In this Thursday, March 30, 2017 file photo, South Korea's ousted leader Park Geun-hye, center, arrives at the Seoul Central District Court for hearing on a prosecutors' request for her arrest.
( Ahn Young-joon, Pool
ILYA MARRITZ From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Ilya Marritz. You might have heard me as a guest on this show a few months ago talking with Brooke about the podcast series I hosted with Andrea Bernstein called Will Be Wild, all about the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Before that, I worked at WNYC co-hosting another podcast with Andrea called Trump Inc, in which we and journalists from ProPublica investigated the former president's business dealings. So when the producers asked me if there were any stories I had in mind for this week's show, I pitched a Trump story.
NEWS REPORT And we begin this hour with the latest fallout from the FBI's execution of a search warrant at former President Trump's Mar a Lago home.
NEWS REPORT Justice Department officials say government documents were, quote, likely concealed and removed from a storage closet in an effort to obstruct their investigation into the former president.
NEWS REPORT The Washington Post reports that some of the classified material seized included nuclear intelligence on a foreign government. [END CLIP]
ILYA MARRITZ Well, sort of a Trump story after Mar a Lago was searched in August. The US Department of Justice started presenting evidence, lots of it, of potential crimes around what it said was the mishandling of sensitive government documents. Trump denies any wrongdoing, but for the first time, we're seeing the clear outlines of a possible case against the former president. And with it, an old idea has resurfaced. Adapted for the present zeitgeist. America does not prosecute its presidents.
NEWS REPORT We shouldn't desire that an Ex-President be prosecuted. This would result in crisis no matter what.
NEWS REPORT Is a DOJ prosecution of a former president worth the risk of the extreme response that could result from Republicans and Trump supporters?
NEWS REPORT Ron DeSantis, the governor, tweeting this out in response. The raid on Mar a Lago, another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime's political opponents. [END CLIP]
ILYA MARRITZ DeSantis also tweeted Banana Republic. Perhaps or, maybe not. Seeking accountability for ex-presidents is just another form of American exceptionalism. Consider this according to a study by political scientist John Tours, over roughly the last 50 years, there were 243 indictments of current and former world leaders by their own governments. Many of those countries were not banana republics. They were democracies. James D. Long is an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. He coauthored an article for the online journal The Conversation titled Prosecuting a President Is Divisive and Sometimes Destabilizing. Here's why many countries do it anyway. James, welcome to the show.
JAMES D. LONG Thank you.
ILYA MARRITZ Let's start with France. Two former presidents there have been charged with crimes. One of them, Nicolas Sarkozy, was investigated in 2014.
NEWS REPORT Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, has been found guilty in a corruption and influence peddling trial here in Paris. [END CLIP]
ILYA MARRITZ He was tried twice on a variety of different charges. What's been the effect on the cohesion of the country as a democracy?
JAMES D. LONG Democracy is as stable in France, probably as stable as it was before the allegations against Sarkozy. And there's no indication that the investigation against him and its prosecution and even, you know, being found guilty is going to destabilize democracy at the system level.
ILYA MARRITZ How about South Korea?
NEWS REPORT Today, a court in Seoul will deliver its verdict on the disgraced former president Park Geun-hye over the massive corruption and power abuse scandal that led to her ouster last year. [END CLIP]
ILYA MARRITZ Five former leaders have been charged with crimes there since the 1990's. That's an extraordinary number.
JAMES D. LONG You'd think that that would really lead people to not believe in democracy or want to try something else or just think that democracies are hopelessly corrupt. And there's no way around that, but South Korea has actually survived it very well and continues to be a democracy. And in the most recent leaders that it's had have not been investigated for corruption. So you could say actually going after former leaders had a deterrent effect. And rather than lead to disaffection or disengagement among the public, what it actually led to were leaders that were less likely to commit crimes or corrupt acts going forward.
ILYA MARRITZ Let's talk about Brazil. Tell me about the case of the former president there, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. He was jailed in 2018 for accepting bribes. Now he is a leading contender for president of Brazil.
JAMES D. LONG Yeah, I believe his conviction was overturned by the courts. One of the things you could say is, unlike South Korea, where prosecuting leaders really showed the ability for the rule of law and the judiciary to flex its muscle and keep legislators and executives in control. I think what's happening in Brazil is the investigations revealed so much corruption that then that tainted as well the prosecutors and the judges that were involved, and then they were seen as also playing a lot of political games simply in terms of the prosecutions. And that it's led to this sort of cycling of when a certain type of judge is in power, a certain president. You know, the light is shine on them, then it's somebody else and it's somebody else. And everyone's kind of been tainted by it. And now you can sort of imagine Lula da Silva, who just a few years ago it seemed like, you know, he didn't have a future in politics, he was in jail, is now the leading contender to be elected president again.
And so, you know, Brazilians probably either believe that there's going to be allegations of corruption against every elected official and public official, no matter what, no matter whether it's true or they really are all corrupt. And that's what's true. And so they look the same to the common person just looking at the situation. But they could reveal two different things about a political system.
ILYA MARRITZ Now, there are a number of countries that have taken kind of the opposite of the Brazilian approach and basically said, for the sake of continuity and stability, we're not going to do prosecutions. Mexico for many years was one of those where one party dominated politics and presidents were not charged with crimes. That's changed a little bit recently. Also, South Africa, when they transitioned away from apartheid, kind of prioritized continuity and stability over accountability or justice.
JAMES D. LONG One of the distinguishing features that we want to make on our piece is precisely this question of older democracies like France and South Korea and the United States that have had a robust judiciaries and procedures around, you know, prosecutions for many, many years versus those that are just beginning to democratize or at those early stages, because you can imagine the human rights abuses and all of the corruption that goes around a dictator. If they were to democratize, they reasonably fear that that new system is going to prosecute them for their previous crimes. So social science evidence shows that actually it is better for the long term prospects of democratization to not have overzealous prosecutions in that transition moment, and rather to allow there to be, for lack of a better word, some level of impunity or forgiveness, depending on how you look at it.
ILYA MARRITZ And I should say that former South African President Jacob Zuma is expected to be tried for money laundering next year. So maybe that's a sign that South Africa's democracy has matured to the point where a trial like that would not be massively disruptive to the body politic.
JAMES D. LONG The judiciary is famously independent in South Africa. They have definitely not just rolled over for Zuma up until this point, and they've tried to exercise a lot of independence from the other branches of government. And I do think that regardless of what you think about the specifics of the allegations against Zuma, the way the process is playing itself out does suggest that only 25 years later, South Africa is showing a lot of democratic muscle in its ability to competently investigate and potentially prosecute an ex-leader.
ILYA MARRITZ What surprised you when you started looking at all these other democracies that have tried their leaders?
JAMES D. LONG Well, I think one thing that did surprise me, or I didn't realize it until we sort of put two and two together, which is how common it is now. And I think the fact that it's happening in young and old democracies, it's happening in African and Asian and European and Latin American democracies, I think is a good thing because it sets a demonstration effect and says that this is the type of thing that countries with democracy as new as South Africa can pursue, as well as democracies that are older like France. It's good in a democracy to occasionally kick the tires and try to figure out, okay, well, where are their weaknesses? What's funny is, on the one hand, as social scientists, we want to be able to draw conclusions around a whole series of cases and kind of come up with some general lessons at the same time that each one of these individual politicians and the political institutions in which they operate and the legal frameworks that shape how they might be investigated are really distinct and contextually important. And so it can often be hard then to draw conclusions between these cases other than to say, look, these two countries have both prosecuted former leaders.
ILYA MARRITZ James, thank you so much for joining us.
JAMES D. LONG Thank you.
ILYA MARRITZ James D. Long is an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. Coming up, sometimes when the leader of a country is on trial, the media are, too. This is On the media.