12 August 2022

The state of Trump accountability and why it matters

 I think we have to acknowledge that although there is a very important and strong principle that no one is above the law, it is also true that there is automatically a suspicion when a former leader is prosecuted that politics is involved. Because, especially in most countries where the separation of the judicial/law enforcement aspects of government from the political apparatus is not very strong, this actually is usually the case. We have a special set of circumstances here, though. There is strong, not merely credible, but strong evidence that the former president engaged in a multi-pronged conspiracy to stay in power notwithstanding having lost the election by a significant margin. This is sedition, and attempting to rally crowds to violently storm the Capitol is insurrection. By any reasonable definition. The documents illegally removed to Mar a Lago is more of a sideshow. But as some wag said, don't mess with archivists if you know what's good for you. The thing about this set of facts is that it's pretty cut and dried. It's illegal to remove any documents and the Presidential Records Act requires retention of everything. But it's much worse than that. There is credible (even, reportedly, overwhelming) evidence that among the documents retained arrogantly even after Trump was told he shouldn't have them and couldn't keep them were high level classified documents. Documents whose very existence is classified. Whether they are truly important to national security is not easily knowable but, legally, it doesn't matter. This is a clear cut crime, one that others in the past have been harshly punished for (Sandy Berger, as a recent example). It could well turn out that, like Al Capone and tax evasion, everyone knows that Trump was guilty of a serious attempt to undermine the continuity of democratic government, the most serious imaginable crime for a leader of a democratic country short of outright seizure of power and mass executions. But it may be the more technical crime he was too arrogant not to be careful about that he is held accountable for. (That, and his civil troubles, which it's still possible could result in state criminal charges in New York. And don't forget the Georgia case Fani Willis is pursuing... that, too, may be so clearly established by hard evidence that he cannot skate). The verdict of history is clear, but it seems to me, finally, that there may be some actual judicial verdicts in Trump's future. He still has a core of fanatic followers, far from a majority, but if events can be so managed that he has no chance to put his "electoral coup" Version 2.0 into operation in 2024, I think we can probably escape the worst and eventually well and truly arrive at a post Trump era with the basic institutions of our government intact. 

I know some folks will insist, oh, it wasn't really that bad. It was a riot. It was Keystone Kops with no chance to succeed. They would all do it if they could, etc. etc. But it's just not true. 2020 was unique in our history of transfer of power through elections. No president in our past has actually tried to completely subvert an election and stay in power despite having lost (1876 was closer  to 2000 than 2020, and not really analogous). It is the kind of thing that if it were successful once, the continuity of the existence of our constitutional democracy would be at an end. And at that point, who knows? The climate of philosophy and political thought that allowed the American Revolution to take place in the late 18th century is long gone. I am not at all sure that anything even vaguely resembling a real, functioning republic would ever arise again in this land if once it were well and truly ended. 

Hope springs eternal. 

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