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In the eyes of the world’s media, the indictment of Donald Trump was not the big freaking deal many Americans might expect. Save for a handful of English-language websites and newspapers, the story ranked beneath most regional and local concerns and in more than a handful it was found alongside or just above the coverage of other celebrity news items like the denial of parole to Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius and the Gwyneth Paltrow ski accident trial.
There’s a reason for this and it may be hard for many Americans to hear. For all our chest-thumping about our world-leading democracy, we lag the world in living up to the idea that no one is above the law, particularly when it comes to heads of state and government. While, as much coverage at home and abroad noted, the indictment of a president is unique in American history, to the rest of the world, holding leaders to account is much more commonplace.
In fact, it is hard to find a major country as reluctant to require its leaders to face the legal music as we have been. Contrary to the MAGA GOP argument that prosecuting Trump makes us look like a “banana republic,” the reality is that placing our president above the law is a clearer sign of political backwardness than the alternative.
Consider that as of this moment, a former British prime minister is under investigation for misleading Parliament, Israel’s prime minister is under investigation for corruption, and Pakistan’s former prime minister is facing a slew of serious charges including terrorism.
But almost every major country you can think of has respected the requirements of the law or has leaders who have been charged or prosecuted for crimes. Former French President Sarkozy was convicted of illegal campaign finance charges. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was a one-man crime wave, convicted on a wide range of charges from sex crimes to corruption.
Germany’s former President Christian Wulff was tried on bribery charges and found not guilty in 2014. Spain has seen prime ministers ousted on corruption charges and another fined for breaking electoral law. Another former Spanish minister who once ran the IMF was convicted of corruption charges and sent to prison.
South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye was impeached, convicted, and sentenced to 24 years in prison. Taiwan has seen more than one president convicted. Malaysia, too, has seen more than one top leader go to jail, including a prime minister and, controversially, an opposition leader.
While headlines in India are today about the way Prime Minister Modi forced a leader of the opposition, Rahul Gandhi, out of parliament, it is a reminder that his grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was once found guilty of corrupt electoral practices.
Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, was convicted of corruption and spent time in jail before the convictions were annulled. But he is not the first president of Brazil to be charged with a crime. Mexico, too, has seen presidents accused of crimes and corruption, as indeed, have many countries in the Americas and I could go on.
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But it is clear that as far as behaving like third world countries goes, we could certainly learn a lot from the third world and indeed, the rest of the world on such matters.
This is not to say the rest of the world did not find anything notable about the Trump convictions. In the U.K., both The Daily Mail and The Telegraph provided lively coverage with a special focus on handcuffs for their BDSM readers. The Telegraph had extensive coverage, as did the U.S. version of The Guardian. But when I looked at The Standard, its Trump story was not trending.
In Australia, the lead in Australia’s Daily Telegraph focused on the “political persecution” angle offered up by Trump and his supporters, whereas The Australian offered a fairly dry explainer on the case. One of the only insightful commentaries I saw on the case anywhere in the world came from Charissa Yong of the Singapore Straits Times, who argued that “Trump’s indictment may energise support for him now but seal his fate in the future.”
Unusually, in the South China Morning Post, I found a story that also highlighted the political persecution angle, trending. The Xinhua News Agency of China gave the story exactly zero coverage on its English-language homepage, perhaps because sending leaders to jail is an uncomfortable subject there. (That said, China has not hesitated in the past to jail former senior officials for corruption.
Pravda, in Russia, whose president stands accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, included a story looking ahead to what may follow Trump’s criminal charges and illustrating it, weirdly, with a picture of Trump at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, wearing a yarmulke.
In India though, in the Hindustan Times, there was not much coverage, although an explainer was featured in the Times of India.
Mexico’s Reforma offered low-profile, modest coverage with a piece that was a “who’s who” of the Trump case. La Prensa in Mexico offered nothing, while El Universal asked, “What’s next for Trump after being indicted and what will happen to his presidential campaign?” In Brazil’s biggest paper, Folha da Sao Paolo, there was very little, and what coverage there was on ex-presidents who might be in trouble focused on their own mini-Trump, Jair Bolsonaro.
In Israel’s papers, both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz had lead stories on U.S.-Israel relations, Trump stories took a back seat to stories like “Republicans Rally Behind… Netanyahu.” The Haaretz story, way down in U.S. news, was “Trump hit with criminal charges over Stormy Daniels payoff, a first for an ex-US president.” The Times of Israel just offered an explainer, which, like many of the stories that did run worldwide, highlighted the fact that the case involved a “porn star.”
Europe’s bigger papers did offer more thoughtful commentary. France’s Le Monde wrote, “Donald Trump does not intend to hide, but on the contrary to embrace this crisis, to pose as the victim of a ‘Deep State’ conspiracy.”
Meanwhile, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which did devote comparable attention to the Pistorius case, had a commentary saying, “Donald Trump has mastered the art of attrition. He keeps causing outrage—and everyone is exhausted when it really matters. This time, a Democratic prosecutor is helping him”, and another assessing how Democrats and Republicans were responding to the case.
On the other hand, Italy’s Corriere Della Serra seemed inclined to give Gwyneth better coverage, although it did include an explainer on the Trump case.
Perhaps the excitement triggered by the Trump case will grow with future indictments if they involve more serious matters or the prosecutors are the U.S. Justice Department. Perhaps it will take convictions to get them really engaged in the story. But the reality is that even those developments may be seen by audiences worldwide as just another example of the U.S. finally catching up to them and at last living up to the ideals regarding the rule of law that we have for so long preached to them.
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