From Donald Trump’s candidacy to his surprise win to his one-term presidency and now well into his post-presidency, America has been exploring uncharted territory.
Before conquering Hillary Clinton, Trump had to pull off what amounted to a hostile takeover of his own party. Throughout his 2016 campaign, he defied all laws of political gravity. Slurs and bad behavior that would have made quick hash of conventional pols only propelled him. Think of the Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s penchant for grabbing female anatomical parts as but one such gross incident.
Beginning the moment of his swearing-in with his “American carnage” speech delivered to what was decidedly not the largest inaugural crowd ever, the Trump presidency was unlike any other. The weird became the norm: Twitter taunts became high-level presidential oratory, the country pulled ever farther apart with the White House never hesitating to create a new fault line.
And what has been left unsaid about the 19 months since he unceremoniously left office? Sedate memoirs or watercolor painting or hammering nails for Habitat for Humanity are not exactly Trump’s thing. Rather, interrupted only by golf, he remains a constant presence with an unwavering commitment to stoking division. Having subdued the GOP six years ago, he has now remade it almost completely in his image with a platform of subservience to his will.
All of which brings us to this day and the all-consuming dilemma in which America finds itself. Continuing to break new ground, Trump is now the subject of at least five criminal investigations.
The big, inescapable question is whether the country is best served by pursuing these investigations and prosecuting the former president, if that is where the evidence leads, or whether the purpose of domestic tranquility set forth in the preamble to the Constitution calls for greater discretion.
Anyone with a quick and pat answer to this question is probably not thinking all that hard.
One investigation involves the boxes of records recently removed from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence. Reports suggest that these documents may have included highly classified information about nuclear weapons in violation of the Espionage Act.
Next up is a criminal investigation in Georgia into interference with the 2020 election process including Trump’s post-election phone call with the state’s top election official asking him to find 11,780 votes.
Then there are two investigations in New York, both centering on possible misrepresentations of the financial status of Trump’s web of enterprises. In one of those cases, the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer entered more than a dozen guilty pleas just this past week.
Of course, there is the ongoing investigation into the January 6th assault on our Capitol and Trump’s potential criminal culpability in inciting the violence along with his other efforts to overturn a lawfully-decided election.
That is a substantial list. None of it is child’s play.
One school of thought, and where my instincts largely lie, is that evidence should be vigorously pursued wherever it leads. Then let the chips fall where they may.
The principle that no person is above the law is foundational to our country. If conclusive evidence of criminal conduct is revealed, then those legal proceedings should unfold without regard to political whims or pressures or the potential for mass reaction.
In many circles, that is certainly the prevailing sentiment. Certainly, it is not coincidental that most of those circles have had only contempt for Trump from the get-go.
Visions of Trump in a prison-issued jumpsuit matching his skin tone and hair dye are like daily sustenance for those who have long been consumed with his fall and demise.
But there is another side of the coin, a contrary argument to be considered.
The esteemed commentator, George Will, a conservative when it comes to the conservation of institutions even as he has zero use for our departed president, recently took the Justice Department to task for what he saw as zealous overreach in the Mar-a-Lago raid.
A penalty could be called on every play in football, but referees choose when to throw the flag. So, too, is it with prosecutors. The concept of prosecutorial discretion is at the core of their responsibilities, picking when to put the screws to a culprit, when to issue a wrist slap and when to look the other way.
Trump’s currency is grievance and animus. The scene at Mar-a-Lago, much less the prospect of the orange-coifed ex-president in the dock, is like fuel to those hot fires of resentment.
Further, no matter how compelling the evidence, do not dismiss the difficulty of getting a unanimous jury verdict to convict a former president. Imagine how Trump would exploit an acquittal. And anticipate that such post-presidential prosecution would become one more political weapon in this spiraling escalation of enmity.
The argument is that ridding our country of Trump and Trumpism can only be accomplished at the ballot box. There are no shortcuts or workarounds.
That is the essence of two very contradictory approaches. For me, as soon as I convince myself of one case, the other viewpoint rings in my ears.
Still, when pushed, I come down on the side of the rule of law. If the uncovered facts point to serious transgressions, then Trump should be held to account, no matter his past office or future campaign.
Underscore the word "serious." A symbolic prosecution serves no purpose. But proof of the misuse of classified documents, including nuclear secrets, or the seditious instigation of violence or the attempt to influence a public official to rig an election tally would more than meet that test.
If our nation is such a tinderbox that accountability and enforcement of laws must now be put aside, then our problems are even deeper and more existential.
Final note: If your view on this question is largely based in your cheering for Trump or your loathing of him, then your standards are really nothing more than tribal and situational.