Commentary: Unlike other democracies, the US is leery of prosecuting former presidents

NEW YORK: If Monday’s FBI search at Donald Trump’s Florida home leads to the prosecution of the former president, as supporters fear and detractors hope, then citizens of democracies everywhere might ask Americans, “What kept you?”

The US has been a laggard in an important measure of freedom: Holding former leaders accountable to the law. From Brazil, France and South Africa to Israel, the Philippines and South Korea, many of the world’s major democracies have tried – and frequently, convicted – former presidents and prime ministers, mostly for crimes committed, covered up or both when they were in power.

The list of those brought to justice includes such prominent figures as Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer of Brazil, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.  

The closest a US president came to joining the list was over Watergate, but Richard Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, before he faced a day in court.

Ford’s explanation, that Americans “would needlessly be diverted from meeting (our) challenges if we as a people were to remain sharply divided” over prosecuting Nixon, has been invoked by those seeking to draw a curtain of charity across misdeeds by subsequent occupants of the White House, notably Bill Clinton, George W Bush and, of course, Trump.  

And this isn’t just a matter of partisan politics. Americans as a whole are leery of prosecuting former presidents.

In a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, barely half of all respondents said Trump should face criminal charges – and only 28 per cent felt he would – for his role in the Jan 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.