Former President Donald Trump is considering running for president again in 2024 and, disappointingly, he continues to hold sway over the Republican Party. To wit, voters have backed Trump loyalists and ousted many of his House GOP critics in this year’s primaries — including Washington’s Jaime Herrera Beutler and Wyoming’s Liz Cheney.
But regardless of that support or his presidential intentions, the man who attempted to overthrow the 2020 election and nearly shattered American democracy does not belong in the White House. If the evidence demands it, he belongs on trial.
Prosecuting a former president would be an unprecedented event in American history, yet it would be in keeping with the unprecedented nature of Trump’s tenure — the disregard for norms and regulations, the unbridled lies, the attacks on the press, the belittling of public servants and targeting of political enemies — which culminated with a violent riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The recent FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida represents a new front in the investigation against the former president, part of a probe into the mishandling of government documents, potentially including nuclear secrets.
That search may lead to further charges, but the congressional Jan. 6 committee already has made a compelling criminal case against Trump, using his own words and testimony by former staffers to paint the picture of someone desperate to cling to power no matter the cost.
Trump was repeatedly told that his claims the election was stolen were false, or, as former Attorney General Bill Barr bluntly put it, “This is bullshit.” That did not dissuade Trump from pressuring state officials — such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who was famously told to “find” votes — as well as the Department of Justice.
According to DOJ officials who testified before the committee, after Barr left, Trump tried to bully them into investigating his sham accusations, at one point telling acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
“The rest” likely included a plot to create false slates of electors that Vice President Mike Pence could then use to undermine the congressional certification of Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021. Pence refused to go along with that plan at the risk of his life, as the president’s supporters — summoned to Washington, D.C., and incited by Trump — marched upon the U.S. Capitol.
Then, as rioters tore through the building looking for lawmakers, Trump refused to intervene, allowing the rampage to continue even as his children and advisers urged him to act. At least seven people died in connection to the attack and about 140 law enforcement officers were injured.
Almost 900 people have been charged with crimes related to the riot. Asked by NBC News if there were worries about possibly indicting the former president, Attorney General Merrick Garland said there is no other concern but the law.
“We intend to hold everyone, anyone who was criminally responsible for the events surrounding Jan. 6, for any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another, accountable,” he said. “That’s what we do. We don’t pay any attention to other issues with respect to that.”
Garland’s response is laudable, and we should expect nothing less from the country’s top law enforcement officer. However, while no one is above the law, the office of the presidency is also like none other and pursuing an indictment would be fraught.
While some people need little proof that Trump belongs in prison, for others, any pursuit of the former president is seen as partisan and illegitimate. Little can be done to sway those in either camp, but the Department of Justice must bring extraordinary rigor to an investigation that can stand up to scrutiny and political attack.
Some fear that criminally charging Trump will lead to a revolving series of revenge investigations and prosecutions as the parties swap power. Remember the former president himself did not shy away from punishing those he saw as political enemies, including firing Seattle hotelier Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, after they testified at his first impeachment hearing. He even fired Vindman’s brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who worked on the National Security Council staff and was not involved in the impeachment.
There is also the probability that some Trump supporters will respond with violence to any indictment. This already has precedent beyond Jan. 6. After the search of Mar-a-Lago, a man armed with an AR-15-style rifle was shot and killed after trying to breach the FBI field office in Cincinnati. In Pennsylvania, a man was arrested for threatening to “water the trees of liberty” with the FBI’s blood.
There are valid concerns that bringing Trump to justice could have dire consequences; yet failing to hold him accountable would be even worse.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, wisely warned it’s a much graver constitutional threat if a president can engage in these kinds of actions and the country decides to ignore it.
“We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation,” she said.
Richard Nixon famously stated that when the president does something, it’s not illegal. If Trump is allowed to walk away from his misdeeds, it will confirm that the most powerful person in America is indeed above the law and free to abuse that power. That cannot be allowed to happen.
The United States is a nation of laws. Prosecuting Trump will ensure it remains that way.