It has been obvious for several years that a cluster of legal torpedoes were directed toward Donald Trump. It was only a question of which ones would hit their targets and how much damage they would do. With both Trump and his British alter ego, Boris Johnson, facing potentially career-ending accusations on the same day last week, what does this mean for justice and the rule of law in the Western world?
The sheer number of Trump’s legal challenges is bewildering. The federal criminal indictments contain nearly 40 counts relating to his hoarding of top secret documents. Recordings of him boasting about this include a juicy clip in which he is exuberantly handing round a US “plan of attack” against Iran to guests at his golf club. Other documents related to American’s nuclear program, national strategic vulnerabilities, and plans for military retaliation in the event of attack. Potential prison sentences could add up to 420 years.
These may not ultimately be the most damaging charges he faces: evidence has also been circulated of his efforts to pressure officials to decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election. This year his property company was fined for tax fraud. Then there is the issue of alleged hush-money payments to prostitutes. In a furious speech after the latest indictment, Trump thundered that he was the victim of a conspiracy: “They’re cheating. They’re crooked. They’re corrupt. These criminals cannot be rewarded. They must be defeated. You have to defeat them. Because in the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you and I’m just standing in their way.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was hardly less hyperbolic, declaring: “This is going to disrupt this nation…and we’re not going to stand for it” – demonstrating the extent to which the Republican Party remains in Trump’s thrall, and is likely to go scorched-earth as these cases progress.
Meanwhile, few expected Britain’s former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign as an MP so quickly as a result of findings by the House of Commons Privileges Committee that he lied to Parliament over his role in frequent parties and social events while the rest of the country suffered under Covid lockdowns. Johnson quit before the committee’s findings were made public, but he received an advance copy indicating that he would be suspended from Parliament for at least 10 days – triggering a by-election in his constituency that he would almost certainly lose. And so he jumped before he was pushed. His track record as a serial liar had already lost him the trust of Parliament, including most of his own Conservative MPs. Johnson’s bitter, almost Trumpian resignation statement denounced party colleagues on the investigating committee as conducting a “witch hunt.” The fates of both Trump and are inextricably conjoined, exemplifying the personality-cult populism infecting Western politics. Johnson exploited Brexit as his vehicle to achieving power, in the process delivering some of his most consequential lies about the viability and “benefits” Britain leaving the EU. He and his short-lived successor crashed out of office, leaving the British economy a shattered wreck severed from many of its most important markets. Like Trump, his government was tainted by corruption and cronyism, with senior posts and lucrative Covid contracts awarded to acolytes.
The Conservative elder statesman Lord Heseltine remarked that Johnson’s “basic problem” was that “words are designed to make his audience believe whatever they want to believe. There is no anchor to any discernible truth or sense of integrity.” His own biographer denounced his “inner emptiness … a total absence of moral compass.” With Labour holding a double-digit lead in the polls, the Conservatives look set for a drubbing in parliamentary elections expected next year. They are already in a state of civil war, with an ascendant far-right loony fringe already nakedly seeking to drag the post-defeat party in a kamikaze trajectory toward all-out cultural warfare. On the left of the British political spectrum, Scotland’s former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has just been arrested by police investigating apparent irregularities in the finances of the Scottish National Party.
A fetid atmosphere of corruption and impunity has clouded numerous Western governments in recent years, and it is entirely welcome if this is decisively addressed, with leaders held to the highest standards. However, that also risks fueling a retaliatory and escalatory exploitation of serious legal measures, weaponized in the toxic cauldron of partisan US politics. Republicans are already pursuing the president’s son, Hunter Biden, with a raft of congressional investigations. As part of this cesspool, a dump of 9,000 images from Hunter’s laptop has been published – the contents of which I cannot bring myself to elaborate on. In any country, who is there to prevent the justice system from being politicized as a nuclear option against either side’s political opponents? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts at emasculating Israel’s judiciary illustrate how few safeguards there are if a determined and corrupt majority decide that democracy is too democratic.
In the right-wing echo chamber of mendacity and radicalization, Fox News became both perpetrator and victim. Any modest attempts to rein in its diet of lies and propaganda were immediately rejected by disenfranchised audiences, while Fox paid nearly $800 million in compensation for deliberate lies about voting machines in the 2020 presidential election. This issue of competent and clean leadership is crucial because we are but a few steps away from a Third World War over Ukraine, Taiwan and numerous other sources of tension. Never have we been in greater need of inspiring and farsighted leadership, but never have such qualities been so lacking in the international arena. Legal action against Trump, Johnson, Sturgeon and other politicians must be in the service of justice and justice alone, and the public must see that justice is done. In a rules-based system, leaders are necessarily beholden to truth and justice. It is in no one’s interest for the law to be weaponized by maverick politicians in the service of their own tawdry ends.