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Lawyer says prosecuting Navajo chairman is bad precedent for Trump

In 1989, the Navajo tribal government ousted chairman Peter MacDonald, Sr. over corruption and bribery allegations.
Posted at 4:30 PM, Jul 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-19 16:30:05-04

A chief executive refused to accept the results of democratic process and a deadly riot ensued. It didn’t just happen in Washington, D.C., in 2021.

In 1989, the Navajo tribal government ousted chairman Peter MacDonald, Sr. over corruption and bribery allegations. The ensuing riot and prosecution is a guide for federal prosecutors investigating former President Donald Trump, says Ken Ballen.

“So, if the rule of law is to apply equally to everyone,” Ballen said in an interview with Scripps News Salt Lake City, “if it applies to an indigenous tribal leader… then surely must apply to the president of the United States as well."

Ballen is a former chief counsel for the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He recently wrote an op-ed for CNN.com, saying the MacDonald prosecution requires indicting Trump for instigating the Capitol insurrection.

The Navajo Nation’s legislative body voted to remove MacDonald from power over bribery and corruption allegations.

“In April of 1989,” Ballen recalled, “[MacDonald] led a group of his supporters, encouraged them to go and retake his rightful chairmanship, even saying, if we have to fight, let them fight."

“These are the same, almost the exact same words President Trump would use on January 6," he added. 

A riot ensued at tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona. Two demonstrators died. Police were assaulted. A tribal government building was ransacked.

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“Like President Trump,” Ballen said, “Chairman McDonald was not at the site of the riot. He let his people go in.”

In 1992, a federal jury in Arizona convicted MacDonald of conspiracy and burglary in relation to the riot.

“You did not have to show that McDonald intended directly for two people to die,” Ballen said.

Trump has denied committing any crimes on Jan. 6, 2021.

Nevertheless, Ezra Rosser, a professor at American University, whose expertise includes Indian law, calls Ballen’s points “a great comparison.” But, Rosser said, there’s a postscript to the MacDonald case.

“Part of the McDonald's story that is – sort of after the fact – is the way government institutions on the reservation changed to prevent this happening in the future,” Rosser said. “And we as a country have not done that.”

MacDonald was sentenced to 14 years in prison. President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence to time served in 2001.

MacDonald was a Navajo Code Talker during World War II. In 2017, Trump welcomed him and a few remaining Code Talkers to the White House.

“Mr. President,” MacDonald told Trump, “we know you’ll succeed. America is in good hands.”

In petitioning for the commutation, MacDonald’s supporters cited his deteriorating health. MacDonald is now 94 years old and chairman of the Code Talker Museum.

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