Justice

Through a concerted effort that culminated with a violent mob storming Capitol Hill, Trump rejected the integral norm undergirding a stable democratic system, namely that losers must accept legitimate defeats. Even President Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace as a result of the Watergate scandal, understood this to be true. 

With this indictment, the Department of Justice has broken with the controversial precedent established by President Gerald Ford in 1974, when he pardoned Nixon for any crimes that he might have committed. The impeachment process offered the possibility of holding Nixon accountable; Ford let the opportunity pass by. 

After almost a decade of Americans fighting over race, war and Watergate, Ford concluded it was more important to “heal” the nation by pardoning Nixon than allowing a lengthy legal trial to proceed.  Looking directly into the cameras, Ford warned Americans that if a trial took place, “Ugly passions would again be aroused, and our people would again be polarized in their opinions, and the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.”  

But the pardon did not heal the nation. We grew more divided. Many furious Americans claimed that Ford had been part of a corrupt deal. When Ford traveled to North Carolina, he arrived to see placards that asked: “Is Nixon Above the Law??”

His approval ratings plummeted.  

More pertinent, Ford entrenched a damaging norm that became part of our nostalgia, pushing leaders away from taking legal action against elected officials who abused their power.

Presidents have continued to feel imperial. 

Trump tested Ford’s proposition more than any president since Nixon – and Biden’s Department of Justice has responded that Ford was wrong.

We must preserve key guardrails that prevent the abuse of presidential power. If our leaders violate sacrosanct democratic principles, they will be held accountable regardless of the political fallout.

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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Maria Barrow.

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