Donald Trump and his supporters have been dreaming of the former president’s return to Washington. This was not what they had imagined.
Instead of strutting gleefully and victoriously back to the White House, his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden expunged and his power reinstated, Trump sat in a District of Columbia courtroom, accused of crimes that could put him in far less opulent government housing, if he is convicted.
He wasn’t “Mr. President” or “sir,” as Trump describes people calling him. Instead, Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya called him “Mr. Trump.” No one stood for the former commander-in-chief. Instead, Trump stood for his arraignment, as defendants typically do.
He didn’t hold court, as he often does at his rallies and in speeches. Instead, he spoke little, saying “yes” when the judge asked him whether he understood his rights after being charged with crimes connected to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol.
Several police officers who defended the Capitol that day watched from an overflow room at the federal courthouse.
Facing his third set of criminal indictments – and his first for behavior while he was president – Trump was given a very undignified directive by the judge: Don’t commit a crime or try to sway a juror.
And when he left the courthouse, Trump couldn’t help but take a shot at the city that greeted him Thursday not as president, but as another criminal defendant.
“It was also very sad driving through Washington, D.C., and seeing the filth and the decay and all of the broken buildings and walls and the graffiti,” Trump told reporters at the airport as he left for home. “This is not the place that I left. It’s a very sad thing to see it when you look at what’s happening.”
The White House, meanwhile, continued in an almost studied and somewhat boring normality. Biden, on vacation in Delaware, went on a bike ride and remained mum on the historic indictment of his likely general election opponent.
Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Wisconsin to talk about “Bidenomics” and increase access to broadband technology. Without a hint of irony, Biden released a statement of the “grave challenge” to democracy – in Niger, where the democratically elected head of state is under house arrest subsequent to an apparent coup.
As Trump grappled with his own fate and uncertain future freedom, so did America. The arraignment – delighting Trump critics who have been waiting impatiently for the former president to be held accountable by the criminal justice system and horrifying Trump acolytes who see him as a victim of that very vaunted system – punctuated the critical moment in the country’s democracy.
A nation that has long lectured other countries about free and fair elections and the rule of law hosted a display that tests whether the United States upholds those values at home.
“The American experience is having one of its greatest tests,” says Adrian Fontes, the Arizona secretary of state who himself defeated an election denier for the post in 2022 and has fought discredited arguments that the 2020 election in Arizona was fraudulent.
“This is the ultimate test for democracy: Does the rule of law apply equally to all in this country, including a former head of state? Or are there to be separate systems of justice?” adds Fontes, a Democrat, underscoring that equal justice also means Trump’s legal rights are protected during the entire process.
The very holding of the proceedings were held up as proof that no American – even Trump, arraigned Thursday like any accused common criminal – is above the law. But they also showed that the process – even if it ends in a conviction – may not stop Trump or dissuade his devoted supporters.
The former president and his attorneys, notably, have not directly challenged the basic facts of the cases against him. Instead, they have said Trump had every right to do what he did, either because he was fighting for what he thought was rightfully his or because he was acting on the advice of his lawyers.
What distinguishes this moment from those in other countries, which have experienced coups or government overthrows, says Archon Fung, director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Everyone sees that for what it is,” Fung says of un-democratic actions in other countries. “Here, Americans are just really, really divided on the facts of what happened in 2020, and suspicious of what will happen in 2024,” Fung adds, pointing to polls showing that majorities of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, notes that the Watergate hearings were going on during this week a half-century ago.
“Nixon resigned from office” the following year, Gerhardt notes. “Nobody was above the law, and Nixon had to be held accountable for his misconduct. Fifty years later, it looks like we’re not in the same place. Half the public seems to think Trump can do no wrong.”
While the nation waits and watches at home, awaiting what is certain to be a painful exercise of criminal justice, the rest of the world is also looking to see how the United States will come out of it all.
“We look like bozos to the rest of the world,” says Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West, author of the book “Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era.”
“It could be a great success story if the rule of law guides the decision here and there is accountability. But there could also be a terrible decision, where Trump could win the election and people around the world ask, ‘What the heck has happened to American democracy?'” West adds.
Europeans are already wary of developments in the United States – not only because of the Trump drama, but inequality, gun violence and other issues on which Europe has criticized America, says Jeff Hawkins, a veteran former American diplomat who is now a Paris-based commentator and researcher.
But the prosecution of Trump on charges related to America’s very democratic system of government is especially jarring.
“The Transatlantic Alliance is based on shared democratic values. When our democracy trembles, Europe shakes too,” Hawkins says.
“If our commitment to those values is questioned, that’s huge. And I don’t think the narrative on any eventual Trump convictions will be, ‘Oh, American democratic institutions have reasserted themselves.’ Instead, I think the situation is viewed with a great deal of consternation,” he adds.
“Europeans would be devastated if Americans jumped the constitutional rails. But they are also tired of the drama and have taken a lot of emotional distance.”
Gerhardt likens the situation to Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu, formally charged with bribery and fraud, returned to the post of prime minister and successfully urged the Israeli Knesset to weaken the judiciary.
The vote by Israel’s legislative body gives Netanyahu far more power and, critics say, moves the democratic country toward a more authoritarian state.
“That’s where we might be headed,” Gerhardt says.
Trump indeed could win election to a second term, despite the fact that he faces a combined 78 felony counts – including charges he conspired to deprive Americans of their right to cast a free and fair vote.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Thursday found that 35% of Republicans said they would vote for Trump even if he is convicted of a felony.
Trump has been fundraising off of his indictments, and he has repeatedly gotten a boost both in cash donations and polling numbers when charges have been filed against him.
The most important thing now, Fontes says, is to ensure a fair legal process and fair elections – no matter who the defendant or candidate is.
“Our processes and our system are bigger than any one” person or indictment, Fontes says. “They’re going to get pressured. It is a fragile process and it is a fragile state. I trust the process. I trust our institutions.”