After Donald Trump leaves office, the next Democratic president will have to decide whether to prosecute him for his myriad alleged crimes. Long before then, there will be long parade of Democrats pooh-poohing this idea, arguing that it would be better for the health of the nation for us to look forward, not backward, and to let bygones be bygones lest we risk tearing the country apart.
These voices will all be wrong, just as they were wrong after Bush and Cheney. Failure to hold the Bush regime accountable for its actions did not prevent Republicans from stonewalling every Democratic initiative. It did not prevent the next Republican president from attempting to prosecute his enemies and use the Justice Department as his personal law firm. What it did do was allow an entire administration that had blatantly lied the country into a hideously costly and morally disastrous forever war to simply get away with it. It in many ways set the stage for Donald Trump, because it proved that if the people in charge were willing to lie in a big and brazen enough way, they could get away with it because, much as the banks were too big to fail in the economy, Democrats would always let them skate rather than risk polarizing the country further by holding them accountable.
Going on CNN today, former Attorney General Eric Holder made the first major rhetorical push toward telling Democrats to let the Trump family to get away with it all.
In an interview, David Axelrod asked Holder whether prosecuting Trump post-presidency in the absence of impeachment proceedings would cost Democrats, citing former President Gerald Ford pardoning his predecessor Richard Nixon. “Yes, I think there is a potential cost to the nation by putting on trial a former president, and that ought to at least be a part of the calculus that goes into the determination that has to be made by the next attorney general,” Holder said. “I think we all should understand what a trial of a former president would do to the nation,” he went on, saying that Ford’s decision vis-a-vis Nixon might have cost him the 1976 election.
Holder added, “But you know, I think looking back, I tend to think that that was probably the right thing to do.”
This is incredibly dangerous. The country is already deeply polarized, and becoming ever more so. That’s not going to change for at least the next 20 years pending generational turnover.
By far the greatest danger to the American system of government is the increasing awareness among presidents that they can functionally get away with any level of lawlessness as long as their party has enough Senators to avoid an impeachment conviction.
If our divided politics means we cannot hold an openly criminal president accountable while they are in office, and we fail to prosecute an openly criminal president once they leave, then the president is functionally free of all accountability. That is a guaranteed path to a criminal dictatorship.
In order to save the country, Democrats must be willing to look “backward” and uphold the rule of law.