Democracies Have a History of Prosecuting Their Presidents

With former president Donald Trump‘s impending arrest on Tuesday, the United States will enter a tumultuous chapter without precedent in the nation’s history.

While presidents have been impeached, none have ever been charged with a crime, much less run for president while fighting those charges. Fewer still—barring figures like Grover Cleveland—have been favorites to become their party’s nominee for president, leaving the U.S. electorate in uncharted waters entering the 2024 election season.

“There is nothing even remotely like this in American history,” presidential historian Mark Updegrove told ABC News Thursday night.

Many allies of the former president said a move to indict Trump was indicative of the country sliding into becoming a “banana republic,” a pejorative term for politically and economically unstable countries whose existence is centered on maintaining power for an elite and privileged few.

“For it to be the first prosecution of former president and the first prosecution of a man who’s running for president against an incumbent Democrat, being indicted by a Democrat…on a case of thin as this…it’s Banana Republic time,” Alan Dershowitz, an occasional ally of Trump and a professor at Harvard Law School said in an interview on right-wing network Newsmax Thursday night.

Trump’s arrest might be new for the U.S. But in democracies across the rest of the world, the arrest of former political leaders is more commonplace than one might think.

Presidents Who Have Been Indicted


In 2021, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, received a one-year sentence of house arrest after falsifying invoices on his failed 2012 campaign for president, allowing him to exceed campaign finance limits.


In Israel, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces potential corruption charges at a time he is actively working to alter the makeup of the nation’s court system. If charged and convicted, he would become the third Israeli leader to weather such penalties in a dozen years, potentially joining former president Moshe Katsav (convicted of rape charges) and Ehud Olmert (convicted of bribery.)

Indicted Leaders
From L-R: President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. All were indicted and later charged with crimes related to corruption cases that occurred during their administrations.
Andressa Anholete/Teresa Suarez/Chung Sung-Jun/Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images


And in Brazil, two former presidents—Michel Temer and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva—were charged with crimes and subsequently sentenced, with the latter’s case being thrown out after it was revealed the judge in the case was politically corrupt.

All of those sentences were handed down in established democracies. And even in flawed instances like in Brazil, those democracies survived.

“I think indicting or convicting former leaders is absolutely normal, and that Americans seem to think it’s such a big deal is another case of ‘American exceptionalism’ run amok,” Filipe Campante, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in Brazil’s politics, told Newsweek.

In South America, the examples are numerous, though many fall well out of line with the realities of American politics.


In Peru, former presidents Alejandro Toledo and Alan García were both indicted for different crimes with varying results. (The U.S. is currently weighing Toledo’s extradition, while García committed suicide when the police showed up at his house with an arrest warrant.)


In Bolivia, divisive former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada faced charges amid a scandal involving gas exports, inciting riots that prompted his resignation following a subsequent military response that left 68 dead and more than 400 injured. (His extradition was later rejected by the United States.)

Brazilian Similarities

A better example of what could occur in the United States, Cornell University’s Associate Vice Provost for International Affairs Gustavo Flores-Macías told Newsweek, might be better seen in what occurred in the political prosecution of former President Lula on corruption charges, who replaced former right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro in the country’s elections earlier this year.

While corruption is rampant in Brazilian politics, Flores-Macías said, the country also relies on a large federal court system where prosecutors continue to enjoy a wide degree of independence. And though the charges against Lula were pressed in the context of a major corruption scandal related to Brazilian infrastructure behemoth Odebrecht and its bribing of government officials, Lula was also immensely popular within the country, with a large base of supporters who protested his arrest.

That fact did not deter prosecutors, however, and Lula was ultimately sentenced to jail.

In the end, the Supreme Court ultimately annulled Lula’s conviction not because he wasn’t guilty, but due to a technicality related to jurisdiction in Brazil’s federal system: the court that sentenced him, said Flores-Macías, was in the city of Curitiba in the state of Paraná, whereas he should have been tried in the country’s capital, Brasília, where Lula lived when he was president.

The case was not retried, Flores-Macías added, but Lula received a major political boost from the visibility and martyrdom that resulted from serving time in prison. In 2021, the charges were later annulled after it was found the judge in the case was biased against him and, soon after, narrowly unseated Bolsonaro in the country’s 2022 elections.

Trump’s arrest, Flores-Macías opined, could result in a similar boost entering the 2024 election cycle.

“These and other examples from Latin America suggest that, regardless of whether the legal charges have merit, indicting a former president that could be a leading contender in the next election tends to boost that person’s popularity,” said Flores-Macías. “These experiences can serve as a guide for what to expect with former president Trump in the U.S. context.”

Protestors gather in front of Trump Tower in New York on March 31, 2023. – A New York grand jury has voted to indict former US president Donald Trump over hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election, multiple US media reported on March 30, 2023.
Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Upsides For Trump

Cynically speaking, Trump’s arrest could be the boost he needs to be competitive against President Joe Biden in a hypothetical 2024 campaign most polls show him likely to lose.

Even facing the alleged crime of falsifying business records to silence former adult film star Stormy Daniels in the middle of a contentious 2016 election season (as well as likely penalties for threatening the prosecutor bringing the charges), Trump remains the de facto leader of a major political party and arguably remains at the height of his power.

Rivals within his party like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and former Vice President Mike Pence remain reluctant to challenge him even as they mull their own campaigns for president, while those who have—figures like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—have been thrown aside as relics of a party that vanished with Trump’s rise to prominence.

Even though the case against Trump was in motion well before he took office, the person bringing the charges—Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg—won his seat on a progressive criminal justice platform that contrasted sharply with Trump’s, and oversees the administration of the justice system in one of the most liberal pockets of the United States.

Bragg also boasts ties to a number of galvanizing figures on the left, including liberal megadonor George Soros, that have earned him threats from Trump’s supporters and even the former president himself, who has characterized Bragg’s efforts to bring charges as a political “witch hunt.”

“We will wake up in a very different America tomorrow because can no longer have moral authority against the dictators and despots who have always found it easier to jail their political rivals than to compete against them in free and fair elections,” pro-Trump Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz said on Fox News Friday.

Polls show a large swath of America feels similarly: A Quinnipiac University survey from earlier this week found that 62 percent of respondents said the grand jury inquiry into Trump’s alleged hush money payments had been “mainly motivated by politics,” far outweighing the 32 percent who believe the probe was “mainly motivated by the law.”

A Vicious Cycle

While early, there are lessons to be learned from countries like South Korea, whose political history has long been marred by a high degree of polarization and corrupt business-government relations.

In 2018, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in jail after a court found her guilty of 16 separate charges of abuse of power and coercion in a sweeping anti-corruption case. While she was later pardoned for those crimes, her arrest was just part of a long legacy of leaders being arrested, their opponents replacing them, and then their opponents arresting them out of retribution.

After the 1979 assassination of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee (Park Geun-hye’s father) his successor, unelected strongman-turned Democratically elected president Chun Doo-hwan, was arrested after leaving office, as was his successor Roh Tae-woo.

While Roh’s successor, Kim Young-sam, was not arrested (his successor Kim Dae-jung intentionally tried to break the cycle), his son was, keeping a trend of former presidents and their families facing criminal charges immediately after office that has only recently been put on hold.

“Given this history, there may be a tendency for South Koreans to see the Trump situation as in keeping with their own politics: corruption, followed by arrest by the opposing party after leaving office,” Marcus Noland, executive vice president and director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Newsweek.

Such a cycle is already being hinted at in the airs of American politics, particularly with Republican threats to pursue legal charges against President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, for alleged improper business dealings dating back to the 2020 election cycle.

“I want to see Hillary in handcuffs. I want to see Joe Biden in handcuffs. I want to see Hunter Biden in handcuffs. I want to see Barack Obama in handcuffs,” tweeted Students for Trump founder Ryan Fournier after news of the indictment. “This is the reality. You morons opened a door of opportunity and I’m going to lobby every R prosecutor in the country.”

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