By Carmen Gentile
Critics of former President Donald Trump gather outside of the Manhattan Criminal Court before his arraignment on April 4, 2023, in New York City. Trump also now faces 37 counts related to the mishandling of classified documents, according to the indictment unsealed Friday, June 9, 2023. The charges include counts of retaining classified information, obstructing justice and making false statements, among other crimes. // Photo by Deccio Serrano/NurPhoto via AP
Donald Trump will make history later this week when he becomes the first former U.S. president to be arranged on federal charges.
That it will take place at the federal courthouse in Miami is especially apropos, not only because the crimes he allegedly committed involving classified documents happened at his South Florida abode, but the Sunshine State is also where so many other disgraced political leaders, tyrants and monsters face the music or hide out.
I learned about the state’s reputation as a repository for shady ex-leaders while reporting from the Miami court when notable defendants made an appearance.
Among the cases I covered was the trial of former Panamanian dictator and longtime CIA asset turned drug kingpin, Manuel Noriega.
Back in 2007, I saw attorneys for an aged Noriega, who’d already served 15 years in a Florida prison for drug trafficking and racketeering, argue that their client should not be extradited to France, where he faced additional money laundering charges.
Adding to the spectacle of the international legal drama was Noriega’s slicked-down, jet-black hair, which he was rumored to have colored himself with black shoe polish in a vain effort to avoid looking old and frail.
Seeing Noriega with stark, black locks added a comedic wrinkle to the serious charges he faced, a reporting detail journalists adore.
Far less amusing and exceedingly horrifying was the 2009 sentencing of Charles McArther Emmanuel, better known as “Chuckie Taylor,” son of former Liberian President and murderous warlord Charles Taylor.
I was sitting in the gallery when a federal judge sentenced Taylor, who is also an American citizen born in Boston, to 97 years for crimes including ordering the punishment of his enemies with “electric shock, red-hot clothes irons, and even biting ants on prisoners during interrogations.”
Other rumored atrocities included Taylor’s penchant for eating the hearts of his enemies. So, when we made brief eye contact as he entered the courtroom, I felt my blood run ice cold.
So, Trump heading to Miami to answer for his alleged crimes seems all-too appropriate. Not that the former reality TV-star, turned dumpster-fire president is on par with the murderous, allegedly cannibalistic Taylor.
However he does share some criminal similarities with Noriega, not to mention his self-styled crazy hairdo that defies gravity and logic.
Trump’s alleged infractions, coupled with decades of low-brow, bigoted behavior, ranks him among the “most Florida” of all former leaders.
Because Florida is also where odd, volatile, and overtly criminal former leaders frequently find themselves living out their lives in exile.
Recently, the former president of Brazil and Trump disciple, Jair Bolsonaro, left his homeland after losing his reelection bid and settled in suburban Orlando.
Shortly after Bolsonaro arrived, a Jan. 6-style insurrection attempt happened in the Brazilian capital, an attack on democracy that Bolsonaro claimed he knew nothing about.
Nearly 20 years earlier, coup-ousted Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada also sought refuge in Florida (it so happens I was in Bolivia covering the unrest leading up to his flight from the country).
Trump already finds himself in similar company in Florida and will soon join the ranks of world leaders who’ve stood trial there.
And while I worry that a jury in Miami may acquit Trump (finding a “sane” set of jurors in South Florida is a challenge unto itself), the very process, no matter the outcome, may serve American Democracy in the long run.
Because for almost 250 years, Americans have looked down their noses at other nations whose leaders went astray, while also allowing some of the worst to make a home in Florida.
Now that the United States is joining the global ranks of nations with a former president facing federal charges, we can stop acting like America is immune to such scandals and examine the ways in which our fractured democracy must be repaired.
That long, arduous process starts Tuesday in Miami with Trump’s arraignment.
I only wish I could be there once to again report on a fallen former leader doing time or hiding out in Florida.
Postindustrial founder Carmen Gentile has worked for some of the world’s leading publications and news outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, CBS News and others. His book, “Blindsided by the Taliban,” documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. He also is a board member of Industry’s Humanitarian Support Alliance. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Marcella S. Kreiter
By Carmen Gentile