Do strong democracies prosecute ex-presidents on flimsy charges?

“It’s like a bad break-up,” Beth said, “It just needs to be over.” She was not talking about a boyfriend, but rather the ex-president, who caused her many sleepless nights during his four years in office; indeed she considered him an existential threat. Yet now, her message is it’s time to move on.

“Most things,” Beth says, “I’ve found are true.”

The fanfare surrounding the indictment of Trump Organization CFO Allen Weiselberg by New York City and state prosecutors earlier this month has subsided. I thought it wise to give the whole matter a couple weeks to settle before addressing, but come to the same conclusion today I did when the news broke: dog bites man.

Expectations, a wise saying goes, are resentments in utero and anyone who expects this matter to result in much will end up disappointed, and likely resentful.

New York City Attorney General Cy Vance Jr., together with state AG Leticia James, charged Weiselberg with not paying taxes on benefits he received over the years from his employer, like tuition for his kids and cars for his family. Tax law is a little grey here, so this is far from a slam-dunk. But it’s Vance’s last hurrah, he is now retiring and will leave the actual prosecution to others.

Based on tax returns, Trump — for years — refused to turn over, this much-anticipated indictment could well lead to precisely the same place two impeachments by the U.S. House of Representatives did: nowhere. In economics, there is a law of diminishing returns. In fairy-tales, there is the adage about crying wolf.

For those old enough to remember, Wendy’s once aired a TV commercial where an elderly woman demanded of another fast-food chain, “Where’s the beef?”

Senior prosecutors don’t see it here.

There is harm is using the criminal justice system to achieve political ends because it undermines faith in the system. Prosecutors have tremendous power in deciding what cases they will pursue and which they won’t. Usually, the calculus is based on the probability of a conviction, but sometimes there are other factors as well. If enough people, or enough influential people anyway, insist we must do something, this can over-ride the win/lose criteria.

Politics aside, at the present moment, the system is under siege. Look at the recent release of Bill Cosby, whose conviction and imprisonment for multiple sexual assaults was seen as validation of the #MeToo movement. A procedural glitch led to a judge throwing out his conviction, despite so much public evidence – including his own admissions – pointed to his guilt. Now we are all left wondering if the system works at all.

There is no hard and fast rule that democracies cannot prosecute ex-presidents. South Africa and France have both done so recently, and Israel has done before and will likely do again. Each time, it poses a big test for the rule of law, which is why it should only be done where there are serious infractions of the law.

The problem with Trump is that we’ve all seen this movie so many times before that it’s beginning to wear very thin. Russia-gate resulted in no criminal liability for the president even if others (including yours truly) faced consequences. The first impeachment smelled very political. The second, while earned, was doomed to fail and its promoters knew this but were more interested in scoring political points than achieving any real accountability. Now we see the prosecution of an old man unlikely to turn on his long-time boss.

The subject line of my morning fundraising email from a Left-leaning political action committee screams “Make Trump pay!” But if I pay this group $5 or $10 will it bring that outcome any closer to reality? Most certainly it will not. So why isn’t this solicitation fraud? That would be a prosecutor’s call, wouldn’t it…

Over the past five years there has been endless talk about our democracy being under siege. If non-consequential, and arguably politically-motivated, prosecutions continue, that anxiety will be self-fulfilling.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.