Opinion | To Not Charge Trump for His Election Scheme Would Be the True Politicization of Justice
Donald Trump has now been indicted three times, accused of crimes occurring before, during and after his presidency. The latest indictment alleges facts from all quarters to prove his criminality: from the vice president to the White House counsel and the heads of the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Intelligence, as well as many others. All are Republican loyalists.
But the indictment does more: It skillfully avoids breathing air into a Trump claim of selective prosecution. To not have brought this case against Mr. Trump would have been an act of selective nonprosecution. The Justice Department has already charged and obtained convictions for myriad foot soldiers related to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, including charging well over 300 people for obstructing the congressional proceedings. In this indictment, the special counsel Jack Smith wisely brings that same charge, but now against the alleged leader of the effort to thwart the transfer of power.
That charge of obstruction and conspiracy to defraud the United States in the administration of elections are entirely fitting for the conduct alleged in the indictment. In a civil case last year, the Federal District Court judge David Carter held that Mr. Trump and John Eastman likely engaged in a criminal conspiracy under both those statutes in their schemes to organize false electors and pressure the vice president. Mr. Smith has now said he can prove the same conduct beyond a reasonable doubt.
Although the Jan. 6 select committee referred Mr. Trump for investigation for inciting an insurrection, Mr. Smith wisely demurred. The Justice Department has not charged that offense in any other case involving the attack on the Capitol, and insurrection has not been charged since the 19th century. Of course, no president has engaged in it since then — but since no one else has been charged with that crime relating to Jan. 6, it likely would have been an issue. And since the penalty for the insurrection offense is that the defendant would not be eligible to hold federal office, it would have fueled a claim of weaponizing the Justice Department to defeat a political rival.
Mr. Trump and others like him will of course continue to assert that the Justice Department has been politically weaponized. That claim has it exactly backward.
To not charge Mr. Trump for trying to criminally interfere with the transfer of power to a duly elected president would be to politicize the matter. It would mean external political considerations had infected the Justice Department’s decision-making and steered the institution away from its commitment to holding everyone equally accountable under the law.
What those circling their wagons around Mr. Trump are in effect asking for is a two-tiered system, in which the people who were stirred by lies to interrupt the congressional certification are held to account but not the chief instigator. That injustice has not been lost on judges overseeing cases related to Jan. 6. In the 2021 sentencing of John Lolos — a 48-year-old man with no criminal record who traveled from Seattle to hear Mr. Trump’s speech at the Ellipse before being convinced to “storm” the Capitol — Judge Amit Mehta commented on the incongruity in the D.C. courtroom.
“People like Mr. Lolos were told lies, fed falsehoods, and told that our election was stolen when it clearly was not,” the judge said. He went on to add that those “who created the conditions that led to Mr. Lolos’s conduct” and the events of Jan. 6 have “in no meaningful sense” been held “to account for their actions and their words.”
We are now on the doorstep of the sort of accountability that Judge Mehta found lacking.
That is what also makes this indictment of the former president different. Where both the Manhattan hush money case and classified documents case have been, in some part, mired in discussions of whataboutism, the 2020 election interference indictment is where whataboutism goes to die.
In this case, the Trump stratagem is unmasked. Given the record of robust prosecutions of Jan. 6 foot soldiers and Mr. Trump’s responsibility for their actions, he has had to resort to saying the Capitol attack was good, and he and his enablers have lauded convicted felons as heroes and “political prisoners.” Mr. Trump’s continued statements in favor of the Jan. 6 defendants can and likely will be used against him in any trial.
As the narrative of the indictment lays out, Mr. Trump’s schemes — to sell the big lie and promote election fraud even when he privately conceded to advisers the claims were “unsupported” and “crazy” — are what contributed to the attack of Jan. 6. And it is a relief that the indictment includes Mr. Trump’s role and responsibility in that violence. Many Americans would not understand the Justice Department focusing only on bureaucratic and procedural efforts to affect the congressional certification.
As Senator Mitch McConnell said at the close of Mr. Trump’s second impeachment trial, “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
He added: “We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.”
What is also clear from the indictment is that Mr. Trump will most likely not be the last white-collar defendant charged for the set of crimes it sets out. Mr. Smith clearly, and properly, considers that the six co-conspirators — parts of the indictment describe actions by co-conspirators that correspond with those taken by, for example, Mr. Eastman and Rudy Giuliani — committed federal offenses that threatened the core of our democracy. The rule of law cannot tolerate those actors facing charges with the main protagonist going scot free.
The main task ahead for Mr. Smith is getting his cases to trial before the general election. But the true test ahead will not be for Mr. Smith. It will be for us: Will Americans care about the rule of law enough to vote for it? The courtroom is a place where facts and law still matter, but the criminal cases against Mr. Trump will test whether the same can be said for the ballot box.
Ryan Goodman, a law professor at the New York University School of Law, is a co-editor in chief of Just Security. Andrew Weissmann, a senior prosecutor in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, is a professor at N.Y.U. School of Law and a host of the podcast Prosecuting Donald Trump.