NPR Celebrates That America Has Gone Full Banana Republic, Finally Indicting Opposition Leaders Like Trump
In countries where leaders of the opposition are indicted on (pun unintended) trumped-up charges, these nations can usually be called “democracies” only with the most emphatic of air-quotes used around the D-word.
Usually, other words are used to describe these kinds of countries: Dictatorships. Juntas. Failed states. Kleptopcracies. Oligarchies. Kakistocracies. Banana republics.
And on Monday, our state public radio broadcaster began the day with one question: “What took the U.S. so long?”
Yes, NPR — the Valium-soaked tote-bag repository every sane conservative turns off once the classical music stops and the talking starts — was curious about why no U.S. president had been charged with a crime after leaving office despite very stable governments in nations such as Argentina, Brazil and Italy having taken their former leaders to court.
The “Morning Edition” report came a day before the indictment against former President Donald Trump was unsealed in a New York court and Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 materially identical (and highly dubious) charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
Bragg’s charges all stem from accusations Trump falsified business records when he classified 2016 nondisclosure payments to two women and one Trump Tower doorman as legal fees.
This would ordinarily be a misdemeanor in New York state, which has a two-year statute of limitations.
Bragg’s argument is that the falsifications became felonies because they were concealing another crime — namely, federal campaign violations during the 2016 presidential race. Not that Bragg has any jurisdiction when it comes to enforcing federal law — he’s a city prosecutor, after all — but that didn’t get in his way. Federal courts might, but that’s for another week.
While the indictment wasn’t unsealed until Tuesday, we all kind of knew the basics of it; we knew the charges were minor and the legal reasoning that gave Bragg jurisdiction highly suspect.
So naturally, this was NPR’s headline: “Other countries have prosecuted their leaders. What took the U.S. so long?”
Now, perhaps that could be a legitimate question if this were a real report on why this had never happened. The tone, instead, seemed to be: Yeah, what took so long? Especially since it was Trump?
“Former President Donald Trump may be the first U.S. president to face criminal charges, but he’s hardly alone on the global stage,” NPR reported.
“Two former French presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, were convicted of corruption after their time in office. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud in 2012 (though, over a decade later, was acquitted of several charges stemming from a 2010 sex-for-hire case),” the report continued.
“In South Korea, which has a long history of prosecuting its former leaders, former President Lee Myung-bak’s 17-year jail sentence for corruption was cut short when he got a presidential pardon last year. The previous year, a court upheld a 20-year jail sentence for former President Park Geun-hye over the corruption scandal that led to her impeachment in 2017.
“Argentina’s current vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was found guilty of corruption in December, in a case dating back to her time as president. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, is facing three corruption cases. And Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was reelected three years after he was released from prison on corruption charges.”
And now that we’re joining the club, NPR’s tone was that this was a good thing.
“We’ve allowed a lot of bad behavior and looked the other way with presidents and previous administrations, and I think now this really is the first time that it appears a president or former president may be held to account for actions that they did before, during or after being in office,” said James D. Long, a University of Washington political science professor.
“The hush money case may not be related to some of the bigger issues of Trump’s presidency, as the alleged events happened before his election,” NPR’s report continued. “But Long says the fact that someone already spent time in jail for it — Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen — shows that it’s still significant.
“And, he says, it may even be seen as a more legitimate case because Trump can’t argue that he took those particular actions in the course of his presidential duties. “
Now, you’ll notice none of the convictions of former heads of state mentioned by NPR involved 34 materially identical counts of paying for nondisclosure agreements with chatty former porn stars. Of the countries mentioned, none has had a stable, uninterrupted democratic system that predates the 20th century. And it assumes all former head-of-state prosecutions are created equal. They’re not.
Since NPR didn’t feel it needed to provide context, let me fill in the gaps.
France can be considered the most stable of these democracies, despite the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Vichy Regime and the political chaos that reigned in trying to re-establish democracy following World War II. However, both the presidents named were convicted of far more serious offenses than misclassifying nondisclosure payments to adult entertainers.
Sarkozy, according to France24, is still appealing a 2021 conviction that he had bribed a judge with a job to obtain confidential information regarding an investigation into his campaign finances during the 2007 election, in which Reuters said he spent double the amount allowed under French law and then had a PR firm hide the cost. Even despite the conviction, Reuters noted he was likely to avoid jail time.
Chirac, a far more notable kleptocrat than Sarkozy, was convicted in 2011 of giving supporters of his party salaries for nonexistent jobs during his time as mayor of Paris — and received a two-year suspended sentence, according to the BBC.
Next we have Italy, a country where the only things more rigged than the politics are the soccer matches. We are supposed to be impressed that Silvio Berlusconi — a transparently fatuous, concupiscent man whose primary accomplishment was briefly having introduced the phrase “bunga bunga” into the global lexicon — was held to account by that wobbly nation’s court system.
To anyone remotely familiar with Berlusconi, the shocker should be they got him only once.
It’s also worth noting that same court system lifted a ban on him running for office in 2018 (it was set to expire in 2019 anyway, according to Forbes). He’s currently a member of the European Union Parliament.
As for South Korea, a TL;DR history of the nation’s post-Korean War can be best summed up from a report by the Stanford Freeman Spongoli Institute for International Studies, which noted a “recurring feature of Korea’s democratization since the late 1980s: a confrontation between the state and civil society. Instead of political parties competing with each other, civil society is pitted against the ‘state,’ which includes political parties.” This has included several occasional diversions into semi-authoritarian rule.
Both Kirchner in Argentina and da Silva in Brazil were convicted in billion-dollar corruption cases; in da Silva’s case, this still didn’t stop him from being re-elected president, as NPR noted. Neither country has a long history of stable democracy, either.
As for Netanyahu’s corruption trials in Israel, these involve a far more complex slate of issues regarding the country’s broken judicial system, the lack of a constitution and Netanyahu’s attempts to change that judicial system sans constitution, as National Review’s Philip Klein notes, than a straightforward case of guilty or not guilty.
Now, what do all of these cases have in common? All deal with rampant kleptocrats, broken systems or both. That’s not supposed to be America. “Other countries have prosecuted their leaders. What took the U.S. so long?” Because we’re the U.S., that’s what took us so long.
America is supposed to be the shining city on the hill, the gold standard in republican democracy. We have a Constitution, a Bill of Rights and a system of checks and balances that protect former presidents from prosecution.
Even in situations where we’ve decided it could feasibly be called for — Richard Nixon’s obstruction of justice during Watergate, Bill Clinton’s perjury in his testimony regarding Monica Lewinsky — America decided it was in the nation’s best interests to let it go. Nixon was pardoned, and Clinton reached an agreement to pay a nominal fine (for him, anyway) and to give up his law license for five years.
And yet, it appears we’ve finally found the combination of flaws that can turn us into a banana republic:
Visceral hatred of a former president by the opposing party. Said president running for that office again. An ambitious district attorney with curious notions about the law. And finally, the grand jury system — which, as we’ve been reminded so often this past week, could feasibly indict a ham sandwich.
Our public radio broadcaster: What took us so long, goshdarnit? I mean, unless this happens to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or Joe Biden — then, what kind of country are we living in, they’ll wonder.
Precisely the kind of country that media outlets such as NPR helped create, I fear.
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