The hearings of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection have already provided conclusive evidence that the effort to overturn the 2020 election was a conspiracy directed by a corrupt sitting president who knew the effort was based on lies and encouraged violence in pursuit of power.
The damning testimony before the committee and the persuasiveness of its case has been widely analyzed. But a frank discussion of accountability for the insurrection has been muted.
There is a reason for this. The gravity of the crime exceeds any that an American president has ever been suspected of committing, and the scale of culpability is greater than many citizens are comfortable contemplating.
Another reason, one that puts the country in peril, is that too many Americans continue to support the perpetrators.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the Democratic chairman of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, set the tone for the hearings a week ago in his opening statement.
“It was domestic enemies of the Constitution who stormed the Capitol and occupied the Capitol who sought to thwart the will of the people to stop the transfer of power,” he said. Later he said, “Ultimately, Donald Trump — the president of the United States — spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy … January 6th was the culmination of an attempted coup. … Violence was no accident. It represented Trump’s last stand, most desperate chance to halt the transfer of power.”
Thompson’s use of the phrase “domestic enemies” was deliberate. He noted the Civil War-era adoption of language regarding “all enemies — foreign and domestic” in the federal oath to account for the South’s rebellion.
In other words, the crimes committed by Trump and his co-conspirators are categorically akin to war-waging against the United States.
What is the appropriate punishment? If Trump and those who joined him in this violent attempted coup — including lawyers John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and seditionist members of Congress such as Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Andy Biggs of Arizona, other senior officials such as Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, as well as the hundreds of extremists who stormed the Capitol — are enemies of America, what’s to be done with them?
The answer comes to mind more readily than it’s given voice. We know the essence of the appropriate punishment for the crime. We don’t know yet how to engage it.
Plenty has been said about specific federal laws Trump likely violated. These were suggested by the committee in March when it asked a U.S. district court in California to compel Eastman to turn over documents. It argued that Eastman’s attorney-client privilege defense was invalidated because his relationship with Trump involved the likely commission of two federal crimes: obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Judge David O. Carter agreed.
“Dr. Eastman and President Trump launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history,” Carter wrote. “Their campaign was not confined to the ivory tower — it was a coup in search of a legal theory.”
These specific alleged criminal violations are an inherent theme of the committee’s recent public hearings. It’s as if the panel is “laying out a road map for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland” to initiate criminal prosecutions, as The New York Times put it.
Yet a case involving mere criminal codes and a jury of peers, as necessary as it is, would fail to account for the enormity of Trump’s betrayal of America, because a crime on the scale of a violent attempted coup by the country’s own president eludes the ability of any court to fully address. Only a tide of public scorn, a thorough condemnation by the citizenry, the eternal reprobation of history might match these misdeeds.
And such contempt must also target the Republican Party, which as an organization has been indispensable in propping up its criminal figurehead and clearing space for his treachery. Trump and his abettors should face the kind of society-dispensed justice reserved through the ages for a nation’s most hated scoundrels.
But that’s not happening.
Garland, to the exasperation of many democracy-approving Americans, appears ambivalent about prosecuting Trump and other high-level seditionists. It’s not hard to find people rehearsing the usual arguments against prosecuting a former president — the national trauma would be too great, it would be labeled politically motivated, it could trigger a partisan tit-for-tat — even though failure to punish Trump would prove that individuals who are in a position to inflict the most damage are the most immune to accountability.
In fact, the culprits are not only getting away with grave crimes. They’re thriving. Trump is preparing to become president again. Election deniers are the topline GOP candidates for the highest offices in Colorado and elswehere. Republicans in November have a good shot at taking back the majority in the U.S. Senate and are almost assured of regaining a majority in the U.S. House. When that happens, seditionist lawmakers will assume even higher positions of power — one of the most dispiriting examples being Jordan, a virulent Trump sycophant who is in line to be the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee and is already salivating over the retaliatory investigations he plans to launch.
The depth of catastrophe that awaits the country if Trump and the Republicans are rewarded for the insurrection cannot be overstated.
That Americans must even now tolerate the presence of seditionists in elective office demonstrates that Jan. 6 was not a crisis averted but only a spectacular expression of a crisis underway.
That Americans must watch as a free Trump prepares a second run at the presidency reveals that the justice system, so dependent on the good faith willingness of public officials to uphold the law, is outmatched by unbounded deceit and corruption.
That Americans in vast numbers continue to support Trump signals that the country established by the U.S. Constitution is already mutating into a dark new form that the Founders wouldn’t recognize.
Quentin Young is the editor of Colorado Newsline, which first published this commentary.