There isn’t much that’s glorious in the history of America holding the rich and powerful accountable for their sins.
But even in the context of its past failures of reckoning — over slavery, the invasion of Iraq, the global financial meltdown, et cetera — the country’s hesitation to adjudicate the last president’s role in the deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill last month seems egregiously self-destructive.
Nevertheless, most Republicans, and even some of Donald Trump’s most ferocious critics, have recommended just letting it go.
For the second time, the U.S. Congress has impeached Trump for his attempts to meddle in the 2020 election. Last February, he was acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate of trying to strong-arm the president of Ukraine into making political statements against then presidential candidate Joe Biden.
This time, Trump is accused of inciting the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6, 2021, to prevent Biden’s confirmation as president. Trump’s trial is expected to begin Feb. 9.
Democrats and even some Republicans are convinced there is considerable evidence to support the case against him, and the seriousness of the charge is indisputable. Some rioters reportedly had plans to target members of Congress, and millions of Americans watched as a mob called for the murder of the vice-president, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” Pence escaped to safety, but five people, including a police officer, died.
Whether Trump bears some responsibility for that seems like an important thing for everyone to know — but apparently, not everyone wants to know.
“Give the man a break,” said Trump’s former UN envoy, Nikki Haley, arguing that Trump has had a tough four years and for the sake of national unity, everyone should just lay off him for a while.
“We already have a flaming fire in this country, and this trial is like taking gasoline and pouring it on the fire,” warned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, as though letting Trump off the hook in his last impeachment hadn’t simply encouraged him to fan the fire that Rubio says so troubles him now.
Worries about crossing Trump
It seems a bit late for Republicans to start worrying about national unity given that their party has made room for people like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who apparently endorsed execution of Democratic leaders, according to a review of her social media posts from 2018 and 2019, before she was a member of Congress, by CNN.
Both Haley and Rubio are likely more mindful of the effect running afoul of Trump could have on their presidential ambitions. Republicans generally avoid antagonizing the former president, likely in part because they fear the rancour and even violence of some of his supporters. Forty-five Republican senators voted against holding the impeachment trial.
But former FBI director James Comey, who was fired by Trump and quite openly despises the man, also says national unity would be better served if Trump just disappeared from public view.
“I’d rather him in his bathrobe yelling at cars on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago with the camera lights off,” Comey told National Public Radio just a few days after the riot. “I think that’s the best thing for the country now.”
WATCH | Former FBI director James Comey says Trump should be barred from running for office again:
In truth, the question of whether Trump is held to normal standards of accountability is hardly new — it’s been the soundtrack of his presidency, and arguably his entire adult life.
He was identified as a de facto unindicted co-conspirator in the election finance crimes for which his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was convicted; Trump is the defendant in ongoing civil actions related to sexual assault allegations against him; his tax returns are reportedly under scrutiny for fraud; and the Manhattan district attorney is investigating the family business, the Trump Organization, for insurance and tax fraud.
He seems to deal with accountability by resisting it, ignoring it or treating it as just the cost of doing business his way.
Debate about accountability
The suspicion that there is much more that could be revealed, though, is close to the heart of the debate about accountability and, specifically, what form it should take in Trump’s case. Should he be exposed to prosecution just as any other citizen might be?
Even before the election, Elie Mystal, writing in The Nation, asked a question that had probably troubled many minds: “Does anyone reasonably think that we’ve caught all the actual criminals in this administration?”
Mystal argued that the U.S. needs something like a truth and reconciliation commission to come to grips with everything that happened to the country under Trump. The scope of such a thing could be broad enough to include, say, the background discussions that informed the child-separation policy imposed at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the extent of any potential corruption and conflicts of interest in the mingling of Trump’s private business with the nation’s business.
Mystal wrote that “failing to hold accountable those who abuse their power signals to future abusers that all will be forgiven.”
He was responding to a Washington Post op-ed by Jill Lepore, a Harvard University historian and author who had argued that a truth and reconciliation commission that focused on the Trump administration could become excessively prosecutorial and undermine national unity.
In Lepore’s view, accountability could be served just as well, or better, by the investigations and commentary of the press and others exercising their free speech. Ultimately, it’s for history to judge, she wrote.
More informal censure
Meanwhile, the private sector is dishing out its own forms of accountability for Trump and some of his cronies.
Twitter and Facebook indefinitely banned the president after repeatedly warning him about his phony claims of election fraud. Then, for the same sort of offences, Twitter permanently suspended the account of Trump backer and MyPillow CEO Michael Lindell.
Dominion Voting Systems, the company Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell falsely accused of vote rigging, is alleging defamation and suing them for more than $ 1 billion each. It hasn’t ruled out including the former president in future suits.
Some of this might feel like Old Testament justice: harsh, rigid, retributive and, to some, deliciously satisfying.
But investigation and prosecution, whether by Congress or the justice system, has another, arguably higher, purpose, and that is simply to know — to know what happened, how it happened and why.
This seems especially important at this moment of epistemic crisis. Americans are deeply divided about knowledge, facts and truth. Their democracy is withering because of it.
A group ransacked the Capitol buildings because they wouldn’t accept the demonstrated and verified lawfulness of the last election. A larger group thinks the attack was justified. A still-larger group thinks the election was rigged.
Accountability through investigation and, if required, prosecution can be the mechanism for getting at the truth of all that. Some might argue America’s future depends on it.