Trump has surrounded himself with self-interested sycophants and corrupt grifters who have wielded enormous power within our government structure. The entire tenure of Betsy DeVos, Andrew Wheeler, Ryan Zinke, and Wilbur Ross (to name just a few), whom Trump placed in charge of our federal agencies over the past four years, has been dedicated to siphoning as much as possible from the taxpayer’s coffers and redirecting it for their own benefit or the benefit of interests they represent.
There will be no thought whatsoever by these people as to what type of future they are leaving the American people, or what kind of condition the country will be in after their loot-fest is completed. These are not people who entered public service out of any sense of responsibility or altruism; that is simply not the way they think. Trump carefully and deliberately constructed a kakistocracy—a government of the worst, most unscrupulous, most unqualified people—for which destruction of the government agency to which they were appointed was their primary qualification. Most of them could have drawn far greater salaries in the private sector, but they agreed to participate in government insofar as it served their own financial (or in some cases, purely ideological) interests, both during and after their tenures. So assuming Trump loses on Nov. 3, in addition to a spree of looting we can expect massive deletions of data from hard drives, probably outright destruction or theft of government property, shredding of documents, and more as they try to cover up what they’ve done.
In 2018, The New York Times compiled a comprehensive list of the administration’s corruption and conflicts of interest as of then—a list now rendered so incomplete that it seems quaint.
Compiling the list made us understand why some historians believe Trump’s administration is the most corrupt since at least Warren Harding’s, of 1920s Teapot Dome fame. Trump administration officials and people close to them are brashly using power to amass perks and cash. They are betting that they can get away with it. So far, Congress has let them.
Two years later, the Trump administration has become a systematic web of conflicted interests and blatant theft more prevalent than any administration in history. Its tentacles have now enveloped the Department of Justice in the persona of William Barr, who is now utilized as a willing tool to conduct sham investigations, pressure foreign states to manufacture false evidence to serve Trump’s political interests, and reward Trump’s loyalists such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone with sentence reductions and outright dismissals of their criminal convictions.
Because Trump’s corruption of our federal government is pervasive at this point, and because it has gone almost entirely unpunished and unexamined, the question of accountability on the part of members of the administration should be addressed now, before the final looting begins. Up to this point, any attempt to unveil this morass of corruption was stymied by a complicit Republican Congress for the first two years of Trump’s tenure. Now that the House is in Democratic hands, the favored response of the administration is to stonewall and “run out the clock.” His appointees engaged in the actual corruption—Barr, for example—are similarly insouciant, in effect thumbing their noses at attempts to investigate or punish their behavior.
Like all criminals, they clearly believe they’ll “get away with it.” It’s our duty to make them understand they won’t.
Michelle Goldberg, writing for The New York Times, frames the issue as one of accountability, which is simply vital if this country is to move forward. She observes that although former Vice President Biden has not ruled out criminal prosecution of Trump himself, he has deliberately avoided the subject. Goldberg also acknowledges that it would be highly unwise for Biden himself to be leading the charge.
Biden’s reticence is understandable, because a president who runs the White House as a criminal syndicate creates a conundrum for liberal democracy. In a functioning democracy, losing an election should not create legal liability; there was a reason Trump’s “Lock her up” chant was so shocking.
But you can’t reinforce the rule of law by allowing it to be broken without repercussion. After four years of ever-escalating corruption and abuses of power, the United States cannot simply snap back to being the country it once was if Trump is forced to vacate the White House in January. If Biden is elected, Democrats must force a reckoning over what Trump has done to America.
Senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have both expressed the view that criminal prosecutions of Trump officials and Trump himself are likely unavoidable. While Trump officials will enjoy qualified immunity in the performance of their job functions, there are limits to that immunity when the conduct impugns the Constitution, or otherwise consists of acts not officially contemplated or made discretionary by their employment in government. The law itself, therefore, is not an impediment to prosecutions for gross corruption or other blatant acts of criminal behavior on the part of Trump’s appointees and their hires.
The much thornier question is whether pursuing criminal charges against these officials will be perceived as so political that it will create a precedent for whichever party is in charge to conduct investigations and criminal prosecutions, however frivolous, of the opposing political party. As pointed out in this report, prepared by the Center for American Progress (CAP), the issue of “creating a precedent” is actually moot. The fact is, as William Barr has amply demonstrated, that abuse of the nation’s law enforcement power against political opponents is now our current reality.
[T]he concern that law enforcement could be used to target political opponents is not a future hypothetical—it’s the current reality. The problem is how to respond to the way the Trump administration has used law enforcement to protect its friends and target its enemies. The precedent has been set; what is still to be determined is the nature of the response.
Any investigations should be driven by career officials following the facts where they lead. The only way to address the politicization of law enforcement is by eliminating it, which means that people in the Trump administration, or those with connections to the administration, do not receive special treatment.
Importantly, the authors of the CAP report point out that failure to hold these criminals accountable will set a far worse precedent: “If a free pass is provided to those who broke the law and subverted democracy, it will embolden them and any illiberal politicians or administrations in the future to show even greater disregard for the rule of law.” Further, a failure to insist on accountability will inhibit people who do have integrity—career, non-political employees—to stand up against corruption in the future.
The CAP report also addresses the objection that such prosecutions will be “divisive.” Essentially the rejoinder is that the entire administration has been divisive—it is in fact completely predicated on dividing Americans. But all Americans (including even Republicans, presumably) are—or should be—united in their fealty to the rule of law.
But one of those shared ideals is the primacy of the rule of law: that people in the United States should be treated equally, and that there should not be one justice system for the politically well-connected and one for everyone else. Having a rule of law means that it applies at all times and in all places—not only when an administration chooses to enforce it. The law applies right now to the Trump administration; that the administration refuses to acknowledge that fact is all the more reason that a future administration must reassert it. That means holding people accountable for their wrongdoing.
The report also emphasizes that the investigations should be conducted without any White House involvement by career DOJ officials selected for their integrity and experience rather than their ideological and political leanings.
Goldberg quotes Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island to make the point that a Truth Commission of sorts was warranted after the Bush administration took our country to war in Iraq based on lies and phony, manufactured evidence, resulting in a geopolitical disaster from which that region has failed to recover, not to mention the massive loss of life.
Whitehouse was one of the Democrats who, in 2009, called for some sort of Truth Commission to examine the legacy of the last Republican to wreck the country. George W. Bush’s presidency left America “deeply in debt, bleeding jobs overseas, our financial institutions rotten and weakened, an economy in free fall,” Whitehouse said then. His administration took the country to war based on lies and authorized torture. There was a “systematic effort to twist policy to suit political ends; to substitute ideology for science, fact, and law; and to misuse instruments of power.”
But no Truth Commission was ever created. There was no accountability for Iraq, or for Guantanamo, or waterboarding, or “renditions,” just as there was no accountability for the Wall Street banks and financial behemoths that caused the financial crisis of 2007-2008. As a result, as former Obama senior adviser Ben Rhodes, quoted by Goldberg, states:
The “lack of accountability that people felt around the financial crisis and around torture didn’t go away,” said Rhodes. “It metastasized.” A generation of Republicans learned that there was no price for flouting the rules.
The point is that there is a direct line between the failure to hold Bush and Cheney accountable and the widespread, systematic corruption of the Trump administration. People like Stephen Miller, like Bill Barr, honestly believe they’re going to skate away and live happily ever after—perhaps, like Sean Spicer, even being invited to go Dancing with the Stars. They feel they are untouchable, and that’s why they continue with their corruption and illegality. After all, no one has ever been held to account; why would they be the first?
With regard to Trump himself, in his mind, assuming he can somehow escape the prosecutions pending in the Southern District of New York, he clearly believes he has a future that doesn’t involve a jail cell for the rest of his life, possibly in some country without an extradition treaty with the U.S. The Trump crime family is now far more than Trump himself—it consists of his branding and the coercive power he has exerted by virtue of his office to benefit himself, clearly with a view towards pursuing additional ventures after he leaves office. If we allow that to happen, we’ll simply be setting ourselves up for another Trump.
The list of Trump’s crimes, grifting, and self-dealing, is of course inexhaustible. But Goldberg has a few suggestions on how to deal with this criminal. For starters:
The administration’s failure to contain the coronavirus — exacerbated, according to reporting in Vanity Fair, by Trump’s hostile indifference to hard-hit blue states — deserves something akin to a 9/11 commission. So does the wholesale corruption of American diplomacy, only a small part of which was addressed by impeachment. Just last month, The New York Times reported that Trump instructed America’s ambassador to Britain to press the British government to hold the British Open golf tournament at Trump Turnberry, the president’s money-losing golf resort in Scotland. But we have little visibility into how fully American foreign policy has been perverted to serve Trump’s personal interests.
It’s also certainly worth considering the prosecutions of Miller, ICE, and Border Patrol officials, if applicable, as proposed by Sen. Warren during the Democratic primary. As reported in Pacific Standard last year:
Warren states correctly that, as president, she could ask the Department of Justice to investigate and consider bringing charges against individuals from the Trump administration who violated the laws by detaining and criminally abusing immigrants,” says Margaret Russell, a constitutional law professor at Santa Clara University. “This is within a president’s authority even if the past administration defended its actions as permissible under the immigration laws.”
As Goldberg points out, holding these people accountable does not simply mean “airing” or “exposing” their criminality. There is no benefit to that other than to encourage others by letting them know what they can get away with. What she is calling for are explicit legal sanctions—prison time for Trump’s criminal cabal. Of course, the right will call it a political vendetta. Fox News and every right-wing media outlet will call their minions into the street to protest, screaming at the top of their lungs. So? Just another reason to restore the Fairness Doctrine. It certainly couldn’t be much worse than what we’re experiencing right now.
Of course, the Biden administration—like any Democratic Administration coming out of this nightmare—will want to look forward, particularly since it will be attempting to rebuild what is likely to be the most damaged economy in American history. They will consider it a secondary matter to prosecute these people, secondary to saving the country itself from the disaster that Trump is leaving them to clean up. But in this circumstance, they may have no choice. As pointed out by Andrew Feinberg, writing for the Independent, Trump is a special case:
[G]ood government advocates, legal experts, and some prominent Democrats say the broad range of alleged violations of law by Trump administration officials and allies, ranging from misuse of government resources for personal gain; to the abuse and mistreatment of persons — including minors — in immigration detention; to obstruction of justice and making false statements to Congress; means a Biden administration effort to simply “turn the page” on the Trump years would be a dangerous concession to lawlessness.
It is a near certainty that Trump will contest any election result that goes against him, but assuming that our governmental institutions manage to thwart any attempts by Trump to evade that outcome, the timeframe between Nov. 3 and Jan. 20 will become the last opportunity for Trump’s cadre of appointees to indulge in a final spate of looting the public coffers.
The only way they are going to be deterred is by knowing that they will be held accountable to the full extent of the law.
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