Is Trump’s Indictment Good for Democracy?
BU faculty experts say there is plenty of peril for Trump, the media, the country; it’s a sign that “things are working,” but also “scary”
Is Trump’s Indictment Good for Democracy?
BU faculty experts say there is plenty of peril for Trump, the media, the country; it’s a sign that “things are working,” but also “scary”
Former President Donald Trump is expected to be arraigned in New York on Tuesday facing a grand jury indictment over hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign to cover up their brief affair years earlier.
The indictment of a former president is a first in US history—historic in itself. But what will it mean for his 2024 presidential campaign? For his Republican rivals? His MAGA army of supporters? And the general election? Will it affect other, perhaps more substantial cases building against him over election tampering, the January 6 insurrection, and his handling of top secret materials? And how will the media handle the story?
With so many questions raised by the unprecedented action, we asked Boston University faculty experts in law, history, political science, and the media to help assess the fallout.
Andrew David (CAS’05, GRS’18) is a College of General Studies lecturer in social science and will teach HI283: The History of the Modern Presidency this summer for the CAS history department. Jed Handelsman Shugerman is a School of Law visiting professor and a professor at Fordham School of Law, who wrote about Trump investigations and impeachments for the New York Times, Washington Post, and others. Tammy Vigil is a College of Communication associate professor of media science and senior associate dean whose research interests include political campaigns. Thomas J. Whalen is a College of General Studies associate professor of social sciences whose research focuses include modern American history and presidential leadership. Wesley Wildman is a professor of philosophy, theology, and ethics and of computing and data sciences, who splits his time between the School of Theology and the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences.“People should keep an open mind until the indictment is revealed and continue to keep an open mind after,” Shugerman says, “because everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
with David, Shugerman, Vigil, Whalen, and Wildman
BU Today: Is this indictment good or bad for our democracy and why?
David: Both. Because on one hand, you want your leaders to be held accountable to the rule of law just like everyone else. This is a sign that things are working. On the other hand, the unprecedented nature of this is scary to a certain extent. It is interesting how close other former presidents have perhaps gotten to this line, but we’ve never gone over it—and what that looks like going forward does raise a host of questions.
Shugerman: It is too soon to know, because we don’t have any information about what’s actually in the indictment. But if some of the questions that have been floated already bear out as problems, I’m worried that this will be bad for the rule of law. As someone who has written about the case for indicting Trump for incitement and insurrection for January 6, I’m worried that this weaker and much more stale case—it goes back seven years—would undermine and delegitimize the more important prosecutions that should be brought. If it is revealed to be a weak case on the facts and the law, then it could be framed as more of a partisan, politically motivated prosecution, and that could taint future prosecutions in that light.
Vigil: The indictment is good for democracy in that it demonstrates that no one is above the law. Equal treatment under the law is a basic tenant of democratic ideals, and one we historically have not always upheld.
Whalen: It really depends. On the one hand, it proves that no one, including a former and potential future president of the United States, is above the law. On the other hand, it sends a bad signal to our friends and enemies throughout the world that our form of governance is in peril, especially with the indictee in question threatening “death and destruction” upon the rule of law. You expect that kind of toxic rhetoric from a tyrant, not someone who served in the Oval Office.
BU Today: Is the indictment good or bad for Trump’s political future? And is there any chance he’ll end up behind bars?
David: I think this is going to cause a lot of Republicans to potentially either use this as an excuse to perhaps lessen their support for Trump or maybe consider what exactly this means, to have a nominee who is being accused of this, a nominee who has a mugshot. That’s going to be, again, unprecedented. And what’s it gonna look like in a potential presidential campaign when the president has to get off the campaign trail for court dates or has the places they can go limited by a judge?
Shugerman: I think there’s no chance of him behind bars. I think a trial judge would opt for a sort of supervised house arrest, or a fine. I think that Biden would at least commute the sentence to avoid any jail time. And that would be right. No matter what he’s convicted of, I think it’d be the right move for the president to commute the sentence to avoid him being behind bars. I think that would be not good for democracy.
Vigil: The indictment won’t affect his support among the most ardent Trumpers. However, it might convince people who are less devoted to him to look at other candidates. The current response by Republican leadership indicates they are waiting to see how things play out.
Whalen: The indictment might very well seal the deal when it comes to Trump securing the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. He will undoubtedly portray himself as a combination of Sir Thomas More and Joan of Arc—a political martyr—and that will resonate well with his party’s base, whether he’s ultimately behind bars or not.
BU Today: What does it do to the presidential race, including his primary opponents like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis? And if Trump’s the GOP nominee, how might it affect the general election?
Vigil: The other Republicans in the race or planning a run have to be very careful at this point, and we see DeSantis doing exactly that. They can’t abandon Trump completely because they want to try to gain the support of his base of devotees. However, they also don’t want to seem too ardent in their support for him, either. Their best bet is to attack the Democrats and the process, but they should not be too vocal there, either.
Whalen: The outcome of the general election will turn on the attitudes of independent voters and those not embracing the MAGA banner, which is to say the majority of the country. This is where the indictment may very well prevent Trump from having a second term.
BU Today: Washington is already hobbled by division in Congress. How will this affect it?
Whalen: Can you say dumpster fire? Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more dysfunctional on Capitol Hill, Trump is indicted, or “INDICATED,” as he claims on his social media site. Look for even less getting accomplished, including a raising of the debt ceiling. If that comes to pass, kiss the economy goodbye.
BU Today: Given how Trump polarizes Americans, is this going to change anyone’s opinion of him?
David: I think we are too quick to perhaps write off the fact that people can change their minds and I think there will be some Republicans who say, “Well, I still may never vote for a Democrat, but I am going to look for another Republican. I’m now gonna throw my support behind someone else, because this is too far.”
Vigil: Very few people’s opinions of Trump will change because of this, but the few it does might matter greatly in key states.
BU Today: Neither side thinks the media did a good job covering Trump. What are the dangers for the media now, including the conservative media? Is there an upside for anyone other than increased ratings?
Vigil: There is pressure to cover things quickly, which is not conducive to accurate reporting. The number of leaks and unofficial sources providing commentary pressures reporters to share information before it is fully vetted. Trump has continued to insert his own “read” of the situation into the news stream, adding unverified, false, or misleading information into the mix—and, as the focus of the investigation and a former president, his comments are considered newsworthy and given more attention than misleading information should be. Even critical reports about his comments amplify the reach of their content. It is difficult for journalists to do their jobs effectively in this kind of environment.
The dangers for the media include moving too quickly to report on the story. The frenzy to report means false and misleading information can easily and quickly spread. Second, when corrections are inevitably made, the journalists are accused of spreading “fake news” and the credibility of even the most reputable sources is undermined. Neither is good for a functioning democracy.
BU Today: Recently artificial intelligence has been a big story in part for its ability to create deep fakes in images, audio, and video. It seems possible, even likely, that it will be used for propaganda now through social media and other channels. What should people watch out for?
Wildman: AI is known to have been used already for mis- or disinformation campaigns in hundreds of cases, and surely it has been used in many more about which we know nothing. Deep fake technology is coming along extremely quickly. The effect of all of this is that the general public will soon learn that their default view must shift from trusting their senses to NOT trusting their senses when it comes to digital artifacts. This will spur what I call an economy of authenticity, in which businesses will exist precisely to guarantee that digital artifacts are real. Until then, we are all going to be very confused, very often.
I agree with the panel that the indictment of Donald Trump is negative for his re-election prospects. On cable TV last week Ken Langone said he was done with Trump. When big ticket donors say they’re out, it’s game, set, match. The rich loathe losing and will won’t throw good money after bad. When will the GOP wake up?
The man’s got so much money that I don’t think a loss of donors is a problem. I think his bigger problem is that this may indeed tip undecided voters over the edge away from him.
Recall back in 2016 that many voters cast a ballot for him because he was a financial giant who had no ties to the Washington politics. “Drain the swamp” was his big theme. While many thought he was a little crazy, they believed he could get things done and that he would be more presidential and demonstrate effective leadership once he got elected. Now these folks know better. I don’t think the country wants a loose cannon in the Oval Office again. I could be wrong. Eventually we shall see.
I hope that you are right. But in 2016 the intelligentsia was 100% convinced that Trump would never win. Too many variables at this point and the Democrats have been known to pull defeat from the jaws of victory before.
It’s painful to hear allegedly accomplished law experts fall back on the canard of “nobody is above the law” as if the law were applied equally and uniformly to everyone. That is sadly and demonstrably not the case.
Do you remember when Hillary Clinton was arraigned last year for years old campaign finance violations? Of course not – because it never happened. However her campaign was fined over $100,000 last year by the FEC for those violations and no charges were brought. That was the proper legal resolution. That is the norm.
But in their Beria-like zeal to destroy an opposition candidate, norms no longer apply. State and even municipal officials have run for office on the premise of getting Trump on something. Anything. Which brings us to the legal malpractice of charging a misdemeanor violation on which the statute of limitations has already expired and yet trying to spin it into something even more ominous. It’s unprecedented.
I remember looking down smugly on countries that crafted criminal charges to eliminate their political opponents rather face them at the ballot box. A great Republic would never sink that low. I’m not so smug anymore.
Exactly correct. This publication is very biased though and every story and all the commentators they interview are extremely left leaning. I would not expect fair coverage from this publication. I will be highly shocked if they even publish this comment.
Sorry to disappoint you. — The Editors
Another legitimate concern that did not seem to have been raised directly by the panel regards the precedent being set. Will we now see Republican prosecutors trying to indict Democratic political figures for political gain? This will hobble the entire political system and keep good candidates out of the race.
I also think that the panel has a very cartoonish view of conservative voters, many of whom support Trump and will continue to support him because they see him as the lesser of two evils.
I completely agree… well stated! Also important to recognize that media is a business; they “sell” product and attract eyeballs by also playing into what the audience wants to hear – and the result is a barbell of left and right with no one being served in the middle… because the middle isn’t as “panderable” and committed as the 2 ends… they’re busy with lives and have only so much bandwidth and tolerance of attention for all of this. Advertisers and zealot fund sources aren’t interested in the vast middle where there is less traction. Logic and balanced judgement suffers… as do we all…
Scholars should be careful to not allow emotion and political tribalism to interfere with clear thinking. One can despise former President Trump without throwing overboard their understanding of how the law should work. Dr. Vigil and others who argue that “an indictment is good for democracy in that it demonstrates that no one is above the law” may feel differently if a Democrat candidate, former president, or their progeny find themselves on the receiving end of a hyper partisan prosecution by any of the thousands of elected local GOP prosecutors, eager to make a name for themselves.
Last year, the Federal Election Commission fined Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the Democratic National Committee $113,000 for obscuring their funding of the “Steele dossier,” dubious opposition research mislabeled as “legal services” in campaign filings and presented to the American public as an official intelligence product. It ripped the county apart for three years.
It’s also quite plausible that the current president’s son committed multiple felonies re: Foreign Agents Registration Act, bank and tax fraud, and federal gun law violations. President Biden himself may have legal exposure to indirect receipt of foreign cash from adversarial governments and, like Trump, possession of classified documents in multiple private residences.
Vigil’s additional point is correct, though I suspect she doesn’t see the irony: “Equal treatment under the law is a basic tenant of democratic ideals, and one we historically have not always upheld.”
Is a loser failing to admit loss good for anything ? If a contestant never admits loss , why are they allowed to join in the contest ? He always claims he’s a victim. Even when he won – he claimed busloads of illegals voted in N.H , he’s quite sure that N.H is run by illiterate failures that can’t run an election . But N.H still sports orange hats . Does anyone think that deliberately lying about losing and raising millions is good for the country ? Why does a millionaire need to beg for money ? I’ll bet Fox News has an answer – I think it’s bad for our country to erect gallows with the intent of hanging our vice- president … who started that chant ? Lock her up turned to Hang mike pence !
What’s wrong with this country ? The people are not the people I was raised with . We had Dems and Rep. but we were all Americans .
This country has lost its values . We no longer believe in what gave us strength . Thankfully we still have a court system that hasn’t been ruined . This proves anyone can be held accountable. End of story .
It is simple: Trump turned America AROUND in so many favorable ways. The economy, the debt, energy independence, foreign relations, the stock market, no high interest, etc. And he did this with Democrats chomping at his feet for four straight years. Trumps endurance and character to actually carry out his promises was astounding and should be remembered. Anyone who votes for a Democrat simply wants to destroy our Constitutional government and change everything including one’s own personal interest. In fact, with more Democrat leadership, ALL young Americans had better contemplate getting in better shape because we will be needing a huge military draft. Taxpayers will soon be outvoted by the general welfare recipients. Our justice system outcomes will soon be dependent on one’s political persuasion. To paraphrase FDR, the only thing we have to fear is fear (of Trump) itself.
It’s less about Trump now and more about how his opposition is acting. I’m good and sick of Trump vs Whomever but I’ll vote for him now because of the way the government is treating him as a US citizen.
When democracts’ intelligence using the word “democracy”, they pretend that this is a common unified understanding on this term. But unlucky, there is no consensus on the meaning of “democracy””freedom” “liberty” right now.
To put it simply, the dreams and charges of the NY State prosecutors, the Democrats, most commentators and Donald Trump’s opponents that his attempted cover up of his encounter with SD, aided and abetted by the use of undisclosed false records (falsely labeling his personal non-business reimbursement payments to his attorney as for attorneys fees) violated the NY criminal statute regarding the falsifying of business records of an enterprise, providing that it is violated when one with intent to defraud:
(a) Makes or causes a false entry in the business records of an enterprise (b). Alters, erases, obliterates, deletes, removes or destroys a true entry in the business records of an enterprise; (c) Omits to make a true entry in the business records of an enterprise in violation of a duty to do so which he knows to be imposed upon him law or by the nature of his position; or, (d) Prevents the making of a true entry or causes the omission thereof in the business records of an enterprise.
are shattered and shown to be false since:
1. None of the false records complained of constituted:
(i) any writing or article xxxxxx kept or maintained by an enterprise for the purpose of evidencing or reflecting its condition or activity; and, (ii) none were those of any Enterprise or an entity of one or more persons (a proprietorship or partnership), corporate or otherwise, public or private, engaged in business commercial, professional, industrial, eleemosynary, social, political or governmental activity, and;
2. None showed any intent to defraud or could have defrauded anyone as being undisclosed mere payments, however styled, of one’s non-business and personal generated indebtedness.
You guys completely skirt around the fact that the right sees this as weaponizing the law for polical purposes. Conservatives truly do not believe this would ever happen to a democratic president. Look at how much crap you got on Biden and china, the laptop, the made up collusion, etc…