“Trump is finished.” That sentence has been pronounced so often over the past 18 months that it has lost any real meaning. Still, the events unfolding in Washington right now are different. By targeting top Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, and perhaps even more crucially, a lesser known foreign-policy advisor named George Papadopoulos, special counsel Robert Mueller’s first criminal charges have brought a clear sense that the Trump presidency is on the line in a wholly different way than following any of his many outrageous comments or ham-handed policy moves over the past year.

The former FBI chief leading the probe into alleged collusion of Russia in last year’s election is, no doubt, playing for keeps. Of Mueller, The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer writes: “he will seek to turn every stone in his search and use all available legal tools.”

A tragicomic turn

It’s still early to say how far the investigation will reach, or how the White House would respond if the Mueller’s team of investigators get too close to Trump. But the unfolding events are yet another round in a long-running (and some would say, healthy) tension between the judiciary and the executive branches of American government. This is democracy’s famous system of checks and balances at play, a reminder of the relevance of Montesquieu’s clear separation of powers.

A similar standoff between the judiciary and the executive is underway across the Atlantic. The drama over Catalonia’s bid for independence took a tragicomic turn this week with the news that Carles Puigdemont, the Spanish region’s president, had fled to Belgium with half of his government, while Spain's chief prosecutor called for rebellion charges to be brought against them as authorities in Madrid try to retake the upper hand in the ongoing standoff. Reporting on the “bombshell”, Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia evokes “incredulity” morphing into “deep worry” at what this means not just for Spain and Catalonia, but also for Belgium, where the richer region of Flanders has also been known to want to break away from the rest of the country. In its editorial, Belgian daily Le Soir describes Puigdemont as a “cumbersome ‘guest’” and expresses fears that he might soon ask for political asylum.

Puigdemont might have looked even further east at the fate of Alexey Navalny. Despite having been imprisoned three times over the past year alone, the Russian opposition leader, who has repeatedly spoken out against corruption, hasn’t let that interfere with his bid to win the next election and become president in March 2018. And news of the detention of his campaign chief Nikolai Lyaskin Tuesday morning in Moscow will likely only reinforce his motivation. His supporters say the judicial cases against him are orchestrated by the Kremlin — that's Moscow's executive branch.

In different ways, these three examples remind us that there is nothing inherently neutral about the judiciary, and that elections can be free even if they’re not necessarily fair.

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