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At the heart of Trump's indictment, an unprecedented test of American ideals

Analysis: The one-man split screen — leading candidate and criminal suspect — is forcing a badly divided body politic to wrestle with its principles.
=Donald  Trump on the South Lawn at the White House in 2020.
Donald Trump has made history as the first former president to be indicted.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — In becoming the first former commander in chief ever indicted Thursday, Donald Trump cemented the word that has most defined his eight years at the center of national politics: unprecedented.

Before Trump, no one had won the presidency without previous government service, no president had been impeached twice and no former president had been charged with a crime.

Trump shattered all those barriers.

Now, he is battling allegations that he tried to hide hush money payments to an adult film star paramour in 2016 while he campaigns as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He also faces possible criminal charges in Fulton County, Georgia, and in Washington, where a special prosecutor is investigating his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The one-man split screen — leading candidate and criminal suspect — is forcing a badly divided body politic to wrestle with democratic principles that have never been so gravely tested.

From Trump's perspective, which is shared broadly throughout the leadership of the GOP, he is the victim of a justice system perverted to cripple the Republican Party in the next presidential election.

"This is an attack on our country the likes of which has never been seen before," he wrote in all capital letters on his Truth Social media platform Thursday. "It is likewise a continuing attack on our once free and fair elections. The USA is now a third world nation, a nation in serious decline. So sad!"

The prosecution of a serious candidate for president, he and his allies maintain, is patently un-American.

His critics — a group that includes Democrats and a set of Republicans repelled by his disregard for many democratic conventions — say he is finally being held to account. They argue that the indictment is consistent with American ideals.

"No one is above the law, and everyone has the right to a trial to prove innocence," Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the former House speaker, wrote on Twitter.

While politicians and legal experts debate the finer points of democracy — how to balance the founders' allergies to both special privilege for public officials and abuse of prosecutorial power — the grand jurors in Manhattan were required to focus on the facts of the case in front of them. The indictment remains under seal, depriving the public of an immediate and full understanding of the charges.

Trump has said repeatedly that he committed no crime, and he denies having had a sexual relationship with Stormy Daniels, the adult film actor.

An indictment doesn't prevent him from seeking the presidency; neither would a conviction.

In fact, many Republican operatives predict that the indictment will create a rally-’round-the-flag effect that drives GOP primary voters into Trump's camp. That dynamic was evident in the speed with which Republican leaders rushed to defend him Thursday. Several potential rivals for the GOP nomination, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, fired off statements criticizing the indictment.

The sentiment was also captured in recent interviews with GOP voters in Iowa and Texas. For Trump's most ardent fans, the prospect of a conviction isn't a deterrent in the slightest.

"I'd vote for him from jail," Vince Condra of Fredericksburg, Texas, said Saturday at a Trump rally in Waco.

Republican affinity for Trump strengthened when the possibility of an indictment came into sharp focus this month.

In a Fox News poll released Wednesday, more than a week after Trump predicted he would be arrested, he led DeSantis 54% to 24% in a multicandidate field, a gap that had doubled since a similar survey in February.

That raises the very real prospect that Trump could be defending himself as he takes a major-party nomination. Winning a nomination from a prison cell would put another line on Trump’s growing list of firsts.

There is no precedent for that, either — at least not in the U.S.

It isn’t uncommon around the world for former or current political leaders — some of them in countries that respect the rule of law — to face criminal charges. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former and current prime minister of Israel, is on trial in connection with allegations of bribery.

But whatever happens, whether Trump wins or loses in court and in the political arena, his next chapter promises to rewrite American history again. That's how he likes it: unprecedented.