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Democrats can't 'look forward' without investigating Donald Trump's potential crimes

There is no good future without a reckoning with the past.
Photo illustration of Trump walking away from cabinets of filed documents
Trump's potential crimes can't be forgotten.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Democratic leaders are dangerously delusional if they believe that once President Donald Trump is out of office, they can simply focus on “looking forward” and everything else will be fine. It won’t. In order to return to any semblance of normalcy — and more importantly to protect our democracy — Trump must he held accountable for his wrongdoing.

The things that are already public are stunning enough. We all watched Trump engage in an attempted political coup these last few weeks, trying to overturn the 2020 election via a tsunami of lies. We see the violence at the U.S. Capitol that he helped encourage. Beyond that, there are potentially various federal and state crimes Trump committed in office as former federal prosecutors have noted. These range from obstruction of justice, as former special counsel Robert Mueller hinted in his final report, to conspiracy to defraud the United States. The MSNBC legal analyst Glenn Kirschner even argued that Trump should face prosecution for manslaughter for intentionally lying to the American people about the risks of Covid-19.

That’s why it was jaw-dropping to hear the comments earlier this week of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., thechair of the House Democratic Caucus, after the release of Trump’s phone call pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help him “find” votes to overturn the state’s election results. When Jeffries was asked whether the House would consider impeaching Trump given this new information — which many legal experts have noted could be criminal under both federal and Georgia state law — he declared, “We’re not looking backward, we’re looking forward."

How could Democrats in power simply want to move on and not focus on holding Trump accountable?

In response, you could hear Democrats across the nation screaming at their TVs and computers: “Noooooo!!” I heard the exact same sentiment from Democratic listeners to my SiriusXM radio show, who were sincerely shocked that a Democratic leader would voice such a sentiment. How could Democrats in power simply want to move on and not focus on holding Trump accountable?

Alarmingly, Jeffries' sentiment is very similar to President-elect Joe Biden’s on this issue. In mid-November, Biden’s advisers told NBC News that he is “going to be more oriented toward fixing the problems and moving forward than prosecuting them.” Biden himself told NBC News’ Lester Holt in late November of his hesitancy to prosecute Trump, instead saying, “What I'm focused on is getting the American public back at a place where they have some certainty.”

We heard the same mindset from President Barack Obama in 2009 after he took office saying he didn’t want to look back at President George W. Bush’s possible crimes surrounding the Iraq War, such as use of torture. Instead, Obama stated, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

That approach was wrong in 2009; that same philosophy is dangerous to our republic if applied in 2021 to Trump. There will be no "forward" to look to if Trump is not held accountable for potential crimes he may have committed — at least not one where the rule of law matters.

To be clear, there should never, ever be a politically motivated prosecution. Just because we disagree politically — or in the case of Trump literally despise the man as many of us do — that alone cannot be a basis to investigate him. That wouldn’t just be wrong and illegal, it would also be un-American. That’s why Biden is right on the money when he told Holt, "I will not do what this president does and use the Justice Department as my vehicle to insist that something happened."

Conversely, though, preventing a criminal investigation into possible wrongdoing because there’s a potential political benefit to doing so is equally as wrong.

Our criminal justice system is predicated upon two pillars: punishment and deterrence. We punish wrongdoers, which in turn sends a message designed to deter others from engaging in this same action. For example, if Richard Nixon actually served jail time for crimes he may have committed as part of the Watergate scandal, that would’ve sent a clear message to future presidents that they are not above the law. (Nixon was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford.) Same if George W. Bush was at least criminally investigated for his role in any potential crimes surrounding the Iraq War and the treatment of prisoners of war.

Biden and his attorney general must set the tone from the top that Trump’s actions were not politics as normal but were egregious and potentially criminal.

Biden plans to nominate Judge Merrick Garland, currently serving on the federal bench, as his attorney general. If confirmed, Garland should early into his tenure appoint a special counsel who is truly independent to investigate the potential crimes Trump committed while president. But if Garland won’t commit to that, then he should at least be sounding alarm bells to signal to Americans that Trump must be held accountable for any crimes he committed while in office. It’s not enough to say, as Biden has, “There are a number of investigations that I've read about that are at a state level" focused on Trump.

Instead, Biden and his attorney general must set the tone from the top that Trump’s actions were not politics as normal but were egregious and potentially criminal. This will make it clear to all that a full investigation into Trump’s possible crimes is warranted. In turn, it will go a long way to paving the way for a future we can all look forward to in which no one — not even a president— can pretend that they are above the law.