Yes, Donald Trump is being treated differently, and that’s a good thing | Opinion

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As the first criminal trial for Donald Trump begins, I can’t shake the feeling Trump was convinced, in part, he could get away with anything because we told him he could.

I get that Trump is a selfish fabulous who was likely to test the boundaries no matter what. He’s lived his entire adult life that way. Still, we helped create an expectation that men like him should not have mugshots or face criminal trials. It’s American tradition.

We taught him a partisan political process would keep him safe, which is one of his primary reasons for running for the presidency this year.

Issac Bailey
Issac Bailey

Some Americans — in the legal system, media and everyday citizens — either set up or accepted a tradition that presidents are not to face the possibility of prison, or that it would be unseemly if they did.

The fact is, though, Trump is not the first president alleged to have broken the law, but he is the first to be in the defendant’s chair.

We’ve been repeatedly warned that subjecting a president to the criminal legal system could become a threat to democracy — especially a reckless president like Trump — or at best a test of it, even as we claim to believe no man is above the law. Our democracy remained after presidents have been killed or nearly killed in office, or were forced to resign. It’s passed plenty of stress tests.

Still, is the president allowed to be indicted, we’ve asked? We’ve had to dig out obscure decades-old memos to prove that presidents can, indeed, be charged with crimes.

Even after journalists compiled an enormous amount of evidence showing alleged illegal activity by Trump, we got a headline like this from noted Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who is no Trump apologist or sycophant: “Is Georgia’s case against Trump one case too many?”

She raised several concerns, including the appearance of double jeopardy, with Trump being charged at the state and federal level. It’s a fair concern. I know men who have been harmed by prosecutors sidestepping the double jeopardy principle. But only related to the presidency has such a violation been raised in a tone suggesting it might threaten democracy itself.

The poor and powerless facing charges is par for the course. Reform might be necessary but their treatment is neither a test of nor threat to democracy. That’s the common thinking we’ve accepted. Men who’ve been granted status as the most powerful on the planet, we often agonize before prosecuting despite the legitimacy of the charges, even if we conclude the prosecution should go forward.

That’s odd, given that it’s commonplace around the world to indict corrupt leaders of democracies.

Three things are happening at once:

Trump is a threat to democracy because he will do anything to avoid accountability.

Trump’s base will do anything to ensure he doesn’t have to be held accountable, no matter how egregious his actions. Nothing that hurts him is legitimate in their eyes, neither indictments based on well-documented evidence nor verified election results showing he lost.

Trump is benefiting from what all former and sitting presidents have. It’s the only group in the country whose legal reckoning is thought of possibly undermining the democracy itself. That reflex goes back generations, was supercharged in the Nixon era, and reaffirmed when Bill Clinton got into trouble.

Precedent was set in the 1970s when Gerald Ford prematurely pardoned Richard Nixon after Watergate and the Department of Justice established a rule that sitting presidents aren’t to be indicted. In recent years, we doubled down on that precedent — with Trump.

We knew he tried to bribe another country into investigating a political opponent and incited an insurrection. A hyper-partisan political process guaranteed he’d walk unscathed because the criminal system wasn’t even considered an option.

That’s how we got here. Make no mistake. It’s not bad Trump is being held to account. It’s bad that those who came before him weren’t.

Issac Bailey is a McClatchy Opinion writer in North and South Carolina.