- - Monday, April 10, 2023

“Unprecedented” may be the most overused term in American political discourse. The emergence of Donald J. Trump in national politics spurred endless commentaries about the “unprecedented” nature of his norm-shattering style and chaotic presidency, but few things in life, let alone politics, are truly without precedent.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against the former president, however, may fall into this category. Never had a current or former U.S. president been charged with a crime until Mr. Trump was indicted by a grand jury on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Never before have American citizens witnessed a former chief executive sitting in a courtroom to answer such allegations.

In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Michael Dobbs discusses the significance of the existing and pending criminal cases against Mr. Trump in a country with little experience prosecuting presidents, current or former.

Mr. Dobbs addresses the notion that in 1974 President Ford erred by pardoning the disgraced Richard Nixon, who had resigned the presidency weeks earlier under intense political and legal pressures stemming from the Watergate scandal. Had Nixon been prosecuted, the argument goes, we today would have a better idea of how to pursue rogue officials. Instead, presidents remained off limits as prosecutorial terrain – until Mr. Bragg pursued his case. Mr. Trump also faces possible indictment in three other cases: his handling of classified documents, alleged attempts to meddle with Georgia’s 2020 election results, and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“In general, we can draw lessons from history, but every situation is different. There are some things Watergate has in common with more recent scandals, and there are some ways in which Watergate is unique,” said Mr. Dobbs, author of “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate – an American Tragedy.”

“It is very difficult for Ford to have projected himself forward to what is now 50 years later and predict the consequences of his actions. He was thinking of the political situation back in 1974,” said Mr. Dobbs, who contends that Ford had the noble motivation of sparing the country the pain of a prolonged and divisive legal drama over Nixon’s fate. There was no chance of Nixon making a comeback, whereas today’s politics are quite different. Mr. Trump is still the most popular Republican politician in the country, as evidenced by his recent surge in the polls.

Listen to Mr. Dobbs discuss the parallels and differences between Watergate and Mr. Trump’s legal problems by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.

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