Another fateful moment in the storied career of Donald J Trump will take place today when the 45th president of the US becomes the country’s first head of state to be arraigned on criminal charges.
The limelight will be firmly back on Mr Trump as he travels from Florida to New York – his home town – to be formally charged over an alleged scheme to cover up a sexual encounter with an adult film star in 2006. Mr Trump denies the affair and any involvement in hush-money payments.
It is quite a moment for the businessman-turned-media-celebrity-turned-president, who himself used to sit in judgment of others in his role as host of The Apprentice. The former New Yorker once boasted that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose voters. Now, his future will be fought out in a Manhattan court.
The case and its famous defendant present some serious challenges. Mr Trump’s celebrity and previous job as arguably the most powerful man in the world should not prevent him from having a fair trial. Although the fierce polarisation that has gripped US politics and society for the past few years may lead many into making their minds up about his guilt or innocence before the trial even begins, Mr Trump, as a private citizen, has the right to due process.
It will be up to those outside the court – Mr Trump’s supporters and opponents, legal figures, politicians, commentators and the media – to be measured in their reactions, and help prevent the high-profile trial from turning into something resembling a TV reality show or a re-run of former political battles.
Sadly, that sense of responsibility has been strikingly absent in recent years. The violence, looting and vandalism carried out by hundreds of Mr Trump’s supporters when they stormed the US Capitol in January 2021 showed there was a section of the former president’s base for whom the legal process was a trifle to be thrown away when their leader was thought to be in jeopardy.
Mr Trump has his role to play in this, too. Intemperate comments from the former president could whip up some of his supporters to an alarming degree. Given that a major part of Mr Trump’s appeal to his base is his willingness to be transgressive and to say the unsayable, it is difficult to imagine that he will change that approach now.
This is not America’s first high-profile case – the trials of Bill Clinton and OJ Simpson had millions of people glued to their TV sets – but what follows next will be an important test for the US judicial system. It is important that America, as a leading global power, show that the criminal trial of a famous figure – even a former president – can be conducted with impartiality, fairness and transparency. Mr Trump’s latest – and possibly most serious – legal fight will be an important test of the country’s legal system, the likes of which it has not experienced before.