We can draw an interesting comparison between two politicians currently concerned that the long arm of the law may catch up to them upon leaving the sanctuary of the presidency. One has little to worry about. As an autocrat, he can manipulate both the people and the legislature to his benefit. I refer to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Putin has been very busy ensuring he is never prosecuted for his crimes. For example, he recently signed legislation granting former presidents of Russia lifetime immunity once they leave office. Immunity is granted for both presidents and their families and not only for crimes committed when they were in office but for crimes committed any time during their lifetimes. A former president can only be stripped of immunity if accused of treason or other grave crimes and the charges are confirmed by the supreme and constitutional courts.

The legislation is part of a package of constitutional amendments approved by referendum this summer that include allowing Putin to remain president until 2036.

Donald Trump can only look with envy upon his friend’s exploitation of autocracy. After all, he too is a crook and potentially faces prosecution for crimes both before and after he took office. The Manhattan district attorney is investigating his business dealings for “extensive and protracted criminal conduct,” including possible bank fraud. His former lawyer has been convicted of campaign finance violations and hinted his client was the mastermind. And then there’s the matters of obstruction of justice and tax evasion, to say nothing of sexual assault.

Trump has been shielded from legal jeopardy by a Justice Department memo that rules out criminal prosecution of a sitting president, but he’s about to be booted out of his sanctuary. So will he now face the music? Unlike Putin, he enjoys no autocracy. The U.S. is a democracy and in democracies the rule of law prevails, and the rule says all are equal under the law, the lord and the peasant all the same. 

However, in the U.S. it’s not that simple. There is a great reluctance to prosecute a former American president. Indeed, no former president has ever been indicted for criminal conduct. There seems to be a general desire in the country for a civil and peaceful transition of power, best assured by post-term immunity.

Not that there haven’t been a few crooks. In recent years, we’ve seen Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton receive get out of jail free cards despite criminal, if not outright unconstitutional, behaviour while in office. Nonetheless, their successors preferred to take the high road of magnanimity rather than appear vindictive and suffer the distractions of lengthly prosecutions. Joe Biden has expressed sympathy with the tradition.

At a time when the country is particularly divided, and Trump has a large and rabid following, prosecution could indeed be messy. But fear of the mob should hardly be a deterrent to upholding the law.

Trump has exceeded the corruption of any of his predecessors. He is unique. Aside from his crimes, he has consistently undermined the country’s values and institutions. If he is given a pass, the message will be clear—a sitting president has carte blanche to do whatever he pleases short of capital murder. It will invite future presidents to indulge in even more egregious crimes.

Writing in The Atlantic, Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior counsel in the investigation of Bill Clinton, suggests prosecuting only those crimes Trump committed before he was elected (and may still be committing). That alone would keep prosecutors busy and might allow the federal administration to pass the buck to the State of New York. It would still, of course, send the wrong message about crimes in high office.

And then there’s that pesky rule of law, something that Trump has already violated with his pardons. Those of us at the bottom know we will be held accountable should we commit crimes; it’s holding those at the top accountable for theirs that gives meaning to the rule. That is the soul of the rule of law.

Do Americans really intend to offer their corrupt president the same perk as the autocrat Putin? What would that say about American values?

Americans once had a king but they baulked at arbitrary rule and got rid of him. Now they are edging toward replacing the divine right of kings with the divine right of presidents. If they let Trump walk, they will be coming full circle.

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