Given everything we know about the FBI’s capacity for corruption and abuse of power — something with which we in Boston are only too familiar — I will not be surprised if its Mar-a-Lago raid on Monday turns out to be an unscrupulous act of prosecutorial overkill intended not to secure vital evidence of a serious crime but to damage a political opponent.
Given everything we know about Donald Trump’s dishonesty, his pattern of threats and incitement, and his frenzied efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, I will also not be surprised if the agents who executed that search warrant found evidence of serious wrongdoing and had reason to believe that Trump would have kept stonewalling a subpoena.
So long as the warrant in the case and the affidavit(s) supporting it remained secret, it was impossible to know whether this first-ever search of a former president’s home was an appalling blunder or an unavoidable necessity. On Thursday the Justice Department filed a motion to unseal the warrant, but the absence of hard information before then left plenty of room for partisans to fill the air with noisy speculation and whip-up-the-base accusations. Most irresponsible of all was the claim, first made by Trump, that the FBI search was the kind of “assault” that “could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries” and that “America has now become one of those countries, corrupt at a level not seen before.”
Those incendiary words were instantly amplified by a chorus of Trump supporters. Right-wing broadcaster Laura Ingraham lamented that America now “feels like a banana republic.” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida equated the search at Mar-a-Lago to the behavior of Latin American caudillos who “put their political rivals in jail or forced exile.” Dan Cox, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Maryland, said it was “nothing short of communist Stasi police state tactics” — a reference to the former East Germany’s secret police. At the Independent Women’s Forum, commentator Inez Stepman saw “the fall of the American republic” in the search — and stressed that she wasn’t exaggerating for effect.
I repeat: Maybe the feds’ search of Trump’s home will prove indefensible. It wouldn’t be the first time they screwed up.
But this “banana republic” hyperventilation is — bananas.
To begin with, nothing in living memory has come as close to banana republicanism in America as Trump’s unremitting attempt to nullify an election he lost.
More broadly, holding powerful leaders — including former presidents and potential future presidents — accountable is not the mark of an ill-governed Third World dictatorship. It is the mark of a constitutional republic committed, as John Adams phrased it in the Massachusetts Constitution, “to . . . be a government of laws and not of men.”
That’s a commitment serious nations embrace.
Thus it is Israel, not a “broken Third World country,” that imprisoned former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was convicted of fraud, bribery, and obstruction of justice.
It is South Africa that sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to prison for contempt of court after he refused to testify in an ongoing corruption case.
It is Italy that has prosecuted former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on multiple grounds, from abuse of office to tax fraud, sentencing him to prison for four years (later commuted to community service and a curfew). Now Berlusconi is on trial for bribing witnesses, and prosecutors are seeking a six-year prison term.
For any self-respecting democracy, it is humiliating to see a former leader investigated for wrongdoing, never mind prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison. But it is also a sign of democratic integrity and political accountability — a signal that no one can violate the nation’s laws with impunity, not even someone who was once the chief of state or the most powerful member of the government.
Trump has not been charged with any crime. So far there is no proof that he will be. If charges are brought against him, he will be entitled to scrupulous due process, beginning with the presumption that he is innocent until proven guilty. However, the notion that because he was president he cannot be touched by the criminal-justice system has no basis in law, history, or common sense. “An FBI raid against a former president should never happen. End of discussion,” pronounced a Wall Street Journal columnist the other day. That is banana-republic talk. It is the very definition of what “a government of laws and not of men” is not.
It’s true that no previous US president has been prosecuted by the federal government. But there is nothing in our Constitution or legal tradition to prevent it, and many high-ranking elected government officials have been prosecuted. In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace and was convicted of income tax evasion. Scores of governors, mayors, and members of Congress have gone to prison, including four of Illinois’s last 10 chief executives. Between 1996 and 2011, three consecutive speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives were convicted of federal charges; one spent five years behind bars.
In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a sitting president had no immunity from federal litigation even for acts committed before entering the White House. As a result, Bill Clinton was compelled to testify in response to Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit. It led to his being impeached for lying under oath, disbarred for five years, and fined.
Precisely because power tends to corrupt, the ability to investigate the misdeeds of presidents and former presidents is a key litmus test for a democratic republic. There is much we still don’t know about the search at Mar-a-Lago. One thing, though, is clear: Former presidents are not exempt from the laws that bind the rest of us. If FBI agents show up at your door or mine with a properly issued search warrant, we are required to comply. Ex-presidents are no different.