Democracy is only as good as our ability to exercise its power.
According to the Boston Globe, following Donald Trump’s precedent-setting and law-breaking administration, Congress will need to create new legislation to limit future officeholders.
This is the argument made: limitations on the president’s pardon authority, anti-nepotism safeguards, increased congressional ability to probe the president, whistle-blower protections, and financial disclosure rules for presidents to avoid conflicts of interest.
All of this is critical in order to safeguard Americans against a repetition of the previous four years.
However, establishing harsher limitations on future presidents is certainly insufficient in and of itself.
Those presidents also require a strong message, one that will be remembered throughout history, that breaking the law in the Oval Office will be punished — that existing ethics policies and legal requirements, as well as those Congress will hopefully enact in the future, are more than just words on paper.
Trump’s administration revealed not just obvious legal flaws, but also demonstrated that our institutions are incapable of holding presidents accountable for even breaching existing laws.
If Congress had fulfilled the role that the Founders intended by removing Trump from the presidency when his criminality in the Ukraine crisis became obvious, it may have served as a deterrence to future presidents. Legislators, on the other hand, did not.
So there’s only one way to re-establish deterrence and send a message to future presidents that the rule of law still applies to them.
By indicting and prosecuting Donald Trump for his actions as president, the Justice Department must break with two centuries of precedent.
That is not a casual recommendation. Former leaders have historically been reluctant to be prosecuted because of reasonable fears about the legal system being used to settle political grudges.
Bringing accusations against past leaders, on the other hand, is hardly a radical move: Foreign democracies such as South Korea, Italy, and France often punish corrupt previous presidents without devolving into tyranny.
France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy was recently convicted of bribery, ten years after his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was convicted of corruption. France’s democracy and international reputation remain unblemished when it comes to facing their leaders crimes.
Prosecutors would have a plethora of potential charges to pick from in the case of Trump.
While Trump may face charges for financial crimes done before he became president, the focus should be on his acts while in office, particularly those following the 2020 election, which ended in fomenting a full-fledged, violent assault on American democracy.
The first is Trump’s repeated attempts to obstruct justice, as evidenced by former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign links to Russia.
While the investigators followed the principles that a sitting president cannot be charged — a viewpoint that this editorial board disagrees with — the goal of their probe was to “preserve evidence” for prosecutors to consider after Trump left office, as Mueller phrased it.
The second is Trump’s attempt to invalidate Georgia’s election results. Trump’s phone conversation to Georgia’s secretary of state, in which he urged her to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss, was blatant election meddling, which is illegal under both state and federal law.
That means both Georgia and federal prosecutors may — and should — conduct additional investigations.
Third, there’s Trump’s infamous exhortation to rebellion, which he did on public television.
Inciting a riot or insurgency is a federal felony, and though Trump was impeached for it, the Senate erroneously acquitted him, leaving the courts with the task of holding him accountable.
Even senators who voted to acquit him of inciting hinted that his crime should be dealt with through the criminal justice system.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a longstanding Trump supporter, stated, “If you believe he committed a crime, he can be prosecuted like any other citizen.” And, depending on the outcome of the investigations — if prosecutors have enough evidence to establish that Trump provided aid and comfort to insurgents — sedition charges might be filed against him, just as they are likely to be filed against his followers who invaded the Capitol.
The Department of Justice and state prosecutors must stay absolutely apolitical in their handling of Trump’s case to avoid a potential political tit for tat.
Explained that prosecutors must pursue accountability for Trump: "His crimes should be investigated independently BUT Biden should stay a thousand miles away”
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) June 8, 2021
In an interview, Norman Eisen, a former ethics commissioner in the Obama administration, stated, “His crimes should be investigated independently, and the president should stay a thousand miles away.”
President Biden has done just that so far, and he should continue to do so and avoid any impulse to weigh in one way or the other.
One reason to go against history and prosecute Trump now is Congress’s refusal to hold him responsible.
Another, maybe more obvious rationale is that Trump’s behavior should be treated differently since it was unique.
There’s a much better case that he committed significant crimes while in office than even the country’s most corrupt prior presidents could make.
One of the reasons that no president before the 45th has been convicted for activities taken while in office is because none of them attempted to stage a coup.
The aversion to prosecuting presidents is deep-seated, and utmost prudence is understandable. The last thing the country needs is Trump being indicted, tried, and acquitted.
But it can’t be the case that there isn’t a boundary — that no possible act of presidential illegality would be terrible enough to justify our reservations.
And if there is a boundary, it’s difficult to believe Donald Trump didn’t cross it.
The actions of Jan. 6 and the events leading up to them were a shocking misuse of power that few could have predicted a president would engage in.
A commander in chief attempted everything he could to undermine democracy.
He launched an attack against his own country.
Five persons were killed.
Allowing him to walk free would establish a far more dangerous precedent than allowing Trump to face charges.
To ensure that the previous four years do not repeat themselves, the country must go beyond enacting laws and demonstrate through its actions that no one, even the president, is above them.