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Nicolas Sarkozy’s sentence in France carries echoes for Trump

Nicolas Sarkozy’s sentence in France carries echoes for Trump

Eventually, the public tired of his act and the support of a motivated base proved insufficient; he became a one-term president, cast out of power by a national electorate eager for a return to “normalcy.” Stripped of the shield of presidential immunity, he then found himself mired in spiraling legal battles. He raged against the “grotesque” witch hunt against him, but could not forestall an ignominious reckoning.

No, we’re not talking about former president Donald Trump. On Monday, a French court found former French president Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of corruption and influence peddling. He was given a three-year sentence, two years of which were suspended. He may still avoid actual jail time following appeals, but the reputational damage, at the very least, is done — Sarkozy is only the second head of state in modern France to be convicted of corruption.

The echoes of what’s happening to Sarkozy ought to be ringing loud for Trump. Despite considerable differences in the political contexts where they operated, the two share elements of a political style. In his memoir published last year, former president Barack Obama described Sarkozy as an incorrigible narcissist, “his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s … never straying from his primary, barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.”

Both Trump and Sarkozy demanded absolute loyalty from those around them — as a Le Monde editorial once noted, with Sarkozy it was either “allegiance or vengeance.” And they harnessed a divisive, angry agenda to get their way. “After Sarkozy’s million-miles-an-hour presidency, France — like America now — was running on fumes,” wrote CNN’s Cyril Vanier last year. “The country was exhausted. For many voters, the passions unleashed, the acrimony, the national soul-searching hadn’t been sustainable.”

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption and influence peddling on March 1, and sentenced to one year in prison. (Reuters)

Trump was impeached an unprecedented two times by the House on charges including abuse of power; Sarkozy is now contemplating a spell in prison for the same. “The charges against Sarkozy, who was president between 2007 and 2012, were centered around the question whether the former French leader was behind a deal with a magistrate to illegally receive information on inquiries linked to him, using false names and unofficial phone lines,” explained my colleague Rick Noack. “According to the prosecution, Sarkozy and his then-lawyer and longtime friend Thierry Herzog attempted to bribe the magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, by offering him a high-profile position in return for information. The incident took place after Sarkozy had left office.”

Sarkozy also faces other legal woes, including allegations that he received campaign funding from the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2007, an investigation into whether he fraudulently overspent in his failed 2012 reelection bid and a probe launched January into alleged influence-peddling after Sarkozy signed a lucrative contract with a Russian insurance company.

In court, Sarkozy rejected the various charges against him. “Never abused my influence, alleged or real,” he said in December. “What right do they have to drag me through the mud like this for six years? Is there no rule of law?”

But prosecutors argued that he was finally facing the consequences for his abuse of power. “The events would not have occurred if a former president, as well as a lawyer, had kept in mind the magnitude, the responsibility, and the duties of his office,” prosecutor Jean-Luc Blachon told the court in Paris as the trial concluded.

The legal dragnet is tightening around Trump, too. While Republican senators guaranteed his second acquittal on impeachment charges last month, Trump as a private citizen still faces a crowded slate of criminal and civil litigation, including his role in stoking the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, his pre-presidency business dealings and defamation claims by women who allege he assaulted them, claims he has denied. The allegations are in some instances far more grave than those associated with Sarkozy.

But though the stain of illegal activities doomed Sarkozy’s attempt at a political comeback in 2016, Trump seems still in pole position to make a new bid for the presidency in 2024. He took center stage Sunday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and, unrepentant, once more delivered his customary airing of grievances and falsehoods. Rather than work to sideline the former president, the bulk of the Republican Party appears still in his thrall.

That may change as the legal cases against Trump and some close allies start to catch up. “There has to be some consequence for telling these lies — because when you lie to people, they take action based on what they think is true,” said Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican who received threats after false allegations of fraud in the counting of the city’s votes, to The Washington Post. “Because it’s such a dangerous new thing that occurred, there has to be some reconciliation. Moving on isn’t enough.”

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