It now seems likely that President Trump will lose his bid for reelection in November and perhaps by a margin large enough to head off any effort to contest the results and unconstitutionally hold on to power. But even if this doesn’t happen in November it will happen one day. Now is the time to plan for accountability for and recovery from the catastrophe of Trumpism.
One of the most abiding criticisms of the Obama administration is that no one was held accountable for the actions that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Relatedly, but addressing a different set of equities, others criticized Obama for ‘turning the page’ on the manipulated intelligence scandals that led to the Iraq War. These are complicated questions that are beyond the scope of this discussion. But there are at least potent reasons to avoid the cycle which has plagued so many countries in which losing power means vulnerability to political prosecutions and the necessity of exile.
But we often get this part of the civic accountability calculus wrong. Prosecution and criminal punishment play an important role in combating public wrongdoing. But they are not the most important tool. Indeed it often operates at cross purposes to the far more important goal of public exposure.
We have seen this pattern play out repeatedly in recent years and as recently as the Mueller investigation. The investigation resulted in numerous secondary prosecutions but on the main points ended inconclusively. Investigators found that the Trump campaign sought and welcomed assistance from Russia but uncovered insufficient evidence of a conspiracy to merit prosecution. Indeed because the main investigation was focused on crimes under statute law the public wasn’t and probably will never be allowed to see much of the evidence. This turns the whole matter on its head. Not only are prosecutions not the most important form of accountability, some of the gravest wrongdoing is not captured in the criminal law. As Warren Hastings wrote a quarter millennium ago: “The only redress for a fraud for which the law had made no provisions is the exposure of it.”
Part of the lack of any true and robust congressional inquiry was due to Republicans’ effort to defend the President. But it was also tied to Congress not wanting to cross-wires with a criminal probe. We’ve increasingly missed the mark on this since the Iran-Contra Scandal when Oliver North famously had his conviction overturned because of immunity concerns tied to his congressional testimony. Since then Congress has been extremely wary of overlapping with criminal probes. But again, this gets the calculus all wrong.
The truth is that in the most important respects it doesn’t matter that much whether Roger Stone or Paul Manafort or even Donald Trump spend time in prison. But for public accountability it matters a great deal that we the people know what they did. Seeing public bad actors do time is at best a sugar high of public accountability. It metes out, often against a random array of individuals, what it properly addressed at large by exposure and elections. Exposure lights the road to a better future and gives voters the information they need to ensure accountability at the ballot box.
President Trump has not only consistently abused his powers and conflated his personal interest with the national interest. He has used his vast powers of secrecy to conceal his crimes and betrayals. That should stop the day he leaves office and it can be easily done. It doesn’t rely on the courts or the Congress. The new President will inherit all those powers for his own tenure and all past Presidents. As Trump himself has so failed to understand none of these are his powers. They are the powers of the sitting President.
The process should be an orderly and considered one. There is no national interest in revealing every embarrassing moment. And all must be done to protect actual national security interests. But the cover ups need to end and they can. Those who are willing to come forward with pertinent evidence should be given the opportunity to petition for a more formal immunity for coming forward. The true goal is getting the complete story.
My point here is not to rule out prosecutions. That is simply a more complex question with more complicated equities. The winners prosecuting the losers is a dangerous if sometimes necessary tool. We also don’t know what we will find. But review and exposure is something we can and must insist on now. There is no tyranny or injustice in simply having your bad acts revealed. If Trump is driven from office, Trumpism won’t end in January 2021. We’ll still have a whole political party devoted to him and his politics. We will still have the machinery of government which it uses to govern through minority rule. But none of these obstacles to and targets of reform will be surmountable without accountability and exposure for the public catastrophe of the last four years. No standards of public service or resistance to public corruption and abuse can be restored without it.
Airing what happened is critical on the domestic front. It is even more critical on the international front. How many elements of our bilateral ties with other countries are based on corrupt acts or transactions? How many actions of state are based on corrupt bargains or betrayals. These relationships or the integrity of American foreign policy cannot be restored without such bad acts being revealed and expunged. We will not otherwise know if corrupt sources of personal or familial enrichment have been engineered to survive his presidency.
If Joe Biden wins the election in November he will immediately be confronted with a broken country and a host of public crises – a pandemic, a wrecked economy, a longterm need to restabilize a sputtering global order. There will be great pressure to turn on the page on the story and simply move on, if only for lack of time. So Biden’s supporters should begin insisting now on a commitment to an orderly process of clearing the executive stables of the dung of Trumpism. This should include, starting now, a warning to all those in power not to destroy any documents or records – in the broadest sense of the term – and that any officials will be held liable for destroying records and evidence which are all the property of the United States government and not any transient officeholder. It’s the one act that should ensure prosecution.
Trumpism has been an historic assault on our civic and democratic order. We cannot simply have it become a normal part of our history. A chief part of the President’s corruption has been abusing his powers to hide his wrongdoing. We can’t move forward without undoing those crimes and unwinding the lies.