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Trump becomes the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Donald Trump has been indicted on criminal charges by a grand jury in New York. The investigation revolves around hush money payments that Trump's former lawyer made to silence an adult film actor. The alleged crime involves how those payments were reimbursed and then logged as a retainer for legal services in Trump's business records. He becomes the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges. Joining us now to talk about the historical significance is Rice University professor and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. Douglas, is there a comparable moment in U.S. political history to this?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: No, we've never had anything like this. I mean, we've had moments like Watergate, where Richard Nixon was forced to leave the White House, but alas, he was pardoned and didn't do any prison time. You know, Bill Clinton was impeached over Monica Lewinsky, and Donald Trump was impeached twice, but the presidencies kept on going. This is the first time that it really seems likely that the former president of the United States will be having a mug shot, being fingerprinted and, you know, having not just this indictment and these 30 charges but more indictments to come. So we're in for a very rocky spring.

MARTÍNEZ: Douglas, if we indeed see a mug shot at some point, as someone that studies presidential history, what will that mean to you? What will you think?

BRINKLEY: You know, it would tell me that Donald Trump really is an outlaw. As a presidential historian, I've had a hard time connecting him to the tradition of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and the Roosevelts. But, A - but Trump fits very easily into a narrative of folk heroes, like outlaw folk heroes like Al Capone and Dillinger, Billy the Kid. Just the other day on Fox News, Donald Trump was bragging about the Missouri bank robber Jesse James and praising him in no terms. So, you know, the public likes their outlaw figure sometimes, and I think that's where we have to look at President Trump at this point. On the other hand, he's the leader of the Republican Party, running for reelection in 2024, so this makes this a monstrous story of huge size and importance. And we're going to have to see how it unspools in the coming weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you think changes, though, in America as this thing moves forward?

BRINKLEY: Well, on the positive side, I mean, it tells us that presidents are not above the law. You know, famously, Richard Nixon said if a president does it, it must be legal, which is a big brag about the extension of executive power. And, of course, Nixon met his comeuppance. And I think Donald Trump here feels he is Teflon, that he can do what he wants, that he can disregard, you know, special prosecutors or, you know, New York district attorney or the National Archives. But alas, he is culpable. He is a citizen like everybody else.

The downside of this is to make sure that this isn't a case of selective prosecution, that this isn't simply District Attorney Bragg in New York wanting to score some public points, perhaps his own reelection points, by staking out a setup for a former president. So we have to make sure that this is not selective prosecution. But anybody who did hush money payments in the way that Donald Trump did and had, you know, various types of fraud in their business would be prosecuted. So it could be a good story in the end that nobody is above the law.

MARTÍNEZ: Douglas, you mentioned Richard Nixon. He resigned from office. Was he at risk of facing criminal charges?

BRINKLEY: He was. After all, Nixon's team went to jail - I mean, the attorney general, John Mitchell, White House aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and many more. Nixon was only saved by the grace of Gerald Ford, who gave that controversial pardon. And I think most historians praise for the pardon, but now, you know, that seems to be a very different than our situation now.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

BRINKLEY: Nobody's going to pardon Donald Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: Rice University professor and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. Douglas, thanks.

BRINKLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.