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A historic and unprecedented moment: Where Trump’s conviction fits in history

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the first time in history, a former president of the United States has been convicted on criminal charges. Donald Trump has been found guilty of falsifying business records to influence the 2016 election. It is a historic verdict, and that is why we are now going to bring in Tim Naftali. He's a historian and was director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TIM NAFTALI: Thank you, Ailsa - my pleasure.

CHANG: So, yeah, these words - historic, unprecedented - I mean, we've been using these words over and over in relation to Donald Trump, especially in the last few weeks as this trial has played out. But this moment - can we just take stock? Like, what does this moment mean to you in the longer arc of U.S. presidential history?

NAFTALI: Well, this is a striking moment for two reasons. One, it's a demonstration of the power and strength of our judicial system that someone as powerful as a former president of the United States could be, first of all, indicted and then found guilty by 12 of his peers. It also, though, has a powerful meaning. And that's that we have now running in a presidential election someone who could win who is now a convicted felon. In 1920, Eugene V. Debs ran for president of the United States from a jail cell in Atlanta. But he was not a major party candidate. He ultimately got about a million votes, but he wasn't going to win. Warren G. Harding won that election.

But we are facing the prospect now that, in November, the winner of this election could be a convicted felon. And that puts us in a category I don't think we've ever wanted to be in. And that's the category of countries where powerful men seek public office in order to escape the consequences of their crimes. This is something that the United States has never had to face before. But there are sorry, sad examples of what can happen in other countries where this has happened before.

One of the things I worry about is that we will see a torrent of poison even worse than we saw during the Stop the Steal campaign as President Trump will force other Republicans who are running for office to trash our judicial system. We are going to hear about our judicial system things that, first of all, aren't true but, secondly, things that will undermine people's trust in our system. And it could have lasting consequences.

CHANG: What do you think? Whether or not Donald Trump becomes president again, what do you think this conviction on 34 counts means to the office of the president going forward? Does it damage it irreparably?

NAFTALI: It will damage it - well, countries evolve. This country survived a civil war. So I'm always careful about things - saying that things are irreparable. But it could take generations. If President Trump is reelected, I think the damage will be there for a long time. I think the verdict - that verdict will be decided by the American people in November. If a convicted felon with three other indictments still hanging over his head is returned to office as our head of state and commander in chief, then our institutions and all of us are in for a very rough ride.

CHANG: Well, we only have about 30 seconds left. But I do want to look outside of the United States. I mean, we're talking about the office of the presidency. But what does it mean for America's global standing to now have a former president convicted on criminal charges?

NAFTALI: It sends a signal that, in this country, should he be reelected, corruption is king, and the king is corrupt. If Donald Trump doesn't win in November, it's a sign that our institutions are strong and that the powerful can be found guilty.

CHANG: That is historian Timothy Naftali. Thank you so much for joining us today.

NAFTALI: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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