On Tuesday, last week, former President Donald Trump was indicted on 34 counts for allegedly falsifying business records and conspiracy for roles in hush money payments to two women, namely Stormy Daniels, a former porn actor and Karen McDougal, a former PLAYBOY model; toward the end of his (Trump’s) 2016 presidential campaign.
According to the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin L. Bragg Jnr., the charges were “for falsifying New York business records in order to conceal damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election.”
Both Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal alleged that they had sexual encounters with a married Donald Trump before he got into politics. Before the 2016 election, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, allegedly paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money.
The Manhattan Court is thus scrutinising the six-figure payment to Stormy Daniels and it is trying to establish, among others, if this payment was recorded and if it breaks election finance laws.
On arrival at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in New York City on Tuesday last week, Trump was promptly arrested. He was placed in police custody. Thereafter, his fingerprints were taken and he was requested to surrender his passport.
It is instructive that Donald Trump is the first former president ever to face criminal charges. He was, however, treated with respect and the dignity deserving of a former president. Unlike similar cases or felons in the past, where suspects were kept waiting for hours on end, and had their mug shots taken, Trump was neither restrained/shackled nor left waiting.
The indictment was brisk. As a result, the business-like process enabled Trump to fly back to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and to address the press.
If Donald Trump’s indictment is unprecedented and takes America into uncharted territory, the flamboyant former president, who relishes in controversy and publicity, was quick to latch onto his arrest. He used it adroitly to resonate with his captive base and to frame the entire affair as a “witch hunt” and a “prosecution”.
These refrains have since become leitmotifs or defining features anytime the law attempts to bring Trump to heel.
The latest drama is not an exception. Ahead of his arrest on Tuesday, Trump wrote in his financially struggling social media site, TRUTH SOCIAL: “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Court house. Seams so SURREAL-WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America.”
Trump did not only play the victim to the hilt, he used the occasion to curry the sympathy of his base and to carry himself like some former president, all thanks to the media frenzy that attended the indictment.
Trump left his Mar-a-Lago estate in choreographed fashion: He departed in the full glare of television cameras and in a caravan of Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs). He was chauffeured to the airport where he boarded his private jet, emblazoned with his name and the American flag.
At the La Guardia Airport in New York, last Monday, he was received by another convoy of SUVs which escorted him, with members of the Secret Service, to his TRUMP TOWER HOTEL. Perhaps, never since the OJ Simpson car chase on the 91 Freeway and subsequent arrest 28 years ago has an indictment been so dramatic, riveting and colourful.
Compounding colour is that each time Trump is buffeted by the law or its officials, he makes financial and political capital out of it. Consider: in the wake of the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate last year for classified documents, Trump raised $1 million in campaign funds. In last week’s arrest, he reportedly raked in $7 million in three days for the 2024 campaign.
Not only do these funds solidify Trump’s position as the front-runner for the Republican presidential ticket/nomination, they have also generated some disquiet within Republican ranks. Whereas most opportunistic Republicans are keen to tap into Trump’s base to win political offices, they are also wary that his eventual candidature on the platform of their party will spell doom for it in the long run.
In fact, three prominent former office holders in the Trump presidency, William Barr (former United States Attorney General), John Bolton (former United States Ambassador to the UN and National Security Advisor of the United States) and Anthony Scaramucci (former White House Communications Director), have openly expressed reservations about a prospective Trump presidency. Bolton and Scaramucci have publicly referred to Trump as “dangerous”.
The reservations of many mainstream Republicans towards Trump are informed by the fear that his candidature will take the party to the fringes and the extreme right, thereby isolating millions of voters. A Trump presidency, post-2024, it is conjectured, will take America back in the direction of unpredictability and outright dictatorship.
Trump, in the first tenure, was famously noted for cozying up to dictators and undermining American institutions. “My army”; “my generals”; and “my judges” were common refrains which not only signalled the building of a cult of personality but an affront to republican principles.
But worst, an arrest and eventual conviction of Trump will confer on him the myth and power such incidents conferred on celebrities like Martin Luther King, Mick Jagger, Al Capone, etc. It is also feared that a future Trump presidency could up end such strategic alliances as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and kiss good bye to multilateralism.
Two things stand out eloquently from the drama that attended Trump’s arrest last week: The deafening silence on the Democratic front and the message the indictment sends to all Americans and lovers of democracy. Not even Hillary Clinton, who was the butt of the Trump-inspired chant, “lock her up”, issued a statement.
Secondly, the Trump arrest underscores one thing for most American folks: NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW. Many made a note of this by displaying it on their placards. Others etched the message on the streets for all to behold and read. For us in Nigeria, it teaches some enduring lessons: where the law rules, anarchy is banished and there are prospects for enduring justice and progress.
Nick Dazang is a former Director at the Independent National Electoral Commission