The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

After Trump indictment we need leaders to stand up for America: Where is Gerald Ford when we need him?

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File
FILE – President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives to speak at a rally in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. A lawyer for Trump said Thursday, March 30, 2023, that he has been told that the former president has been indicted in New York on charges involving payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence…

The Trump indictment, like almost everything else of consequence in American politics today, is already dividing Americans along partisan lines. While some Democrats are celebrating it as a moment of poetic justice for a former president who regularly flouted laws and norms, many Republicans leaders are denouncing it as a politically motivated witch hunt.

America’s faith in the rule of law is likely to take a big hit, especially in the reddest of red states. At this unprecedented moment, the country desperately needs leaders in both parties to rise above the partisan fray and put the national interest first.

But because Trump is a member of their party, it is especially important for Republicans to display such leadership rather than stoking the flames of national suspicion and division. Fifty years ago, when he confronted the Watergate crisis and its aftermath, President Gerald Ford, a different kind of Republican, offered a model that they should now emulate.

Sadly, so far, there is little evidence that many want to do so. Most of today’s Republican leaders seem bent rather on doing further injury to America’s already damaged institutions.

In the aftermath of the announcement of Trump’s indictment, most Republican leaders have offered robust defenses of the former president, often parroting Trump’s own lines about its alleged political motivation. We have heard little from them expressing allegiance to the Constitution, urging Americans to withhold judgment, or expressing confidence in the judicial process.

For example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) labelled Trump’s indictment “un-American” and said it was a disturbing example of the “weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN that “the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage.” He said that charging Trump is a “disservice to the country” and predicted that “the American people will look at this and see it as one more example of the criminalization of politics in this country.”

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) charged that “Alvin Bragg has irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our Presidential election. The American people,” McCarthy continued, “will not tolerate this injustice, and the House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account.”

Not to be outdone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told her Twitter followers “I’m going to New York on Tuesday. We MUST protest the unconstitutional WITCH HUNT!”

Several Fox News hosts and guests joined her in fanning the partisan outrage.

According to The Boston Globe, “Jeanine Pirro, co-host of ‘The Five,’ described Thursday as ‘a sad day for America, a sad day for the office of the presidency of the United States, and it is a sad day for a former president … This is hate like I have never seen in my lifetime. This is as political as it gets.” The strongly pro-Trump Fox host Dan Bongino said the indictment proves that the United States is now a “police state.”

A Quinnipiac Poll conducted last week suggests that there is a receptive audience for this overheated partisanship rhetoric. While 57 percent of all the respondents said that “criminal charges should disqualify former President Donald Trump from running for president again,” there are sharp partisan divides on the question. Some 88 percent of Democrats agreed that indictment should be disqualifying, in contrast to only 23 percent of Republicans.

The poll also contained bad news for those who hope that faith in the rule of law will survive the Trump indictment.

More than 60 percent of respondents to the Quinnipiac Poll think that “the Manhattan District Attorney’s case involving former President Donald Trump is mainly motivated by politics, while 32 percent think the case is mainly motivated by the law.”

Here again, Republicans and Democrats seem to be living in different worlds: 93 percent of Republicans agree that “the Manhattan District Attorney’s case is mainly motivated by politics,” while only 29 percent of Democrats hold this view.

Despite these sharp partisan divides, a few leaders in each party are resisting the siren call of partisanship and urging restraint.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Eric Swalwell struck the right note when he said, “The indictment of a former president is a somber day for America. It’s also a time to put faith in our judicial system … As the former president continues to call for violence in his name, let all of us, as Democrats and Republicans, condemn his efforts to incite. We are better than that and justice benefits all of us.”

Among Republicans, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson echoed Swalwell’s sentiment when he said that “the grand jury found credible facts to support the charges. We need to wait on the facts and for our American system of justice to work like it does for thousands of Americans every day.”

These words call to mind what President Ford said in 1974 when he pardoned his Republican predecessor Richard Nixon. 

Recall that at the time only “38 percent of Americans thought that Ford should grant Nixon a pardon … while a majority of Americans (53 percent) felt that Ford should not grant Nixon a pardon.”

As Ford explained his decision to pardon Nixon, an act for which there were as he put it, “no historic or legal precedents to which I can turn in this matter,” he called on the nation to move beyond “years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate.”

Ford tried to rally the nation to the defense of the Constitution, and he urged Americans to act soberly in responding to “an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.”

Ford emphasized his own belief in the Constitution and his commitment to “uphold” it. He assured his listeners that American law would deliver on its promise of “equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law,” he said, “is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality.”

In the end, Ford said, “It is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country.”

While pardoning one former president is surely different from indicting another, in our own unprecedented historical moment it is time for Republican leaders to be, like Ford, less concerned with the fate of one man and more attuned to doing “the very best … for America.”

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College.

Tags Alvin Bragg American democracy American principles Asa Hutchinson criminal justice system Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Gerald Ford Kevin McCarthy Law and order Marjorie Taylor Greene Mike Pence Pardon of Richard Nixon political division political polarization Public opinion Ron DeSantis Trump indictment

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Judiciary News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video