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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
If Donald Trump’s critics couldn’t win in Congress, they want the courts to bring him to justice. The legal complaints keep rolling in.
Trump’s serious problems began when Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican, found 10 “episodes” of his potential obstruction of justice. While Mueller found no direct link between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling on his behalf, he reported that Trump had tried to interfere with his investigation.
But Mueller could go no further, blocked by a Department of Justice opinion that a sitting president could not be forced to face criminal charges.
Freed from any penalty from the Mueller investigation, Trump tried to get the Ukraine president to investigate the alleged involvement of Biden’s son in a potentially corrupt company there. He added pressure for such help by delaying promised financial aid for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion.
House Democrats impeached Trump for his Ukraine move, though they skipped over any charges that might have come from Mueller’s obstruction of justice findings. Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voted to convict, and the effort to remove Trump from office failed to gain the Senate’s required two-thirds vote.
Next, House Democrats joined by 10 Republicans impeached Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection aimed at getting Congress to overturn his election defeat.
While GOP senators denounced Trump’s actions, they refused to convict him because he was no longer in office. The same Justice Department opinion that had blocked Mueller clearly stated that an impeached federal official could be convicted after leaving office. A Senate majority voted to support that view.
Most Republican senators refused to honor that decision. Seven Republicans, including Susan Collins, did accept it and voted to convict Trump, but the effort again failed.
The impeachment process is political. Conviction depends on the offense being so outrageous that members of the president’s own party will vote against him. The second Senate trial vote revealed that convicting a president is probably impossible.
When the Senate’s unwillingness to act is coupled with protection from criminal charges while in office, a president likely enjoys complete immunity.
An ex-president might face a criminal trial, but the only punitive action is likely to be the verdict of history. Trump’s record-setting two impeachments may be his main legacy.
But that outcome is not enough for his opponents and victims. Having failed to convict him when Trump was president, they continue to hope for him to be found guilty of a major offense. Such a decision might be seen as their vindication, because it would be judicial not political.
Democrats had intended that conviction in the second impeachment trial would lead to Trump being banned from ever again holding federal office. That’s why the Senate trial began even after his term had ended.
Being found guilty in court now could serve the same purpose. He might be sufficiently discredited that his chances at election or perhaps even the GOP nomination would be undercut. Much would depend on the reaction of traditional Republicans plus independents.
His partisans may believe that losing in court might not stop him. The party keeps working to suppress the Democratic vote in swing states so that he could win again with a smaller GOP turnout.
Many federal cases have been brought against Trump, mostly by professional prosecutors, not political figures. There’s a slim chance he could be tried for his Jan. 6 actions. Recently, two Capitol police officers injured by the mob sued Trump.
Though Biden should keep hands off, he might prefer the Justice Department not pursue Trump out of concern that they could appear overly political, especially in light of Trump’s investigation of Biden’s son, which the president has not halted.
Beyond the federal cases, Trump remains vulnerable. The ex-president is the subject of state investigations that are completely independent of the federal Justice Department. Other cases in which he is not directly involved could also produce negative results for him.
Both the New York State attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney are investigating Trump’s possible tax evasion and whether he lied to obtain business loans. Georgia is investigating his attempts to influence the presidential vote count through direct contacts with its election officials. Conviction in these cases, if they get to court, could be politically damaging.
Among the most serious cases are complaints brought by two companies against some Trump lawyers and his Fox News allies. Trump endorsed their claims that the companies operated voting machines replacing Trump votes with Biden votes. There is no such evidence, and the companies say their businesses have suffered because of the claims.
If the companies win, the results will further discredit Trump’s false assertion that he won the election, his supporters’ justification for the Capitol insurrection. That could harm his political prospects.
The campaign battles between Trump and his opponents continue. No longer is it only a matter of politics. In the end, the courts may have as much to say about Trump’s presidency and his future as did the voters last November.