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Image: Then-President Donald Trump attends a Covid-19 press briefing at the White House in 2020.
Then-President Donald Trump attends a Covid-19 press briefing at the White House in 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Why pursuing a fitting punishment for Trump is hard

There are three potential avenues to take, each with their own benefits and pitfalls.


The most important question looming over the House investigation into the Jan. 6 attack is how to punish former President Donald Trump and deter future coup-plotters. 

And it’s not an easy one. 

You can tell by the reports of behind-the-scenes Jan. 6 committee debates over whether to submit a criminal referral to the Justice Department. And by the DOJ's request for transcripts of all the committee’s interviews for use in criminal investigations. And by the understandably obsessive public debate over whether Trump will ever don an orange jumpsuit. 

Trust me, everyone: I share that obsession. But as I mentioned earlier this week, we shouldn’t limit repercussions for coup-plotters to criminal charges. There are several tools at the country’s disposal to beat back anti-democratic efforts like Jan. 6 in the future. And we should explore each one.

Now is the time for true innovation if we want to avoid this scenario again. We don’t have an explicit, anti-coup handbook. We’re all authors, writing our future in real time.

That begs the question of what accountability for insurrectionists looks like for high-level officials like Trump and his inner circle. Is it a measure barring them from holding future office? Civil lawsuits? Criminal charges? All three? 

As I see it, those are three avenues to accountability being explored. 

There’s the criminal lane, which could obviously lead to jail time — but also punitive measures like fines. 

Then there’s the congressional reform lane, meaning laws passed by Congress to prevent future coups. The committee has said it will produce recommendations once the hearings end. With regard to new laws, that could mean anything from shoring up the Electoral Count Act or seeking to bar Trump and his team from future office using existing laws. I think these are necessary, but could be meaningless to Trump, who has already used the presidency for rampant self-dealing and other lawlessness. 

Then there’s the civil lawsuit lane, which can feel insufficient but can be used to seek damages from would-be insurrectionists and their enablers. There have already been civil suits filed against Trump and right-wing figures for their role on Jan. 6. I think this avenue could be fruitful, because it potentially recovers ill-gotten gains from leaders like Trump. It also fits a long-held tradition in America of suing extremist groups and their leaders into oblivion

American democracy is relatively new compared to political systems in many other countries. Trump and his team tried to wrench it from us. As a nation, we need to explore all the possible ways to hold them accountable and deter others from following in their footsteps. 

The House Jan. 6 committee is holding its fourth public hearing on Tuesday, June 21 at 1 p.m. ET. Get expert analysis in real-time on our liveblog at