Opinion

Will indicting Trump save democracy, or hurt it?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

If TV made Donald Trump, it might also unmake him. The Jan. 6 committee has scheduled its final planned public hearing for primetime hours on Thursday night, and it will focus on Trump's response — "or lack thereof" — as the violent insurrection unfolded, reports CNN's Paul LeBlanc. It's not expected to be a pretty picture. "He was doing nothing to actually stop the riot," Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) told the network. 

And if the committee's hearings are about to hit their climax, so too is the debate over whether Trump himself should be indicted for the attack on the Capitol, the culmination of his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election that he unambiguously lost. "Prosecuting current or past top officials accused of illegal conduct seems like an obvious decision for a democracy — everyone should be held accountable and subject to the rule of law," Victor Monaldo and James D. Long write at The Conversation. But research suggests that legal proceedings against former leaders "are inevitably perceived by their political supporters and even most citizens as solely political and become divisive." The threat of an indictment also seems likely to prod Trump to run for president in 2024, due to the belief that his status as an official candidate would protect him from prosecution.

Should Trump be indicted, or would that make America's democracy problem even worse?

'The central driver of a nefarious plot'

The insurrection "was Trump's project all along," Donald Ayer, Stuart Gerson, and Dennis Aftergut write for The Atlantic. The former federal prosecutors say the evidence of Trump's involvement in efforts to overturn the election is "is clearer and more robust" than they thought before the hearings commenced. Trump wasn't just a "willing beneficiary" of others efforts to keep Joe Biden from taking office, but was the "principal actor in nearly all of its phases" even though his "sycophantic and loyal handpicked team" raised "vehement objections … at every turn." There is plenty of evidence that Trump knew he'd lost the election, tried anyway to interfere with state vote-counting processes, sought the Department of Justice's help to fraudulently declare the vote stolen, and ultimately used Twitter to rile up extremist groups that participated in the Capitol attack. In the face of all that evidence, failing to prosecute the former president is an invitation for more attempts to subvert American elections. "Trump will not be the only one ready to play this game for another round."

If Trump is indicted, expect chaos

"There is a percentage of Trump's followers who would become violent" if he is indicted, former GOP congressman Joe Walsh tells Salon. Trump has proven himself an "enemy of democracy" and "there must be punishment for that," but most Americans haven't quite come to the realization that the country is now "irrevocably divided." That's why Walsh is skeptical that the Department of Justice will actually bring charges against Trump. And even if the former president is prosecuted, there is no guarantee he will be convicted. That could actually be dangerous: "Trump may actually end up being more powerful." That means there may be no best-case scenario moving forward. "We are balkanized. This is all going to lead to some major widespread violence. I am not optimistic."

America's legal system can't solve the problem

No matter how justified a prosecution would be, Trump would "respond to any indictment by impugning the Attorney General's motives," Damon Linker says at Eyes on the Right. That means prosecution of Trump stands a good chance of backfiring: "The rule of law itself would be on trial in any prosecution of Donald Trump, and I'm not at all sure it would end up exonerated in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans." The truth is that the ex-president is a political problem for America, one that  "can't be defeated in a courtroom." Instead, the only way Trump can be made to go away is if he is "taken down at the ballot box by such a wide and indisputable margin that it's impossible to mistake him for anything other than a loser." The question isn't whether a prosecution is warranted, but whether it's wise — "and on that issue, I reluctantly, but firmly, come down on the side of No."

Prosecuting Trump is problematic. Do it anyway.

There probably will be "consequences, immediate and long-term, of having any administration prosecute its predecessor and chief political rival," Ruth Marcus writes at The Washington Post. Nonetheless, the evidence presented to the Jan. 6 committee shows that Trump deserves to be prosecuted, and that shirking that duty "would be more damaging to the nation than turning a blind eye to his effort to subvert democracy." The Department of Justice's prosecution guidelines say particular consideration should be given to prosecuting offenders who "occupied a position of trust or responsibility" at the time of their crimes. The man who incited the Jan. 6 insurrection is an obvious candidate. "There is no greater position of trust or responsibility than the presidency, and no one who so flagrantly and repeatedly abused that trust more than Trump."

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