What to Do About Trump’s Crimes
When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, he faced a dilemma. The leaders of the now fallen apartheid regime had presided over a system that routinely imprisoned, tortured and killed many of its black citizens, and an entire generation of white politicians faced trial and imprisonment for clear and outrageous human rights violations.
Mandela had more reason than most to thirst for retribution, having endured nearly three decades of imprisonment, but wisely recognised that healing his nation’s grave divisions was the only path to salvation. Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed victims to tell their stories and the perpetrators of violence to request amnesty, and is today recognised as a masterstroke in what seemed an impossible process of healing.
When Joe Biden takes office in January, he faces a similar decision. The Presidency of Donald Trump has been the most corrupt and criminal in American history, and America remains a bitterly divided nation. Yet to simply ignore Trump’s criminality is counter to the rule of law and invites further malfeasance in the future. A case could be made that nearly all senior members of the Trump administration, including the President’s family, have broken laws that demand trial and imprisonment. Some suggest that Trump’s historic mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic itself amounts to negligent homicide.
There is precedent, of sorts. Gerald Ford controversially granted Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon in 1974, motivated by a similar desire for national healing (Biden will doubtless note that the pardoning of Nixon is regarded as a key reason Ford lost the 1976 election).
However, Nixon’s crimes were committed as President, and thus voided by the presidential pardon. Trump and his associates also face allegations of state-level crimes, including tax evasion, money laundering and bank and insurance fraud. The District Attorney for New York appears to be currently investigating Trump and his company for crimes such as these, where a federal pardon offers no protection from prosecution.
There are likely to be civil cases too. Trump has been credibly accused of sexual assault by dozens of women. A case accusing the President of rape, brought by journalist E. Jean Carroll, continues to progress through the courts.
These state level cases against Donald Trump won’t evaporate when he leaves office, even if he tries to pardon himself. And Trump isn’t likely to retire quietly, giving Biden an opportunity to let him disappear from view. As Donald Trump Jnr attempts to consolidate power within the party committee, Trump remains the strong favourite to be the Republican nominee in 2024.
Donald Trump’s continued and baleful presence on America’s national stage will likely colour Joe Biden’s judgement as to how best to proceed once in office. From a cynical perspective, tying Trump up in the courts might help neuter his political threat, and exposing the public to the sheer scale of Trump’s criminality could finally get Republicans to understand that which Democrats take for granted.
One option would be for Biden to make clear that his new Attorney General will scrupulously operate independently from the President (as has always previously been the case), and let the cards fall where they may. Another is to choose not to investigate Trump at all, something Biden has already hinted may be his preference. However, the latter option may not prove tenable, with Trump continuing to snipe from the sidelines and an intransigent Republican party that appears permanently in his thrall.
It’s an invidious choice. Failure to pursue Trump will strengthen the former President and cause distress within Democratic ranks, where the urge for vengeance remains strong. Yet the aggressive prosecution of Trump could backfire, adding impetus to a political movement that has based itself on a culture of victimhood. Add to this the fact that Biden will be prioritising a process of national healing, following an election in which Trump still garnered over 73-million votes.
Ultimately, the weight of Trump’s crimes may prove too much. Trump has been stoutly protected by Bill Barr at the Department of Justice as well as countless other minions appointed solely for their fealty to the President. But when these people are replaced by Biden appointees there is little left to stop the exposure of thousands of Trump administration crimes, large and small, committed across these last four years. Still redacted portions of the Mueller report may reveal the kind of Russian collusion bombshells that would be impossible to ignore.
Donald Trump is personally liable for over $400 million in loans, much of it coming due within a year of leaving office. When combined with debts held by the Trump Organisation, he may be over a billion dollars in the red. Trump faces state level prosecution and the likely exposure of many more federal crimes when he no longer controls America’s government. This may explain Trump’s refusal to concede the result of the election, and puts Trump on a collision course with the democratic reality of peacefully leaving office.
The lame duck period of presidential transition, finally now in motion, is normally an uneventful period of political stagnation. Not with this president. Trump has decapitated the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, withdrawn America from the Open Skies treaty (designed to avoid accidental military escalation) and appears to be deliberately sabotaging Joe Biden’s ability to manage the economy. Perhaps Trump’s ultimate crime will be to burn it all down as he heads for the door. With two months until inauguration, this story may be far from over.