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“Unprecedented in the History of American Republicanism”: Historian on Trump Verdict & GOP Extremism

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In a historic verdict, a New York jury found former President Donald Trump guilty on all 34 felony counts in his criminal hush money and election interference trial. Trump is now the first former president to be convicted of a felony and faces up to four years in prison. “All this is unprecedented in the history of American republicanism,” says U.S. historian Manisha Sinha. “A man like Trump could very much upend this over-200-year historical experiment in representative government.” Trump can still be president as a convicted felon and is poised to become the Republican nominee for the nation’s highest office in July. “One of the most dangerous things about Trump is that he’s not a one-man show,” says Sinha. “He’s the presumptive nominee of a political party in a two-party system. That in itself poses an immense danger to American democracy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Former President Donald Trump will be sentenced July 11th, four days before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, after a New York jury found him guilty Thursday on all 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up payments made to Stormy Daniels in order to protect his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump has vowed to appeal, also faces three more criminal cases.

For more, we’re joined by professor Manisha Sinha, historian of U.S. politics, slavery, abolition, the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, professor at the University of Connecticut and author of several books, including The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920.

Professor, you last joined us on the day after the January 6th insurrection. Welcome back to Democracy Now! First, respond to this historic moment in U.S. history, not just U.S. politics, the first former president to become a felon.

MANISHA SINHA: Thank you for having me, Amy.

Yes, it is extremely unprecedented, because we have never had a case in United States history when a former president has been not only impeached twice, but also is now a convicted felon. Of course, there have been instances of corruption amongst presidents and vice presidents, but mostly they have resigned, before they could be convicted, and they have been pardoned. What’s unusual about Trump’s case is the extent of the criminality, the various cases against him, and now this unanimous jury decision convicting him for falsifying business records, but also, most importantly, for trying to corrupt the 2016 elections.

All this is unprecedented in the history of American republicanism. As so much that concerns Trump, he wears this as a badge of honor. He seems unrepentant even in the face of all these convictions. So, yes, I think we are, in fact, at a crossroads in the history of American republicanism. And a man like Trump could very much upend this over-200-year historical experiment in representative government.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s not clear what will happen July 11th, except that he will be sentenced by Judge Merchan. He could sentence him to up to four years in prison. It’s highly unlikely he would do that. He could sentence him to house arrest. He could be out on probation. But if you can talk about the political significance of right before the Republican convention, what this means? You have a president now, a presidential candidate, who represents a lot of firsts in U.S. history: the first former president to be indicted, criminally tried, convicted, impeached twice. Talk about his legacy and what this means as the Republican front-runner.

MANISHA SINHA: Yes. I think one of the most dangerous things about Trump is that he’s not a one-man show. He is the presumptive nominee of a political party in a two-party system. That in itself poses an immense danger, I think, to American democracy.

He’s also now a convicted felon, as you mentioned. It’s a Class E felony. He may not go to prison, but he is in the same category as those people who do carjackings or those who are accused of aggravated domestic assault. Now, this is a category of criminality that he is a part of.

And I cannot help but think that any right-thinking American citizen, even a moderate Republican, would have to think about that. I don’t think that this conviction, as many have argued, will actually increase his support. Those — a minority that supported him will always support him, because there have been so many acts of criminality and wrongdoing that have preceded this. I do think, though, that this will make an enormous difference to moderates, independents, will make them think twice — do they want to actually vote for a felon? — especially a party that pretends to stand for law and order.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we spoke to you the day after the January 6th insurrection in 2021, Professor Sinha. In fact, you were among the historians included in one of the biggest briefs in Trump v. Colorado. Your work was also quoted. Can you talk about this case in the context of your new book, which focuses on the Reconstruction era and when the 14th Amendment was ratified? And explain it all.

MANISHA SINHA: Yes. You know, I, as a historian, really do feel that our present is shaped by the past. We are not exactly repeating history, but we live with those legacies. And in my book, when I look at this period, Reconstruction, that immediately followed the Civil War, I talk a lot about how ex-Confederates, insurrectionists, got away, literally, with murder, right? They launched a program of domestic terrorism. They have committed treason against the government of the United States. And very soon, because of an amnesty law, they’re back in power. They may have lost the war, but they win the peace.

And that represents what I call a nadir in American democracy. I don’t think many American citizens may be even aware that we have lost our democracy for decades, certainly in the South, where it was open season on freed people, and you had a regime of racial terror, segregation and disfranchisement for Black men, and later on Black women. And I don’t think we can today go down a path where we similarly have a completely emasculated democracy. We live with the legacies of that period, as I mentioned to you.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is a Reconstruction-era amendment, is a sleeping giant. It does prevent someone who has participated in or aided and abetted an insurrection from ever running for federal office, someone who has sworn an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. And the only way that person can do that is to be pardoned by Congress by a two-thirds vote.

Now, it was very disappointing to me that the Supreme Court, in the Trump v. Colorado case, decided — including the liberal judges — that Trump in fact is not liable under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. In fact, he is. It’s a very clear disqualification. Now, Congress could take away the disqualification for him. The idea that this would create a patchwork system, where different states would then take Biden off the ballot, actually does not work, because Biden has not led an insurrection against the government of the United States or proven false to his oath of office. This would be actually a national disqualification, even though the case stemmed from Colorado. So, our Supreme Court did not have, I think, the moral courage or judicial courage to do this. They thought only expediently about the political fallout from their decision.

Instead, 12 ordinary American citizens defended our democracy. And this is exactly what Abraham Lincoln said on the eve of the Civil War, that the fate of our democracy actually lies in the hands not of the rich and powerful, but in the hands of ordinary American citizens. And if you look at the jurors, a lot of them didn’t seem to me particularly anti-Trump. In fact, I thought maybe there’s going to be a hung jury, even though the prosecution had an airtight case. So, for this decision to come down sort of renews my faith in democracy, that if ordinary people, ordinary citizens, get the chance to really deliberate on Trump’s many crimes and misdemeanors, then perhaps we will get a right decision.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking you about a related story in the Supreme Court. Of course, President Trump appointed three of the nine Supreme Court justices. And I wanted to ask you about this latest controversy around Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who told Congress he will not recuse himself from cases involving Donald Trump and the January 6th Capitol insurrection, after photos emerged of two flags associated with election deniers flying in front of Alito’s homes in Virginia and New Jersey. He said his wife did it. One of those, an upside-down American flag. So there are many who are demanding that he recuse himself from these cases. He says no. Your response, Professor Sinha?

MANISHA SINHA: Yes. You know, the Supreme Court, in U.S. history, has not distinguished itself as a defender of democracy. Think of Dred Scott. Think of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Warren Court, during the civil rights era, emerges as an exception.

We’ve had partisan judges before, but we have not had corrupt judges. We have not had judges sympathetic to insurrection against the government of the United States, whether it was Alito and his wife, whether it is Thomas or his wife. These two judges are clearly involved in planned insurrection against the government of the United States, or at least displaying their sympathy for it very openly by flying an upside-down American flag, which is a sign of disrespect, and the “Appeal to the Heavens” flag. The idea of simply, you know, passing the buck on —

AMY GOODMAN: The “Appeal to Heavens” flag is that pine tree flag.

MANISHA SINHA: Exactly. The passing the buck onto his wife seems really ironic for somebody like Alito, who has taken away women’s fundamental right to decide for themselves how and what they do with their bodies. He has taken away reproductive freedom from a majority of women, and now he tells us that he bowed to the decision of his wife to display flags that were sympathetic to the January 6th insurrectionists.

You mentioned that you had interviewed me immediately the day after. And even though I am a historian who has studied American history and knows that there have been instances of grave danger to democracy in U.S. history, I was shocked. And you could see the shock in my face.

To have a justice of the Supreme Court, who is supposed to uphold the highest laws of the country, be an active participant in this sort of behavior is just astounding. And the shamelessness of it is similarly astounding, that he would — after being sort of outed by the press, that he would refuse to recuse himself. Frankly, I think both Thomas and Alito are completely compromised, besides being very corrupt. They should either resign or, at the very least, recuse themselves.

And I think it’s about time for the Democrats to take a more aggressive position on this. At this point, we are not talking about some slight convention that has been upturned. This is a real threat to American rights and freedom. And we need to — you know, Biden likes to compare himself to FDR. Well, then, think about packing the court. Think about judicial reform. We need to act against this. We cannot just let Alito decide for himself, because he’s clearly incapable of making the right decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Manisha Sinha, we want to thank you for being with us, historian of U.S. politics, slavery, abolition, the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, professor at the University of Connecticut.

When we come back, we speak with two more Biden administration officials who have resigned in protest over the administration’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza: one official from the USAID and the other from the State Department. Back in 20 seconds.

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