After the U.S. Senate acquitted President Donald Trump of wrongdoing, he continued to assert that he did absolutely nothing wrong. This is almost certainly not true. In fact, his acquittal was supported by the compliance of a significant number of Republican senators who conceded that Trump did, indeed, do something wrong — their favorite word for it was “inappropriate” — but that what he did wasn’t so bad that it warranted removal from office.
Which raises an interesting question: Have we slouched into an era in which we too readily indulge bad behavior and reduce the punishments that we impose for wrongdoing? Are we living in an era of diminished personal accountability?
This occurred to me when I noticed that on the very day of Trump’s acquittal, former ballplayer Pete Rose filed a petition asking Major League Baseball to rescind his permanent banishment from the sport, handed down in 1989, for gambling on baseball games, including games played by the Cincinnati Reds when Rose was their manager.
Rose was one of baseball’s greatest players. His lifetime batting average is .303, and he still holds the Major League record for hits, 4,256. He would almost certainly have been in the Baseball Hall of Fame by now, had it not been for that pesky gambling thing.
Rose doesn’t cite the lenient disposition of Trump’s case in his petition. Rather, he points to the recent revelation of the sign-stealing scandal that may have helped the Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series.
The Astros were punished with a $5 million fine and the loss of first- and second-round picks for the next two drafts. The Astros’ general manager and manager were both suspended from the league for one year. But the players who actually did the sign-stealing were not punished, at all.
And this is what bothers Pete Rose. His petition argues that his “ongoing punishment is no longer justifiable as a proportional response to his transgressions.”
In other words, if Rose’s punishment was justifiable when it was imposed 31 years ago, it’s “no longer justifiable” in our modern era of indulgence toward wrongdoing, whether in sports or politics.
In general, mercy and forgiveness are good for any culture, but how do we balance them against the need to take serious crimes seriously? Our modern inclination toward indulgence should not be at the expense of a scrupulous, sober assessment of the crime that we plan to indulge.
And this is what’s lost in Trump’s acquittal: the gravity of the allegation.
Nothing undercuts the well-being and integrity of baseball more than the possibility that the outcome of a game could depend on anything other than skill and athleticism.
And nothing poses a greater threat to our democracy than an unpunished attempt to cheat, especially by misusing the power of high office to gain an advantage over a political opponent.
The last time a president tried to cheat in an election, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the proper punishment was removal. Richard Nixon got in trouble for covering up a ham-handed effort by his minions to game an election, and he removed himself from office before the Senate could. Forty-six years ago everyone agreed that elections are sacrosanct.
The Republican senators who admit that Trump abused his office, but not badly enough to warrant removal, are too lenient on themselves and on Trump. Their casual assessment of the gravity of the offense does significant damage to the cornerstone of democracy: fair and honest elections.
Pete Rose has tried to get himself reinstated before, but Major League Baseball has not looked kindly on his petitions. It took Rose 15 years to admit that he was guilty, and he’s never shown much contrition. Now his chief argument seems to be that since modern players escape punishment, so should he.
It’s no surprise that Trump tweeted his support for Rose’s addition to the Hall of Fame. Both are well-acquainted with denial, and neither is plagued by contrition.
But in Trump’s case, considerably more is at stake: Throwing an election is much worse than throwing a baseball game.
John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.