Agnew disappeared from the public stage in October 1973, one of the most turbulent months in American history marked by Watergate’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” the Arab Yom Kippur War against Israel and the Arab Gnew resigned under the shadow of criminal charges.
I always remember Agnew on that gray day in California—the first and last time I saw him in person. Just as Shakespeare’s ghost holds lessons for the living, Agnew’s ghost may teach us something now, as Justice Department prosecutors decide what to do with former President Donald Trump.
Federal prosecutors offered an unusual “plea deal” following an investigation into Agnew’s tenure as governor. In exchange for his immediate resignation, a non-compete plea for one federal tax violation and a $10,000 fine, Agnew was allowed into private life.
Trump is horrified by the “criminal referrals” that the House Jan. 6 committee submitted to the Justice Department this week. But the earlier appointment of special counsel Jack Smith to oversee two federal investigations was not political drama. Like every special counsel, Smith has the time, budget and personnel to go after Trump, his family and staff. Such investigations can go on for many years. Add to that the investigations against Trump by the New York Attorney General, the Manhattan District Attorney and the Fulton County District Attorney in Atlanta, and the legal web into which Trump is caught is enormous.
“I can’t imagine being sued,” Trump told me in a September radio interview, adding that “I did nothing wrong.” Perhaps not in most jurisdictions. But what about a jury trial in Washington, the epicenter of Trump hatred? The former president should be worried.
I asked my Post colleague Ruth Marcus — one of the country’s astute observers of legal controversy since Harvard Law School — whether Trump’s troubles, and the nation’s deep divisions on them, It can be solved by an “Agnew Option”. End legal battles in exchange for retirement from political life. Ruth responded quickly and correctly that Trump would never make the request — even though it was, in her view, good for the country.
But I’m not talking about a guilty plea, because I don’t believe the public thinks there are facts to support a plausible theory of the necessary “elements” that Trump committed any crime. period. Only someone who has never worked in the White House can suspect that documents are often mixed in the handover chaos, and Trump’s declassification powers when he is president are unlimited. As for the New York and Georgia issues, they seem to be very weak legal tea. The idea that Trump intends to cause riots and occupy the Capitol? I do not believe. And I doubt any reasonable jury would have directed beyond a reasonable doubt, nor would the legal implications of intent. But should Trump risk me being wrong?
Trump’s Fanatical supporters continued to believe that he was a noble Jean Valjean of American politics, pursued by a gang of javerts. But that won’t stop prosecutors from arguing they’ve uncovered the elusive element of “intention.” If Smith — or other prosecutors — wanted to indict Trump, the indictment would follow. Political and civic chaos will erupt. Trump didn’t threaten violence in our interview, but he did foreshadow anger, and the country has more than enough of it. Is there a deal that can save the country from another extreme conflict — or even crisis? The one percent that no one, except the far right and the far left, want to thrive in conflict wants white-hot rage from all sides to meet the spectacle of Trump’s trial.
Trump thrives on battles. But it could be very expensive for him, his family and his staff. He has no crimes from White House counsel to defend him; only private lawyers who want to be paid upfront. His “Agnew option” would save him millions, plus the risk of conviction in a hostile jurisdiction. Trump will have to commit to following the path of other modern ex-presidents: a memoir, a library and museum, some well-paid appearances, but no longer campaigning for himself or anyone else.
Could he live without a rally? Maybe, if it means no more courts. His Agnew Option would not involve probation, fines or guilty pleas. Only the parties laid down their arms and the former president pledged to withdraw from the fight. settlements.
Trump will never become Agnew, because Trump played the biggest upset in the history of American politics, leaving his mark on politics, the Supreme Court, Middle East diplomacy and other fields. But like Agnew, he may be ready to move on — not into obscurity, but into a life without prosecutors.