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EDITORIAL: Trump prosecution and the value of restraint

Donald Trump’s reputation for upsetting political norms was well-earned during his four years in the Oval Office. But history will show that his opponents were also all too eager to disregard traditional political standards in their fanatical opposition to the man.

On Thursday, a grand jury under the guidance of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg issued an indictment against Mr. Trump. The details remain under seal, but sources told The New York Times that the indictment features more than two dozen charges related to a 7-year-old payment Mr. Trump made to a former porn star in order, the allegations maintain, to keep her silent about an affair between the two.

This is the first time in our nation’s history that a former president has faced criminal charges. The precedent probably will have ramifications for years to come, pushing Republicans to engage in the bipartisan and often destructive political tactic known as payback.

Mr. Bragg insists he is simply carrying out his duties in taking this extraordinary and dramatic step. No man is above the law, it’s true. But those who believe this isn’t politically motivated live in a fantasy world. Mr. Bragg ran for office, in part, on a promise to go after Mr. Trump. Democrats have been trying to take down Mr. Trump since 2015 and even impeached him twice. The charges may mobilize the former president’s GOP supporters, helping Democrats, who believe Mr. Trump will be a sure loser in 2024 if he gets the GOP nomination.

The great irony is that, in the year since Mr. Bragg took office, felony crime has increased 25 percent in Manhattan as the new district attorney’s goal “has been to reduce the number of prosecutions,” Newsweek reported. Yet while vowing not to pursue a whole host of offenses, Mr. Bragg instead opts to file charges against a former American president based on a years-old case involving campaign funds that federal prosecutors previously refused to bring.

If anything, this case highlights the dangers of unfettered prosecutorial discretion.

None of this is to excuse Mr. Trump’s behavior regarding his marriage vows or his crass efforts to ensure his philandering didn’t hurt him in the 2016 election. Mr. Bragg’s decision plays into Mr. Trump’s victim narrative and deflects attention from the shady conduct that has soured even many Republican voters. Trump fatigue is real, yet Democrats can’t simply exploit the former president’s fully stuffed baggage. Rather they maliciously prefer to hound him with dubious criminal prosecutions.

The danger is that Mr. Bragg has failed to adequately weigh the minimal benefits against the potential dangers of his Trump prosecution. “There will be fears,” Stephen Collinson wrote for CNN, “that it will crush one of the last remaining precedents for political restraint and leave future presidents vulnerable to prosecution in a manner more akin to fragile failing states than the world’s most vital democracy.”

When Democratic President Bill Clinton was impeached for, among other things, lying under oath, Democrats insisted the matter would be best handled after he again became a private citizen. But when Mr. Clinton left office, he faced no criminal indictment for perjury. Republicans had the prudence to recognize the perils of such an approach.

Who ever thought those would be the good old days of political restraint?

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