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Friday, June 7, 2024

When a 20th-Century US President Prosecuted His Political Opponent

While it’s true that presidents should not be “above the law,” neither should they be targeted for political purposes.

Image Credit: Washington Area Spark - Flickr | CC BY-NC 4.0

In June 1918, near the end of World War I, the Socialist Party of America’s presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, delivered a scathing antiwar speech to a crowd in Canton, Ohio.

Debs knew that he had to be careful in how he phrased his remarks, noting ironically that “it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world,” a reference to the Espionage Act that had been signed by President Woodrow Wilson the previous year, which made it a crime to criticize the draft.

Though Debs called the idea that America was fighting to make the world safe for democracy “rot” and “humbug,” the word draft appeared nowhere in the speech.

Nevertheless, Debs was arrested and charged with 10 counts of sedition. He was eventually found guilty of incitement and obstruction, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. (Wilson had a knack for imprisoning his political opponents.)

The conviction of Debs, whose sentence was later commuted by President Warren Harding, received attention in 2016 after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump threatened to put political opponent Hillary Clinton “in jail” if he was elected president, citing her use of an unauthorized personal email system while she was secretary of state.

“We don’t jail our political foes here like in tin-pot, third-world banana republics or dictatorships,” Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn said.

Though he went on to win the election, Trump’s threats to jail Clinton, fortunately, proved idle.

“I think it would be very, very divisive for the country,” Trump told reporters after securing victory.

Trump’s decision not to follow through on his threat was prudent, even though the FBI had concluded in 2016 that Clinton had been “extremely reckless” in her handling of classified materials and didn’t rule out that laws “governing the handling of classified information” may have been broken.

One of the things that has made America unique is that those in power, since the Debs conviction, have largely refrained from using the immense power of the state to target political opponents and former presidents.

At least, they had.

Last week, Trump was convicted on 34 counts in a New York courtroom, making him the first former president to be tried and convicted of crimes.

The case stemmed from “misclassified” hush money that Trump’s lawyer sent to porn star Stormy Daniels in a move that the prosecution said was designed to boost his 2016 electoral prospects.

The verdict brought an orgy of celebration from those who despise Trump, who point out that “nobody is above the law.”

This axiom is of course true, but it neglects important context, including the fact that just two years ago, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign agreed to pay a $113,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission for “misreporting” spending on research supporting the Steele dossier.

The dark truth is that Trump’s conviction is part of a larger campaign by his enemies to use the legal system to destroy him. As readers likely know, Trump is also facing federal charges in South Florida; Washington, D.C.; and Fulton County, Georgia.

Elie Honig, a former prosecutor and CNN legal commentator, noted in a New York magazine article the “legal contortions” District Attorney Alvin Bragg used to convict Trump:

“The charges against Trump are obscure, and nearly entirely unprecedented. In fact, no state prosecutor … has ever charged federal election laws as a direct or predicate state crime, against anyone, for anything. None. Ever.”

While it’s true that presidents should not be “above the law,” neither should they be targeted for political purposes.

Yet Bragg openly campaigned on his ability to take down Trump, bragging that he had “sued Trump over 100 times.” (So did New York Attorney General Letitia James.) 

This is not truth, justice, and the American way. It’s closer to the Bolshevik idea of “justice.” 

“Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime,” Lavrentiy Beria, the minister of internal affairs of the Soviet Union, famously said.

Many argue that Trump’s conviction will almost certainly be overturned on appeal, and they might be right. But this should not overshadow the damage Trump’s political opponents are doing to the American system.

We’re witnessing in real time a perversion of the law that, instead of being used to protect life, liberty, and property, is being used to destroy a former president, and current front-runner, months before a presidential election.

Indeed, just days before the verdict was announced, President Joe Biden’s campaign visited the courthouse in the borough of Manhattan where Trump was being prosecuted to hold an event.

While recent headlines were all about Trump, history is likely to remember it as the day the president of the United States oversaw, for the first time, the prosecution of a former president.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.