Tuesday, December 20, 2022

How do you solve a problem like The Donald?

 In the months leading up to January 6, 2021, Donald Trump, then the president, launched a concerted effort to prevent the outcome of the 2020 election from becoming a reality. Trump and his team contested the election results in court, told his followers that the vote was plagued with fraud, and finally provoked the riot and insurrection that were intended to prevent Congress and the Electoral College from carrying out their constitutional duties. Yesterday, there was finally some indication that Trump might pay a price for his actions. 

Oh sure, Trump was rightfully impeached, but Republicans, even those who were critical of him rallied to his aid and prevented the conviction that would have banned him from holding office again. It is only now, almost two years later, that Republicans are starting to openly break with the disgraced former president. Even at that, the rift is about Trump leading the party into midterm losses rather than The Former Guy’s behavior, which now includes mishandling classified information as a private citizen. 

Without the midterm disaster, Trump would be the undisputed frontrunner for the 2024 Republican primary. Even now, he is deadlocked with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and could conceivably win the nomination. (Winning the general election would be much more difficult.)

It was into this situation that the January 6 committee jumped yesterday with a recommendation that the Department of Justice file criminal charges against the former president. The committee reported that it believed that Trump should be charged on four counts: Obstruction of an Official Proceeding, Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, Conspiracy to Make a False Statement, and "Incite," "Assist" or "Aid and Comfort" an Insurrection.

Trump clearly acted very poorly and dishonorably in the aftermath of the 2020 election, but there have been legitimate questions about whether his conduct met the bar to be considered criminal activity. Investigation of many of those questions was rushed in the rapid-fire impeachment that followed the insurrection. Impeachment does not require laws to be broken, but a criminal prosecution does. The congressional inquiry was needed in order to probe more deeply into Trump’s actions.

Now, two years later, we know more about Trump’s role not only during the insurrection but during the two-month buildup to the assault on the Capitol. We also know that he is utterly unrepentant for what he did. 

Only one other president has ever been in a similar situation. In 1974, Richard Nixon was under the threat of both impeachment and indictment when he resigned from the presidency. Like Trump, Nixon refused to admit to any wrongdoing. Unlike Trump, Nixon had lost the support of his party and did not attempt to run again. 

For whatever reason, Trump refuses to step away. Maybe it’s his ego. Maybe he believes his own press. Maybe his legal woes have left him financially unable to retreat from the limelight and still live in the manner to which he has become accustomed. Most likely, it’s a combination of several factors.

Whatever the reason, Trump presented the country with a serious problem when he announced his reelection campaign. Given his past behavior, he cannot be allowed to inhabit the White House again, but if he is voted down, his followers might well refuse to accept it, and this time, they might be prepared for more widespread violence. At this point, Trump and MAGA represent a national security threat to the United States. 

If Trump would just fade away then maybe he could be treated like Nixon. There could be a pardon on the grounds that he retires from public life. 

But that isn’t going to happen. Trump would never accept those terms and he could not be trusted to abide by them if he did. 

Former Republican congressman, Will Hurd, wrote on Twitter, “The Department of Justice should use its full force in evaluating these charges from the 1/6 committee, but ultimately I think that in order for us as a country to move on and finally turn the page on Donald Trump, he needs to be beaten in a Republican primary.”

I don’t disagree, but I also don’t have any faith that Republicans will vote against another Trump nomination. Time and again, we have seen Republicans flirt with breaking with Trump only to rally around him once again. 

Even after all he’s done, he still has a large constituency in the GOP and I have no doubt that if Trump won the nomination in 2024 that most of the critical Republican voices that we hear today would line up to support him. As the committee announced its decision yesterday, Mike Pence, who was nearly killed by the mob on January 6, went on Fox News to minimize Trump’s actions as taking “bad advice from lawyers.”

Let’s be clear: We are at this point because Republicans have repeatedly refused to hold Trump accountable. 

The opportunities to rein Trump in were many, but Republicans were always too afraid of their base to act on their self-proclaimed principles. Among the missed opportunities was the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the dismissal of several inspectors general who issued critical reports, the use of national emergency declarations to bypass Congress, the quid pro quo of Ukrainian military aid for an investigation into Hunter Biden, and, of course, the question of whether to impeach or even investigate Trump for his role in the insurrection. In each of these incidents, Republicans protected Trump and, as a result, emboldened him. 

Now Republicans lie in a bed of their own making. After years of protecting Trump, they no longer want him, if only because they realize that he is costing them elections, but neither can they afford to alienate his base. The 2024 primary is going to be a battle between the vestiges of traditional Republicanism and MAGA. And there’s a good chance traditional Republicans will lose once again. 

The January 6 committee may provide the Republicans with an out. If Trump is indicted, it might nudge Republican primary voters to an alternative candidate. (On the other hand, they might also rally to him out of spite.)

The question now is whether the DOJ will act on the committee’s recommendations. The Justice Department is under no legal obligation to indict or prosecute Trump because the criminal referrals carry no legal weight. 

The referrals do increase pressure on the DOJ. A prosecution would be attacked as politically motivated by Trump’s allies, which is to say by most Republicans, but a failure to pursue criminal charges both makes Trump look stronger and encourages bad behavior by others. Kari Lake is Exhibit A. 

I think that Justice Department prosecutors should look at the available evidence and, if they think that they can get a conviction, they should indict Trump. The only thing worse than failing to prosecute the former president would be a failed prosecution. 

Presidents are not above the law and former presidents certainly are not. Donald Trump’s unethical and criminal actions cry out for justice. Failing to hold him accountable only encourages other, perhaps more competent, would-be strongmen to launch their own plots to seize and hold power illegally. 

Donald Trump deserves jail time for trying to steal the election and provoking the attack on the Capitol. If we fail to hold him accountable for this most egregious of abuses of power, then we will deserve the consequences. 

ELECTORAL COUNT REFORM IS NOT DEAD YET: Back in July, I described a bill to reform the Electoral Count Act, the mealy-mouthed 1887 law that Trump attempted to twist into permission to have Mike Pence overrule the voters. The bill has not yet been passed, but the Washington Post reports that it has been included in the omnibus spending bill that the Biden Administration hopes to pass before Congress adjourns. 

The reform bill has broad bipartisan support, but there is infighting between the House and Senate proposals. Additionally, Republicans who returned to their roles as fiscal hawks after Trump left office are opposing the omnibus bill. 

This one will go down to the wire. 

UKRAINE WAR ESCALATION? There are concerns that the war in Ukraine may be widening again as Vladimir Putin visits Belarus, one of his few allies. Belarus borders Ukraine on the north and if Putin’s ally, Alexander Lukashenko, enters the war on Russia’s side, it would divert Ukrainian troops from their offensives in the east that have left Russian forces reeling. 

The BBC notes that Russian forces that drove on Kyiv last spring launched their attacks from Belarussian territory. Belarus has also allowed Russian warplanes to use its airspace. 

Belarussian intervention would make life difficult for Ukraine, but it’s tough to see what the country would gain. Intervention would also likely spark sanctions and retribution from Ukraine’s western partners. Of course, as a dictator, Lukashenko might personally benefit even as his countrymen suffered. 

Still, the situation is one to watch. 

TWEET OF THE DAY: I don’t know who Militant Centrist is, but his meme game is fire. Here’s a Christmas-themed post as a palate cleanser. 

From the Racket

Photo: Photo by Sean Ferigan on Unsplash

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