Donald Trump gets a taste of accountability

York Dispatch editorial board

On a day heavy with historical significance and political ramifications, Donald Trump on Tuesday became the first former U.S. president to be charged with a crime.

The once and perhaps-future president found himself in unfamiliar territory as he listened to a judge read out 34 felony counts in a Manhattan courtroom: Not only was he a subdued bystander, he was being held accountable.

He couldn’t seem to get his mind around this seemingly foreign concept, commenting on his social media feed en route to the courthouse, “WOW, they are going to ARREST ME.”

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Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his legal team in a Manhattan court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. Trump is appearing in court on charges related to falsifying business records in a hush money investigation, the first president ever to be charged with a crime. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)

Republicans in Congress were no more willing than he to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s description of the indictment as political persecution at the hands of “an overzealous, super liberal local prosecutor” was a representative characterization. Rep. Scott Perry, a York County Republican not known for his subtlety, compared the prosecutors with Soviet dictators.

Outside the courthouse Tuesday, clownish Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene did her best to whip up a circus atmosphere. (New Yorkers weren’t having it.)

Meanwhile, Republican voters, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, are likewise keeping anything but an open mind. York County GOP Chairman John O’Neill, for example, told the Dispatch he believed the indictment was politically motivated because, “what else would you expect from a city so rife with corruption and cronyism?”

Amid the excuses and justifications for the charges, there is little in the way of addressing the acts the former president is charged with. Trump’s boast that he could shoot someone in downtown Manhattan and not lose a vote remains as true as ever.

So, as has repeatedly been the case since the former reality TV star and real estate developer first descended a Trump Tower escalator to declare his candidacy in 2015, the nation finds itself in uncharted waters.

No president or former president has ever been indicted, let alone tried. And no major party candidate has ever run for president while under indictment (through Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs campaigned from a jail cell in 1920).

As ever, tradition and norms are of little use in assessing what comes next, especially since what comes next includes a potential litany of additional charges against Trump:

  • A Department of Justice investigation into Trump’s handling of top-secret documents illegally secured at his Mar-a-Lago estate is picking up steam.
  • Fulton County, Georgia, DA Fani Willis is reportedly close to filing charges following her investigation of Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results -- if the state’s Republican legislators don’t interfere.

Trump, who pleaded not guilty to all 34 counts on Tuesday, is employing his usual playbook in his defense. At a post-indictment rally at his Mar-a-Lago estate Tuesday night, he whined about political persecution, denied any wrong-doing, insulted the prosecutors and judges, exaggerated his administration’s record, drudged up old grudges (what does Hillary Clinton have to do with any of this?), berated his successor in the White House and railed against … well, reality.

But reality is here. Trump’s first visit inside a courtroom this week won’t be his last. And the shuck-and-jive, fact-free shtick that entertains his faithful followers will do little to defend him in a legal setting.