Can former President and would-be tsar Donald Trump get around his mounting legal problems with a plea of no contest and a promise to retire to private life? I’d rather see him retire to a nice dacha on the Moscow River — he’s certainly earned that accolade — and I don’t think either outcome is very likely.
But conservative op ed columnist Hugh Hewitt of the Washington Post, who has described himself as a successor in the line of paleoconservatives George Will and Charles Krauthammer, was up on the Post’s website Tuesday suggesting the Justice Department negotiate a plea deal with Trump similar to disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew’s in 1973.
This interests me, at least academically, because I wrote my dissertation, a spinoff on English constitutional history titled :The Idea of Limited Government in English History Plays During the Reign of Elizabeth I, 1559-1603,” during the Watergate hearings. And I went on to cover an exurban county sheriff’s department and criminal courts in southern Appalachia. You might say I went from the sublime to the ridiculous, but perhaps it was the other way around. In any event, I was grounded in the theory of the Anglo-American legal system and in its day-to-day application in the real world. An odd combination that has served me well.
Agnew’s plea deal and resignation came during in the runup to the Watergate hearings, and Hewitt, who shares with me an interest in the classics, sets the stage like this:
Just as the ghosts of Shakespeare bear lessons for the living, so the specter of Agnew might have something to teach us now, as Justice Department prosecutors decide what to do about former president Donald Trump.
After an investigation into Agnew’s tenure as governor revealed a sordid history of bribery, fraud and corruption, federal prosecutors offered an unusual “plea deal.” In exchange for his immediate resignation, a plea of nolo contendere to a single federal tax violation and a fine of $10,000, Agnew was allowed to pass into private life. [Link in the original]
Agnew’s plea of nolo contendre (a law Latin term that translates to English as “I do not wish to contend”), aka a plea of no contest, is defined by Wikipedia a plea where the defendant neither admits nor disputes a charge, serving as an alternative to a pleading of guilty or not guilty” [links in the original]. It was not the only strange attempt to finesse an explosive legal issue in Watergate days. Remember the “unindicted co-conspirator” in Nixon’s Oval Office? But it worked, and it defused the trouble that either could have raised at trial. That is Hewitt’s point.
Trump told me in a radio interview in September that “I can’t imagine being indicted,” adding “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Maybe not in most jurisdictions. But what about a jury trial in D.C., the epicenter of Trump-hatred? The former president should be worried.
I think Hewitt slipped up and showed his hand here. He has a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1983 and won a coveted clerkship on the federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington before joining the Reagan administration in 1984, but he doesn’t strike me as much of a lawyer. Since the 80s, his time has been mostly divided between the Nixon library, talk radio and the conservative commentariat, not the law.
My legal qualifications are less impressive by several degrees of magnitude. I dropped out of law school after one month (don’t ask), and my subsequent legal education came from local defense attorneys over pitchers of beer at the old Alexander Inn in Oak Ridge, Tenn. But I covered plenty of jury trials, and I came to have faith in the jury system. Even though I was flabbergasted by occasional verdicts, I came to believe most jurors really try to weigh the facts and the evidence. Usually they arrive at reasonable, common-sense solutions to knotty legal problems.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I came to believe in the rule of law. Guys like Hewitt? I’m not so sure.
In 2020, after Hewitt predicted President Biden’s primary victory in South Carolina wouldn’t help him get the Democratic nomination, he was hailed by Politico magazine for “the most audacious, confident and spectacularly incorrect prognostications about the year.” I suspect this one — that Trump would even consider pleading nolo — is another.
But there’s another possibile scenario, and it’s one I’ve long thought of as an ideal reward for Trump’s services.
Ever since the time of Peter the Great, loyal servants of the Russian tsar and, later, distinguished members of the Soviet nomenklatura, have been rewarded with a dacha, a small estate in the countryside around Moscow. Trump might be interested if he could get it rent-free, perhaps with a loan forgiveness arrangement with the oligarchs who have bankrolled him at key points in his career.
Of course, in an ideal world Trump’s friend and benefactor Vladimir Putin wouldn’t be around much long. In that eventuality, perhaps suitable arrangements could be made for them both in Saudi Arabia. There’s precedent for that, too, as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin lived out his sunset years in a Saudi villa, where “the Saudi royal family allowed him sanctuary and paid him a generous subsidy in return for staying out of politics” (although not before outraging his hosts by stirring up trouble in Zaire and Uganda in exile).
The moral (both mine and, I should think, Hugh Hewitt’s) of the story: They aren’t always edifying, but they are realistic ways of holding the Idi Amins and Donald Trumps of the world accountable for their actions. Or, at the very least, ensuring they stay out of further trouble.
Source: Hugh Hewitt, “The ‘Agnew Option’ could be a way out for Trump — and America,” Washington Post, Dec. 20, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/12/20/trump-escape-prosecution-agnew-option/.
[Uplinked Dec. 21, 2022]