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President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as President, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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Should Trump be held accountable, and if so, for what?

Accountability is more about the future than the past, scholars say

President Donald Trump did not parade around Senate chambers wearing a furry, horned hat. He did not put his feet on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, or carry off a lectern from the House of Representatives, waving at cameras.

But a majority of Americans say the outgoing president is responsible for the mayhem and deadly violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, and there is an increasingly loud chorus of people across the political spectrum demanding that Trump be held accountable. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that Trump had “provoked” the mob, along with other “powerful people.” Public opinion on the matter, however, is not unanimous.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 40% of Utah residents say Trump is a great deal to blame for the riot, but 31% said he is “not at all” to blame. Liberals are more likely than conservatives to say Trump should be held accountable, with conservatives saying that blame for the violence, which left five dead, belongs with the rioters themselves.

And even among people who say the president is to blame, there is a wide range of thought on what accountability might look like. Some say prison; some say impeachment; and former FBI Director James Comey says removing Trump from the spotlight would be punishment enough. “Turn off the camera lights,” Comey said in a recent interview with Sky News.

Comey is among prominent voices who believe the country needs to heal and that attempts to hold Trump accountable will further inflame and harden lines of division.

“The country would be better off if we did not give him the platform that a prosecution would for the next three years,” Comey said.

But Grant Tudor, policy advocate at the Washington, D.C.-based initiative Protect Democracy, noted that holding people accountable doesn’t necessarily involve criminal prosecution. “Accountability also means processes for gathering truth and telling the truth; beyond that, it also means enforcing consequences for noncriminal transgressions, such as violations of norms,” he said.

It’s also as much about ensuring ethical behavior in the future as it is punishing the sins of the past, Tudor and others say.

Supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate chamber inside the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

‘A pretty dangerous strategy’

New York writer Jon Katz says that accountability is about morality, not punishment.

“A test of our current civilization is whether Donald Trump will avoid responsibility for what he has done yet again,” Katz recently wrote, adding, “There is a right and a wrong, a truth and a lie. A society that can no longer tell the difference between these things is rotting at the core.”

Similarly, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote recently, “This is not about politics. This is about our country, about the rule of law, and about the sanctity of human life.”

At a forum on truth and accountability convened Tuesday by the Brookings Institution, Susan Hennessey, a senior scholar at Brookings, said it’s important that Trump be held accountable because of the seriousness of what happened Jan. 6.

“What’s absolutely clear right now is that we came within maybe a minute, maybe 30 seconds, of having a mass casualty event in the United States Congress,” Hennessey said, adding that the public needs to understand the severity of the threat.

“This is not about supporters standing in the sacred space of the Senate. This is about a very real, very grave threat to the United States,” she said. “It’s a hard and a scary thing to comprehend, but that’s just the basic reality, and I think that ties to how we think about the question of accountability metrics.”

Voices calling for Trump to face consequences for the events of Jan. 6 include Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who wrote, “We should come down like a hammer on all those responsible, moving with brute dispatch against members of the mob and their instigators.” And a group of more than 1,000 historians and constitutional scholars wrote on Medium, “Throughout his presidency, Trump has defied the Constitution and broken laws, norms, practices, and precedents, for which he must be held accountable now and after he leaves office.”

The historians look to the future, however, when writing about how America should deal with transgressions of the recent past. “No future president should be tempted by the example of (Trump’s) defiance going unpunished,” they wrote.

In fact, accountability is just as much about non-recurrence — preventing future behavior —than retribution, said Tudor, of Protect Democracy.

“Moving on might make us feel better in the short term, but in the long term, sweeping really dangerous behavior under the rug and crossing our fingers that it won’t happen again has, time and again, proved to be a pretty dangerous strategy,” Tudor said.

Breaking a cycle

Weeks before the Capitol riot, Protect Democracy released a report on accountability entitled “Towards Non-Recurrence: Accountability Options for Trump-Era Transgressions.” The white paper argued that there had been widespread misconduct in the Trump administration, ranging from violation of norms to possible criminal actions, that required serious consideration of consequences and actions that would serve as a deterrent in the future.

The 49-page report addresses questions such as which kinds of transgressions should be held to account, which players can be held accountable and who should pursue accountability. It acknowledges the risks of pursuing accountability, but says that the risks of not doing so are steeper. And it sets forth eight principles that should guide accountability efforts. They include:

  • Types of transgressions should be distinguished from each other, and in turn approached differently.
  • Accountability efforts do not universally need to be “popular” to be effective.
  • Non-recurrence requires employing a broad menu of complementary, not competing instruments.

The “broad menu” of instruments is what is currently facing Trump for what McConnell and others see as his incitement of the mob that broke into the Capitol, after two months of urging his followers to “Stop the steal” of the 2020 presidential election. (Trump and his attorneys were unable to convince courts that there was any tampering in election results.)

After his second impeachment by the House of Representatives, Trump faces another trial by the Senate, possibly as early as next week. He is also suffering a range of economic repercussions, to include the cancellation of the PGA Golf Tournament, which was to be held at his New Jersey golf club in May, and the announcement by his long-term bank, Deutsche Bank, that it would no longer do business with Trump and his company. Perhaps equally bruising to a man in the thrall of social media was the loss of Trump’s Twitter account.

The Protect Democracy report, however, is more concerned with preventing future problems than punishing what it sees as Trump’s transgressions. “If we’re interested in breaking a cycle of powerful people coming into government and abusing those positions, then accountability has a very practical purpose,” Tudor said.

Prosecutions might be important, but they don’t fix everything, Tudor added, which is why the Protect Democracy report says that accountability demands action from society, to include “unearthing a full and truthful record of wrongdoing, rebuilding robust social norms governing acceptable political behavior, and constructing a shared narrative” about what has happened.

These actions might be as important as individual consequences that transgressors suffer, the report says. Additionally, private institutions, such as bar associations, also play a role in holding people accountable by issuing — and enforcing — codes of conduct.

“These institutions, although lacking the force of government, can nonetheless promote powerful prescriptive norms that govern political behavior,” the report says.

To pardon or not?

As for how the country best can move on and heal from a tumultuous period — with or without criminal misconduct — we have Watergate and its aftermath to consider, Tudor said. Then-President Gerald Ford famously pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974, and some people, including columnist Jay Evensen writing for the Deseret News, have said that Biden should pardon Trump to help calm a fractious nation.

Journalist and author Bob Woodward has said that his first reaction upon learning of the Nixon pardon was that it was “the final corruption of Watergate,” but he later came to see it as a courageous act done for the good of the country.

Tudor sees it differently, as did many Americans. “In the decades since Watergate, it’s difficult to make the case that that pardon magically healed the country. Instead, it allowed Nixon to maintain that he did nothing wrong. There was a poll that came out a few years ago that found that nearly half of Americans thought Watergate was politics as usual. Clearly, we didn’t engage in a tough conversation about what went wrong.”

Accountability is a complicated issue, and despite the best efforts of people with good intentions, not everyone involved in the process emerges holding hands, Tudor said. That’s one reason why Protect Democracy’s report notes that widespread public support should not be a goal of those working for accountability.

In fact, political divisions exist even within groups working for accountability. In the same month that Protect Democracy released its report, the political action committee America Rising announced a “Biden Accountability Initiative,” which it says will be “a full-scale effort to fight back against Joe Biden’s liberal agenda, appointments, and policies.”

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