OPINION: Donald Trump’s prosecution is a lot bigger than Trump

Second of two columns. Read part one here.

I refuse to root for the prosecutors against Donald Trump, even though I think he is a moral degenerate and a threat to democracy.

Saving our system of justice is even more important than getting rid of Trump, because without respect for the rule of law, democracy cannot exist. The alternative is chaos or dictatorship.

We’re at a perilous stage with denunciations of the courts and law enforcement coming from Trump’s Republican followers. For his opponents, cheering his prosecutors as if this is a football game also adopts Trump’s worldview and degrades our democratic system.

Sen. Dan Sullivan recently said on social media that Trump’s New York hush money trial was like Josef Stalin’s communist show trials in the 1930s. In Stalin’s trials, everyone in the courtroom knew they would be killed if they didn’t do what Stalin wanted. Defendants had the choice to falsely confess to imaginary crimes or have their families killed. If they confessed, only the defendant would be killed.

I doubt Sullivan believes his hyperbole — he knows New York criminal court isn’t a Stalinist show trial — but that doesn’t make his statement any less damaging. Discrediting the courts is a dangerous game. Without the public’s belief in the justice system, our system of government cannot stand.

Compare this to Sen. Ted Stevens’ attitude. In my last column, I presented evidence that he was falsely accused and prosecutors cheated to get a guilty verdict. Stevens was shunned by his colleagues and rejected by voters after an extraordinary 40-year career in the Senate. Yet he never turned against the courts or called his trial a sham. Even as he gave his final speech in the Senate, he insisted the system would eventually exonerate him. And it did.


[Let’s set the record straight: Ted Stevens was framed.]

Stevens was a true patriot. He surely knew the courts are imperfect and make mistakes. But he knew more deeply that our democracy has survived and thrived into its third century because our citizens voluntarily accept the authority of the courts and the finality of elections, even when the other side wins. Without that, democracy would dissolve into political violence.

Trump calls any investigation of himself a witch hunt, any news coverage he doesn’t like is fake, any legal proceeding against him is unfair, and any election he doesn’t win is stolen — even before the voting starts, he says that if he loses, that means it was stolen. Presumably, the 60 courts that confirmed his 2020 election loss were all crooked.

The violence part fits, too. Trump wanted police and troops to shoot social justice protestors in 2020, but after his supporters attacked police and the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn the election, he called them patriots and hostages. I don’t think anyone should attack the police, and political violence in a democracy is always wrong.

Some liberals, moderates and traditional conservatives want Trump gone by any means necessary. But the means are the point. If journalists and prosecutors give up their integrity in the name of getting rid of Trump, he succeeds in debasing both sides, and we come closer to losing our democratic institutions.

So what do I think of these prosecutions, if I exclude my desire to get rid of Trump?

In the Stormy Daniels hush money case, the facts are solid, but what they mean legally is not. The prosecutor is bringing a unique case based on a complicated and untried legal theory. That by itself suggests a political motive.

Trump obviously falsified business records to conceal hush-money payments to Daniels. But that was a felony only if he was covering up a crime, which would depend on the interpretation of election laws and proof that breaking those laws was his purpose rather than just avoiding embarrassment and damage to his marriage. I trust the court to figure that out, but I’m not rooting for the prosecutor. Felonies shouldn’t be based on one-off theories cooked up for a special occasion.

In Georgia, Trump clearly tried to overturn the election and steal the choice of the voters. We have him on tape. The system held up and he failed. I don’t know enough about the law or the facts to judge the validity of the criminal case against him, but the district attorney, Fani Willis, disgraced herself and refused to let someone else take over. I’m not rooting for her. Her poor judgment and loss of dignity destroyed the prosecution’s credibility.

Federal Special Counsel Jack Smith has behaved properly and brought two cases that show no evident political bias.

The felony charges against Trump for mishandling classified documents are powerful, well supported and straightforward. Anyone guilty of the egregious conduct alleged against Trump would be prosecuted and should, if convicted, go to jail. Careless treatment of our country’s most guarded secrets endangers our national security.

Smith’s charges against Trump for trying to overturn the election are also unique and untested — but that’s because no one has ever before tried to overturn a U.S. presidential election by illegal means. New uses of the law are unpredictable, but these charges do need to be sorted out to clarify the rules in presidential politics.

But Smith’s efforts won’t matter if Trump is elected, because he can pardon himself for federal crimes. He surely would do so, and would pardon anyone else who broke the law to help him hold onto power. He sent that message when he pardoned Roger Stone, who had been convicted of committing perjury to protect Trump.

It seems the founders didn’t foresee a man like Trump when they wrote the Constitution. They also assumed honorable people would be senators, unlike those who voted against Trump’s impeachment for his attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Constitution protects democracy through an ingenious system of checks and balances, spreading power to people in many roles so they can stop wrongdoing or extreme acts by any individual officeholder. But the Constitution assumes the loyalty of elected officials and citizens to uphold the system it creates.

We’re at a point of crisis because Trump and too many of his supporters have abandoned that loyalty. The rest of us must not do the same. We cannot save these institutions by disregarding them.

Think about what Ted Stevens would do.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.