This article was first published in OpEd News.
Can a sitting president be indicted?
That’s a question we hear a lot today what with an unindicted co-conspirator occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s a good question.
The crimes of which Donald Trump is likely guilty are mounting daily, and short of impeachment, what is the legal statute in place to protect us from a genuine criminal holding the nation’s highest office?
Unfortunately, there is no binding judicial opinion on this.
Reflecting on the last time we found ourselves with a blackguard in the Oval Office, during President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine law school, said:
“It is unresolved. The Watergate grand jury in 1974 named Richard Nixon an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ because they did not know if they could indict a sitting president.”
Just like now.
There was one time in our history, though, when a sitting president was arrested.
It was back in 1872. The president was Ulysses S. Grant.
Yes, Grant, the Union general who led the North to victory over the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Grant apparently had a bit of what might be characterized today as a “lead foot.”
According to the story, “Only Policeman Who Ever Arrested a President,” headlined in the September 27, 1908 edition of the Washington Evening Star:
“Gen. Grant was an ardent admirer of a good horse and loved nothing better than to sit behind a pair of spirited animals. He was a good driver, and sometimes ‘let them out’ to try their mettle.”
His proclivity for speed finally caught up with him when he encountered Washington, D.C. police officer William H. West, an African American Civil War veteran.
D.C. police had been receiving speeding carriage complaints. One of those carriages had hit and severely injured a mother and her child, and while Officer West was interviewing witnesses at the scene, another carriage caravan came barreling toward him.
The driver of one of those carriages was none other than the 18th president.
West stopped him with an outstretched hand.
According to reports of the exchange, Grant grumbled to West, “Well, officer, what do you want with me?”
To which West replied:
“I want to inform you, Mr. President, that you are violating the law by speeding along this street. Your fast driving, sir, has set the example for a lot of other gentlemen.”
Grant apologized, promised never to do it again, and trotted away.
But he did it again.
The next night, while West was out on patrol, Grant charged toward him so fast it took nearly an entire block to reign in the horses, finally halting at the corner of 13th and M streets.
The Star article reported Grant had a “smile on his face” that made him look like “a schoolboy who had been caught in a guilty act by a teacher.”
He then asked West, “Do you think, officer, that I was violating the speed laws?”
West replied, “I do, Mr. President.”
Grant’s excuse was not unlike that which drivers today feed police: he simply had no idea he was going that fast.
What West said next probably shocked the Commander-in-Chief:
“I cautioned you yesterday, Mr. President, about fast driving, and you said, sir, that it would not occur again. I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation, and I am nothing but a policeman, but duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest.”
So Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, was placed under arrest with other scofflaws, and fined $20.
His trial followed the next day.
He never showed up.
Grant was charged with speeding, not obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations, colluding with a foreign government, tax evasion, witness tampering, or violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Surely Trump’s crimes are a little more severe and offensive than Grant’s need for speed.
Image credit: genealogyofpresidents.blogspot.com