Opinion: Impeaching Trump is only the start


It is imperative that there should be some consequence for Trump’s behavior. The question for Americans now is how best to impose them. Predictably, opponents of impeachment have argued both that there is simply too little time remaining in his term, but also that impeachment would further destabilize a highly polarized country.

Because Trump’s term expires in only a few days, the issue of timing cannot be ignored. it would be difficult to complete the impeachment and removal from office process before noon on January 20, when Joseph Biden will become president.

However, the substantive point that impeachment would not allow the country to move forward is deeply flawed. It suggests the choice is between either moving forward toward restoring some kind of normalcy or remaining focused on the Trump era and adjudicating the past.

This choice is false. The only way we can move forward and restore rule of law is by having some kind of process to document what occurred during the Trump era, how it culminated in violence that left five dead and ensuring that it has consequences for those responsible.

Failing to do this would send a message that inciting people to take to the streets of Washington, DC for a “wild” protest that led to them breaking into the Capitol, threatening the lives of those inside and disrupting one of the most important functions of government — ensuring that the winners of elections are able to take office — is somehow not that big of a problem.

The question of whether or not to impeach Trump is best understood as part of the need for a larger transitional justice process following the end of his administration. One of the unintended consequences of another impeachment, which could even occur after Trump leaves office, is that by focusing the inquiry too narrowly on the soon-to-be former President, the public would pay less attention to the role that others in the administration may have played in facilitating these events.
A post-Trump presidency impeachment which, as some have called for, includes a ban on him seeking office again, might bring premature and incomplete closure to this ugly chapter of American democracy.
There can be little doubt that the country remains polarized and that, despite comments from some prominent Republicans, no consensus has emerged about either the riot at the Capitol or the Trump presidency more broadly. This is what makes the idea of moving forward and not revisiting the Trump era so appealing.

However, burying the avarice, corruption, alleged crimes and democratic rollback that characterized the Trump presidency because a large, loud and at times violent minority does not see it that way only lets the problems and polarization fester further.

By contrast, learning the truth about the last four years and holding key actors responsible is essential to restoring the rule of law, the integrity of our political institutions and to meaningful movement beyond the Trump era.

There are many possible forms a transitional justice project could take. The Department of Justice could launch an investigation into not just the events of January 6 and Trump’s effort to intimidate Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, but also other possible criminal activity in the White House such as the business dealings of the Trump family.

This approach might satisfy some critics of Trump who just want to see more people from the President’s circle in prison, but the bar for convictions on all of these charges is high.

Additionally, high-profile criminal cases such as those involving tax write-offs would be unlikely either to bring the country together or shed enough light on what occurred over the previous four years. Moreover, a narrow focus on indictable federal crimes would not be a sufficient reckoning with the impact of the Trump years.
Another possible approach would be to establish high-level inquiries similar to truth and reconciliation commissions that have been convened in countries like South Africa. Ideally, these would be chaired by respected retired leaders from both parties and including representatives from sectors like civil society, the military, clergy and activist groups.

It might be best to establish one large commission to look into the entire administration. Another approach would be to establish several smaller commissions. There might, for example, be one on the January 6 insurrection, one focusing on the administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, one on allegations of corruption in the Trump administration and perhaps others as well.

The primary functions of these commissions would be to record what occurred during the Trump presidency and to articulate ways to balance the need for legal consequences with the need to move forward.

The commissions could begin to do this by taking statements and testimonies from witnesses, experts, people who worked in or close to the administration and even those effected by the policies and missteps of the administration. This information could be rapidly shared with the American people through commission websites and various media platforms.

It is critical that these commissions not only establish the fact of what occurred during the Trump years, but that they are empowered to recommend indictments as well.

It is true that America must move forward, but it’s dangerous to believe that it can only do that by ignoring the recent past. American democracy can only be rebuilt and strengthened when we begin by processing not just how close we came to losing it, but the extent to which not just one man, but many around him, including the leadership of one of our major political parties, may have contributed to that.

If we ignore that, we don’t simply run the risk of it happening again. We all but guarantee it.



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