Among Donald Trump's most corrosive actions in office was his repeated call for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton and other political opponents ("Lock her up!"), a banana-republic cliche that became a staple of his rallies. Now, ironically, criminal prosecution of the former president is the only way to achieve the justice that's been denied so far.
"We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in his whiplash-inducing speech condemning Trump after McConnell and fellow Republicans acquitted him in Trump's second impeachment trial. McConnell noted that "former presidents are not immune from being accountable" to the courts.
It was the ultimate buck-passing from a party that failed to do its constitutional duty. But it's also accurate. At this point, civil and criminal action against Trump for his myriad offenses must be vigorously pursued if the very concept of presidential accountability is to survive the Trump era. There is plenty for prosecutors in various jurisdictions to work with.
Days before he incited the mob to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump personally pressed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" enough votes to flip the state's election to him instead of Joe Biden. In that recorded phone call, the former president, who had spent two months falsely crying "election fraud," engaged in the real thing. Georgia prosecutors are investigating.
In New York, prosecutors are probing Trump's finances with an eye toward possible charges involving taxes, property loans and hush money to a porn star. Multiple women have alleged sexual misconduct before Trump was president, with at least one of those allegations fueling a major defamation suit against him.
Contrary to popular myth among Trump's supporters, the Russia investigation didn't exonerate him of wrongdoing. Rather, it made a strong case that he serially obstructed justice. It's an allegation that couldn't be prosecuted while he was president, but it certainly could now. And, of course, there was Trump's incitement to insurrection on Jan. 6 — a particularly odious betrayal of the constitutional oath from a sitting president, but also a crime in its own right, regardless of the official status of the perpetrator.
On those potential federal crimes, though, the Biden administration's Justice Department should tread carefully. For a sitting president to prosecute his predecessor, however justified by the facts, should be a last resort because of the dangerous precedent it would set. The state-level actions Trump faces, especially in Georgia, could address some of his more egregious offenses against democracy without risking that precedent.
Trump's brazen lawlessness in office should have been met with the sanction that the Constitution sets out for such offenses: impeachment, removal and prohibition from future office. With that off the table, it's urgent that the nation's justice system bring the accountability to Citizen Trump that President Trump never faced.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Photo credit: qimono at Pixabay