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Trump court spectacle echoes in Europe


FORMER US PRESIDENT IN COURT: In a scene you may have once thought unlikely, a former U.S. president — Donald Trump — pleaded not guilty Thursday to four federal charges accusing him of orchestrating a criminal conspiracy to try to derail the transfer of power after the 2020 American election.

The charges: Trump stands accused of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy against rights — charges not directly related to his incitement of the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection, but to his denial of President Joe Biden’s victory in the election. My U.S. colleagues have an overview of Trump’s court appearance here.

Rallying cry: If convicted in this case (don’t forget he’s also been indicted in two others), Trump faces up to 35 years in jail although, as this POLITICO piece points out, any sentence would likely be far less than the maximum even if it did bring some jail time. In a hint of how charged and polarizing the proceedings have become, Trump has taken to touting the threat of jail time in fundraising emails to his supporters as “proof” of his judicial persecution.

Supporters rally: The legal troubles haven’t scared off Trump’s backers — to the contrary. Polls show support for the former Republican leader have risen sharply since the latest batch of charges were announced.

Which goes to show: While it may be tempting to think Trump’s trial has no bearing on politics in Europe, it probably does: For one, it will set an example for the prosecution of former heads of state across the democratic world, including in Europe where proceedings against ex-leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy and the late Silvio Berlusconi have dragged on for years, at times decades.

Secondly, it supercharges the U.S. 2020 race, with Trump the clear favorite to win the Republican candidacy. Finally, it reminds the world of the possibility of a Trump reelection (yes, he could technically be elected even if he’s in jail) and everything that would mean for Europe, not least with regard to U.S. support for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia.

WILL DEMOCRACY PASS THIS TEST? To help make sense of what all this means, Playbook spoke with Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and author of the 2018 book “How Democracies Die.” Here are some of his answers to our questions …

Is the United States breaking a democratic norm by prosecuting a former president?

“What we’re doing is unprecedented in the United States. It’s far from unprecedented in other countries. There are many other democracies, from Israel to Japan to Peru, where former presidents who engaged in criminal behavior were investigated, prosecuted, convicted and jailed.

“In terms of norms, clearly we are breaking a norm. We are changing a norm — not necessarily a good norm. The norm that the president should never be investigated and charged and held accountable should be revisited. If we’re breaking a norm, we’re breaking a norm for good reason.”

What about the accusation from Republicans that the judiciary is being weaponized for political reasons?

“Certainly, if we are establishing a precedent where parties can prosecute the opposition for political ends on trumped-up charges, that would be spinning in a terrible direction. But we have an independent judiciary. We are far from a world where someone is charged and convicted for political reasons. That’s BS, frankly.”

The world is watching. Is this a test for democracy in the US?

“The United States is not the global model of democracy it once was, or we thought it was. Since 2016, very few people are looking the United States and saying, that’s a model. But the United States is showing it’s not descending into lawlessness, it’s showing that leaders who abuse or violate the law are held accountable, and that’s certainly a positive thing.”

In your experience, do people like Trump ever ‘fall into line’ without constraint? 

“People do what they can get away with. There are presidents who fall into line, but they are usually forced to fall into line. Their initiatives are struck down by courts … Potentially autocratic presidents have to be made to back down.”

Brazil’s former President “Jair Bolsonaro wanted to copy Trump. He would have loved to try to overturn the 2022 election [in Brazil], to succeed where Trump failed, but the system stopped him. The lesson is that politicians have to be made to follow the rules. Angels don’t appear to them in the night and sprinkle pixie dust on them.”

WHAT’S NEXT: A court hearing at the end of August is expected to set a trial date for the case. Meanwhile, charges against Trump in yet another criminal case in Georgia may be announced later this month, off the back of an investigation into election interference in that state.

Now read this: Despite the indictments, Trump’s return to power remains the nightmare scenario for European leaders, says Jamie Dettmer in an opinion article today. Trump’s legal troubles mean the bad dream has been pushed to the back of European minds, but many on the Continent worried about his return to power are asking: What’s the plan?

ROAD TO 2024        

WHO WILL INHERIT FRANS TIMMERMANS’ SEAT? With the Dutch socialist’s return to the national scene looking very likely, the bidding for his seat at the European Commission is heating up, against a backdrop of feverish activity in the Low Country’s political scene.

Too good to leave empty: The question of who will replace Timmermans may seem like an afterthought one year before the EU election. But it remains a strategic role — defending the Green Deal against further charges from the right — and one that would nicely burnish the CV of whomever gets it, even for just a few months. Plus, several Dutch political aides assured Playbook that the government will want to send somebody to Brussels, even if it’s headed for an election in November.

The question is who: While some argue that the Green Deal portfolio should go to someone from the Socialist & Democrats, others pointed out that the only requirement spelled out in the rulebooks is for each country to have one commissioner. In other words, Timmermans’ seat would go to a Dutch person, but not necessarily a Social Democrat.

Close to home: Which isn’t stopping one Social Democrat from displaying their subject area expertise. Diederik Samsom, Timmermans’ head of Cabinet, is due to speak on September 4 at Eindhoven University at an event devoted to “mega transitions,” most notably Europe’s transition away from fossil fuels. Good timing, you might say: The Netherlands’ Socialists and Greens are expected to say whether they accept Timmermans’ bid to lead them into the election on August 22, after which he’d normally have to start a leave of absence.

But other names are floating around. Dutch Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag has said she won’t lead her D66 party into the November election and would be available. “It’s plausible that the next commissioner is from D66. They never had one. They are pro-European and they are important in the Netherlands,” said Tom Berendsen, an MEP from the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal Party, adding that Kaag, who has strong foreign policy experience, might then be positioned to become the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs in the next Commission.

Distortion field: While the Brussels bubble may expect Timmermans’ seat to go to someone in his party, the calculus in the Netherlands is different, Berendsen added: “Relations between the parties have changed.”

Of course, anything could happen. The Dutch caretaker government may decide to wait until after the election to put forward a name, in which case it’s difficult to predict who would be making the call. Even so, Berendsen added that “the Netherlands feels responsibility for the Green Deal” and for having “the right person in the Commission.”


TENSIONS RISE OVER BELARUS: On the same day that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned of “provocations” and “sabotage actions” by Wagner troops stationed in Belarus, the European Commission expanded its sanctions against the Moscow-aligned country, my colleague Camille Gijs writes in to report.

Drones canceled: The sanctions ban exports to Belarus of “highly sensitive goods and technologies” — namely, drones — that could contribute to the country’s military, and aim to align penalties with those already imposed on Minsk’s ally, Russia, as well as 38 individuals and three state-owned entities.

Fast lane: The measures have been “fast-tracked in view of the urgency linked to the fight against circumvention regarding certain highly sensitive goods and technologies,” the Commission said Thursday in a statement. 

Poland-Belarus tensions: The fresh batch of sanctions comes amid chest-thumping between Poland and Belarus, which mutually summoned each other’s ambassadors earlier this week after Warsaw accused two Belarusian helicopters of violating its airspace

NATO border: “Russia and Belarus are increasing their numerous provocations and intrigues in order to destabilize the border of NATO’s eastern flank,” Morawiecki said after meeting with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda at the Suwałki Gap to discuss the threat posed by Wagner. Read Claudia Chiappa’s report here.

BLINKEN AT UN CALLS TO BREAK RUSSIAN GRAIN BLOCKADE: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged nations worldwide to ramp up pressure on Moscow to end its blockade on grain exports in the Black Sea during an address to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday.

All together now: “Every member of this council, every member of the United Nations should tell Moscow enough, enough using the Black Sea as blackmail,” he said. “Enough treating the world’s most vulnerable people as leverage. Enough of this unjustified unconscionable war.”

Background: Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled out of a deal last month which allowed Ukraine to export grain via the Black Sea, prompting widespread condemnation. But earlier this week, NATO planes watched from overhead as three ships — one Greek, one Israeli, one with Turkish-Georgian registration — ran the blockade and docked at a Ukrainian port, without any Russian interference.

Calling Moscow’s bluff: “Reports of three civilian ships sailing to Ukraine unhindered may suggest that Russia is either unwilling or unable to enforce such searches at this time,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. noted.

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, ELSEWHERE IN THE BLACK SEA: Drones attacked a Russian navy base near the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, a major hub for Russian exports. Reuters has a write-up.

SAUDI ARABIA’S BID TO BE UKRAINE ‘PEACEMAKER’: Saudi Arabia wants to go from an international pariah — which it became following the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — to a peacemaker, by holding talks on the Ukraine war in Jeddah this weekend, Suzanne Lynch reports.

The goal: To bring together countries from the global south, such as India, Brazil and South Africa — as well EU countries, along with the U.S. and Canada — to rally around Ukraine’s efforts to broker a peace plan. But the problem facing negotiators is a fundamental one, Suzanne writes: Who gets to define peace?

**Enter the “room where it happens,” where global power players shape policy and politics, with Power Play. POLITICO’s brand-new global podcast will host conversations with the leaders shaping today’s and tomorrow’s ideas, moderated by award-winning journalist Anne McElvoy. Sign up in one click today to be notified of the first episodes in September – click here.** 


RACE FOR KEY ANTITRUST ROLE — MORE FROM FLORIAN EDERER: The Austrian-American economist who’s in the running to become chief competition adviser to Brussels’ antitrust division spoke to my colleague Giovanna Faggionato about life as a dual citizen, his view on competition policy and about suddenly becoming cool at cocktail parties. Read her exclusive interview with Ederer here.

Fun fact: Ederer only got his U.S. citizenship in May — after failing to meet nationality requirements for a chief economist role at the Federal Trade Commission last year.

CONTINENT ON FIRE: Can devastating wildfires like the ones in Rhodes or Sicily be prevented? Experts say yes, but the EU and member countries are failing to act. “We are only running behind the problem,” German Green MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, a forester by training, told POLITICO’s Louise Guillot, Zia Weise and Giovanna Coi. “So far, the EU has spent its funds almost exclusively on reactive forest fire measures.

DANISH PM SPEAKS OUT ON QURAN BURNING: Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen appeared to side with a potential ban on religious book burning, after recent Quran burnings in Denmark. “I don’t consider it a restriction on freedom of expression that you can’t burn other people’s books,” Frederiksen said in an interview published Thursday. Laura Hülsemann has a write-up.

PRIVACY CLOCK TICKING FOR TIKTOK: TikTok is set to face a privacy fine by early September after the European Data Protection Board agreed this week on an investigation into the social media company’s processing of minors’ data, according to three people with knowledge of the matter, my colleague Clothilde Goujard reports. More for POLITICO Cybersecurity and Data Protection Pros here.

NIGER COUP FALLOUT: Niger’s military junta, which orchestrated a coup to oust President Mohamed Bazoum last week, revoked a series of military deals with France on Thursday. That could radically reshape the fight against Islamic insurgent groups in the region, Reuters reports.


— Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli attends G20 ministerial conference on women’s empowerment in Gandhinagar, India.