By Juan Cole / Informed Comment
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Seeing Trump arraigned in New York on Tuesday was satisfying even if the outcome of the trial cannot be foreseen and he has a presumption of innocence. There is obviously evidence that he falsified his business records for the purpose of hiding material facts from the American people in October 2015, so as to defeat Hillary Clinton even after the release of the Billy Bush interview in which he boasted of grabbing random women by the genitals. Major Republicans began peeling away at that point, and the revelation of the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal affairs (while Melania was pregnant with Baron) would likely have finished him off.
The new American comfort with indicting former presidents, bringing the US into line with European democracies, however, is bittersweet, since there are past presidents who should also have sat in a court looking stony-faced and bitter.
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1. In some ways similar to Trump, Grover Cleveland, who had two non-consecutive terms in the nineteenth century, raped a woman he was courting, Maria Halpin. He threatened to ruin her with a lawsuit if she ever revealed the rape. She banished him from her life, but then found she was pregnant. When news that he had fathered a child emerged during his next campaign, Cleveland had his flacks bury Halpin in smears as a fallen woman, so that she could not get a hearing. Trump and his people are capable of such smear campaigns, too, but nowadays they have the “catch-and-kill” technique for shutting women up. Interestingly, part of Tuesday’s indictment mentioned that Trump paid a doorman $30,000 to shut him up after he claimed to know about a child Trump sired out of wedlock. As with Cleveland, Trump has been accused of rape, as well. In the me-too era, Grover Cleveland might have had to contend with Ronan Farrow and might have ended up like Harvey Weinstein.
2. George W. Bush should have been impeached or at least indicted for lying the country into the Iraq War. Trump probably managed to kill more people with bad health and environmental policy than Bush did with his Iraq misadventure, but Bush’s crime was still epochal. Congress passed a law in 1996 allowing trial of any US national who breaches the Geneva Conventions, so I think there could theoretically be a lot of charges against Bush if the DOJ wanted to bring them.
3. Ronald Reagan sold US anti-tank weapons to Iran while that country was on the State Department’s terrorism list. There was no Congressional appropriation. Essentially, the weapons were stolen from the Pentagon storehouses and sold to a dummy corporation in Switzerland that then sold them to Iran. The money Iran paid for these weapons was kept in off-the-books black accounts and used to support the right wing death squads in Nicaragua. The latter was in defiance of the Boland Amendment, which was US law. Reagan shredded the constitution, armed the Ayatollah, and backed armed paramilitaries that violated the Geneva conventions every which way from Sunday.
4. Nixon committed so many crimes it would be hard to know where to start with indictments. He was forced out of office for having ordered the covert ‘plumbers’ group to burglarize the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Most people no longer remember that he did this twice. More important than Watergate was Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, revealed by the Pentagon Papers. President Gerald Ford made an error in pardoning Nixon, since that act set up an expectation among later presidents that there would never be any accountability.
5. Warren Harding helped his Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, usurp from the Navy control of two key oil reserves, Elk Hill in California and Teapot Dome in Wyoming. Fall then took hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and bribes to lease these oil fields to private companies. It is not clear that Harding himself had his palms greased, but he knew very well what Fall was up to, and neither interfered nor reported it to anyone. I’d say he was clearly an accomplice. Fall went to jail, but Harding was never charged.
Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).