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Other countries have prosecuted their leaders. What took the U.S. so long?

Former President Donald Trump sits in the rear of his limousine as he departs Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump sits in the rear of his limousine as he departs Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday.

Updated April 3, 2023 at 4:28 PM ET

Former President Donald Trump may be the first U.S. president to face criminal charges, but he's hardly alone on the global stage.

Plenty of other democracies have prosecuted their current or former leaders.

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).

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.

Closer to home, former President Richard Nixon resigned on the brink of impeachment in August 1974, only to receive a blanket pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford, a month later. Former President Bill Clinton was impeached in the fall of 1998 after he was accused of giving false testimony to a grand jury, but never faced prosecution.

The U.S. is entering unprecedented territory, as University of Washington political science professor James D. Long tells Morning Edition.

"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," he says.

A New York grand jury indicted Trump for his alleged role in covering up hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential election campaign.

Trump is also under scrutiny in additional investigations that could bring charges of their own, from a Georgia probe into 2020 election interference to a pair of U.S. Justice Department investigations into his actions around Jan. 6 and his handling of classified documents.

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. 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.

"It might be weird because it isn't from potentially his time in office, and I think perhaps there's a greater appetite for allowing presidents to have more leeway when they're serving in office and the actions they may have to take as president than what they did before or after," Long explains. "So in that way it actually might be more of a serious thing for at least some of the public."

Long spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about why the U.S. hasn't taken this step until now and what we might see next.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On why the U.S. hasn't prosecuted a president until now

I think the case for looking the other way has always been that at any one moment, looking at what a president's done, pursuing a prosecution could be more traumatic. ... Certainly that was sort of the thinking of Gerald Ford when he pardoned Richard Nixon. So then the question is, well, if you keep looking the other way over a long period of time, do you eventually develop sort of a moral hazard where any president could reasonably think they could get away with something if they look at what their predecessors may have gotten away with?

On how this case differs from the other Trump investigations

The potential cases that the DOJ has been looking at related to January 6th and the Mar-a-Lago documents ... because those were things that he did do as president and in his eyes, at least, he was doing it because he was president. And the president has to have certain ability to conduct themselves in a way that no other citizen has to worry about who's not president, that I think one of his defenses there could be, "Well, this is what I had to do because I was president." But he won't have that defense insofar as we understand what the charges in Manhattan will be.

On why prosecution doesn't necessarily end political careers

Our intuition is that when leaders, heads of state, former heads of states, are accused of doing things, indicted, perhaps even found guilty, that that would be a negative for them politically.

But in a lot of ways we can think of it as rallying their base. If they can make the case that the prosecution has been overzealous, or that they've been targeted for any specific reason or that their supporters have been targeted sort of en masse by having the person at the top targeted, I think it can be a rallying political cry that helps to generate a lot of support. So I think it's not necessarily politically damaging always, although whether or not it's politically damaging for Trump is yet to be seen.

The audio interview was edited by Amra Pasic and John Helton.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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