Here's What Happened When Other Democracies Prosecuted Their Ex-Leaders
Trump says the search is a hallmark of a "broken Third-World" country. However, France, South Korea, and Israel have all prosecuted their former leaders.
In confirming the Aug. 9 F.B.I. search of his Florida home, Donald Trump claimed that he was being treated like a former leader of a developing country. "Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World countries," the ex-president said in a statement. "Sadly, America has now become one of those countries, corrupt at a level not seen before."
The talking point that the search was a hallmark of undemocratic regimes was quickly picked up by Trump's defenders in the Republican Party and on Fox News. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said "Using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from 3rd world Marxist dictatorships." Former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, nominally a Democrat, told Tucker Carlson of Fox News that the search "sets a dangerous precedent that reduces our government to being no better than a banana republic, where dictators see federal law enforcement as their own personal goon squad."
Trump has not yet been charged with a crime. He is being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws, according to a search warrant made public on Aug. 12. F.B.I. agents seized four sets of top secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents, according to the inventory of the warrant.
However, if Trump is charged with a crime, it doesn't mean that the United States is a banana republic. On the contrary, mature democracies have prosecuted their former leaders. Often, prosecuting a former leader has been a sign of the strength of the rule of law -- that nobody is above the law.
In France, former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were charged with corruption. In 2016, Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence. In 2021, Sarkozy was convicted and sentenced to prison, which a court ruled that he could serve with home confinement. In South Korea, former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison for corruption charges following impeachment in 2017. She served five years and was released in December 2021. In Israel, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted in 2015 of accepting bribes and served 15 months in prison. Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape in 2010 and served five years in prison. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption -- the investigation and charges against him began while he was in office.
None of these prosecutions were the cause or the result of democratic backsliding. While it's reasonable to question Israel's democratic credentials because of the lack of rights afforded to Palestinians, the prosecutions appear to have been legitimate. South Korea's current president made a controversial decision to release former president Park 19 years early for reasons of "national harmony" -- but she still served five years in prison. President Emmanuel Macron of France has faced low approval ratings, but not because the Sarkozy corruption trial cast a shadow on his presidency.
While Trump claimed that the search was an attempt to try to damage his chances of winning the presidency in 2024, elsewhere in the world, a jail sentence does not automatically mean an end to a political career. In a case far more controversial and politicized than prosecutions in France, South Korea or Israel, Brazil sentenced its former president, Lula Inácio Lula da Silva, to 12 years in prison. Lula claimed the sentence was politically motivated after conservatives took power. However, in 2019, he was freed after 580 days. This year, he is running against far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro, and may well unseat him.
The United States has never prosecuted one of its former presidents. The closest that a former president came to criminal prosecution was Richard Nixon -- and Gerald Ford preemptively pardoned him. Of course, it remains to be seen what a Trump prosecution would look like, and it would be reasonable to watch for signs of politicization. However, prosecution of former leaders is not ipso facto undemocratic, as Trump and his defenders claim. There are plenty of reasons to worry about democratic erosion in the United States -- above all, President Trump's refusal to concede the results of the 2020 election in which he lost fair and square, and encouraging his supporters to use violence to try to overturn the result. But prosecuting a former leader can demonstrate a bedrock principle of the rule of law: nobody -- not even the head of state -- is above the law.
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