Why Prosecute Trump? | Opinion

Tuesday's explosive revelations by Cassidy Hutchinson, a top staffer for former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, were the culmination of the Jan. 6 Committee's meticulous case against former President Donald Trump and his associates and their role in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The only conclusion that can be reasonably drawn from the proceedings is that the 45th president is an unrepentant criminal who led an attempted coup against the newly elected leadership of the United States.

And he needs to pay for his crimes with his freedom.

We've grown so accustomed to watching Trump wriggle off the hook, with the help of his army of apologists in Congress and the media, that we dare not dream of the man suffering actual consequences for his H-bombing of American democracy. But if Attorney General Merrick Garland does not move swiftly to indict the former president, all the committee's work will have been for nothing. Worse, all of the GOP coup-plotters and election deniers gleefully running for governor and secretary of state offices and the Republican state legislators itching to impose their will on the electorate so that they can finish the job Trump started will know that they can do it all in broad daylight and get away with it.

What is it that Trump would be getting away with? It's not just the terrible events of Jan. 6, 2021, when the former president sent a mob of enraged supporters to sack the Capitol Building. The committee has gathered extensive evidence of the administration's post-election attempt to forward slates of "alternate" electors for the pivotal swing states that went for Joe Biden and to have former Vice President Mike Pence unlawfully manipulate or halt the counting of electoral votes in Congress to give the conspiracy time to succeed.

January 6 Committee Hearing
Former President Donald Trump appears on a video screen during the fourth hearing on the Jan. 6 investigation in the Cannon House Office Building on June 21, 2022, in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

We learned how Trump pressured former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and other senior Justice Department officials to seize voting machines and declare the election corrupt and then tried to install a lackey named Jeffrey Clark as AG so that he could do what others would not. We learned that Trump lawyer and Claremont Institute putschist John Eastman knew perfectly well that the scheme to disrupt the electoral vote count was illegal and that he emailed Rudy Giuliani to get on some kind of "pardon list" that was circulating. We learned how Trump unlawfully leaned on election officials in GOP-led Arizona and Georgia to find more votes for himself or to somehow rule enough Biden's ballots out.

And then finally we learned more about Trump's actions, both in the runup to the insurrection and then on Jan. 6 itself. Hutchinson outlined in gory detail how Trump flew into a ketchup-flinging rage when then-Attorney General William Barr told him in December 2020 that the election had not been stolen from him. Most damningly, she testified that Trump ordered the removal of metal detectors at his Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, and that he got into a physical altercation with the Secret Service driver in an attempt to get to the Capitol to join, and presumably lead, the mob's efforts. He knew what was happening, and not only did he not try to stop it, he wanted to be there.

Had it succeeded, Trump's plot against democracy would have torn the country apart and resulted in the loser of a presidential election staying in office illegally. It would have functionally destroyed electoral democracy in the United States, leaving no clear path back to rule by the people. As the instigator and leader of this insidious plot, who repeatedly ignored the many advisers who told him that what he was doing was a crime, who cared for nothing and no one apart from his own deranged monomania to stay in power at any cost, Trump must be held personally culpable.

Yes, the bar to indict and possibly jail a former president or presidential candidate should be high — let's at least say well above the ham-fisted email server management practices of a secretary of state that harmed no one. But if an illicit scheme to prevent the democratically elected government of the United States from taking office does not clear it, then there is no bar, just a never-ending game of reverse limbo that allows corrupt leaders to publicly scheme against democracy itself and pay no penalty for any of it.

The idea that Trump must be allowed to walk free to avoid inflaming his supporters, or that his prosecution would further undermine the legitimacy of American democracy is absurd. The Republican Party rank and file already believe the stolen election myth, and nearly all elected Republicans are either on board with preparations to try again in 2024, or are too cowardly to openly denounce the efforts. Our institutions, and indeed the very existence of electoral democracy itself are in such clear and present danger that we simply cannot afford to worry about ruffling the fragile feathers of Trump's MAGA minions.

Instead, they must be met head on, from one direction with the full power of the Department of Justice and from another with the righteous fury of American voters, who can hardly be expected to do the difficult work of defending democracy if the country's top law enforcement officials refuse to do their part.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.