The Observer view: Donald Trump deserves to face the full force of justice | Observer editorial

In the tumultuous, multifaceted case of Donald J Trump versus the people of the United States, the biggest question is why this former president, political con artist and serial offender is not already in jail. Trump will be charged this week in Manhattan over alleged “hush money” payments to a former porn star. This action, both welcome and overdue, makes him the first US president to be criminally indicted. Yet twice-impeached Trump stands accused of a string of infinitely more serious, well-documented crimes, including a violent attempt to overthrow the government. The continuing mystery is why justice is so long in coming.

The full Trump charge sheet reads like a horror novel in which democracy is murdered. In the weeks following his clear-cut defeat by Joe Biden in November 2020, Trump did everything he could to subvert the result, legally and illegally, by making baseless accusations of fraud. This is not in dispute. Not disputed, either, is a taped telephone conversation on 2 January 2021 between Trump and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, in which the then president pressed the latter “to find 11,780 votes” – sufficient to cancel Biden’s victory in the key swing state.

Why has Trump not been criminally charged in what appears to be an open-and-shut case of shameless election interference? A special grand jury in Atlanta has recommended the prosecution of all involved in the illegal lobbying of Raffensperger. Perhaps the courage shown by Manhattan’s district attorney, Alvin Bragg, in indicting Trump will inspire his Fulton County counterpart, Fani Willis – and other state and federal prosecutors – to follow suit without further delays. If this case had been conducted in a timely manner, Trump might be behind bars now.

It is more than two years since Trump incited his supporters to attack the Capitol in order to halt Congress’s ratification of Biden’s victory. The ensuing riot on 6 January 2021 led to deaths and injuries. Yet Trump did nothing to call off the mob until it was far too late. He has since hailed the rioters as heroes. Again, much of this is on the record. Congress has conducted exhaustive investigations. Why has Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, failed to act against the chief instigator as well as the perpetrators of the coup attempt? Only in November did Garland finally appoint a special counsel – which amounts, in effect, to another delay.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that reluctance to energetically pursue these and other crimes, such as Trump’s apparent theft of secret documents found at his Florida home, stems from political timidity at the top. As he showed again last week, Trump is ready and able to use his mafia-like grip on the Republican party and rightwing media to intimidate the entire US body politic. He plays the victim, turns the tables and claims Biden and the Democrats are the lawbreakers. Trump says political enemies have singled him out. Yet the only special treatment he has received is to have been allowed to avoid prosecution for so long.

Diffidence over confronting Trump full-on stems in part from an understandable desire to avoid feeding national divisions. The entire Trump saga, akin to tawdry, never-ending reality TV show, is a distraction from pressing issues such as post-pandemic economic revival, the climate emergency and war in Europe. The US should focus on these challenges rather than endlessly indulge the antic ravings of a narcissistic, foul-mouthed, misogynistic crook.

The Republican party as a whole continues to place its interests ahead of the principles for which America stands

Biden would surely wish it so. At the start of his term, he plainly hoped that, by ignoring him, Trump would eventually go away. Yet sadly, here he is again, hogging the limelight. Trump will have his day in court amid blanket media coverage and feared street violence. He will repeat his usual inflammatory lies and slanders, proceedings will be adjourned, probably for months, and meanwhile, this arch-enemy of democracy, decency and justice will try to exploit his “victimhood” to secure the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. In a sense, Trump-ism is eternal. It cares for nothing and no one but itself.

The Trump case poses potentially historic challenges for an American republic founded on the rule of law. The idea, peddled by Republicans, that a current or former president enjoys de facto immunity from prosecution is at odds with modern-day concepts of justice. The fact that it appears such a person may stand again for the White House while under criminal investigation, or even following a criminal conviction, points to dangerous flaws in America’s constitutional arrangements. No person, however famous, big-headed or threatening, should be above the law.

The aggressive reaction to the indictment of many leading Republicans, and especially Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest competitor, is dismaying. By parroting Trump’s line about “weaponisation” of the courts, the Florida governor shows himself to be no better or wiser than his egotistic rival. The party as a whole continues to place its interests ahead of the principles for which America stands. Democrats, meanwhile, should avoid talk that exacerbates national polarisation. “Lock him up!” is a tempting slogan, given how Trump used it against Hillary Clinton. But calm, restraint and patience are required. If there’s any justice, Trump’s time in court will ultimately be followed by time served.

The manner in which this unprecedented legal drama is handled, and its outcome, could decide America’s immediate political future. It may also have a significant, lasting impact on US influence and moral authority in the global struggle to uphold a democratic, law-based international order. The world is watching – and that, regrettably, is what Trump likes.

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