January 4, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump broke the law, must face justice
Prison time is the way to stop GOP's descent into fascism.
The Washington Post released the transcript Sunday of the president’s Saturday phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state. The document is a thicket of conspiracy theory, threats and lies. We’ll be talking about it for some time. For now, however, I think it’s important to focus on one big thing, which is this: Donald Trump broke the law.
I’m not an attorney. I’m not a judge. I’m not a professor of law. But any commonsense yet critical reading of this transcript, done in good faith, should come to the same conclusion. There’s one reason and one reason only for a president who lost Georgia to be hounding that state’s top election official. There’s one reason and one reason only for the president to insist he won the state only to have Brad Raffensperger, the official in question, politely but firmly correct him each and every time. There’s one reason and one reason only: to vandalize the supreme sovereignty of the American people.
Federal statute: It is punishable by fine or up to five years in prison for “a person” to “knowingly and willfully” deprive, defraud, or attempt to deprive or defraud “the residents of a state of a fair and impartially conducted election process.”
That’s the only conclusion. Raffensperger’s office recounted the vote three times, once by hand, each time with the same result. Joe Biden won by 11,779 votes. His office has explained itself to the state House of Representatives. It has explained itself to the state Senate. His office, together with the Georgia General Assembly, has certified the vote. Georgia’s electors, along with those of 49 other states, convened Dec. 14 to certify the national Electoral College vote. All but one of Trump’s lawsuits have been tossed. (One is pending in state court.) All that remains is for the US Congress to sign off.
Every “i” has been dotted. Every “t” has been crossed. Yet here’s the president of the United States calling a state official directly. (Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and three White House attorneys were also on the line.) Why did he call? Only an idiot would ask why. The right question is what federal statutes were violated? I’ll leave that to attorneys, judges and law professors, but even 52 U.S. Code § is subject to a commonsense reading. It is punishable by fine or up to five years in prison for “a person” to “knowingly and willfully” deprive, defraud, or attempt to deprive or defraud “the residents of a state of a fair and impartially conducted election process.”
Some will quibble about criminal intent. I don’t see why. There’s one reason and one reason only for a president to call a state election official after every “i” has been dotted and every “t” has been crossed. But, OK, fine. The president said: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.” This is as explicit as it’s going to get for a man who talks like a mobster. Again, however, this is insulting to everyone’s intelligence. Trump tells us what he’s going to do. He tells us why. Then he does it. The appropriate response is not asking whether he did something, and why. It’s how he should be punished.
The point isn’t Trump. The point is putting a damper on raw political incentive. The raw political incentive right now is for the Republican Party to go all-in. Dozens of GOP lawmakers in the US Congress, including a handful of senators, are now planning to object to the certification of the Electoral College vote. That will trigger a phony debate that won’t change the outcome. (Biden will be president.) But just because they won’t succeed this time in overturning a lawful presidential election doesn’t mean they won’t succeed next time. All they’d need right now is control of the US House. Do we have good reason to trust they won’t do the unthinkable next time around? I don’t see it.
The best way to dampen political incentive is prison time. Impeachment won’t suffice. We’ve already seen what the Republicans are willing to do even when faced with a Republican president’s treasonable conduct. (All bets are off, however, if two Senate seats from George flip after tomorrow’s runoff election.) Sure, Trump might pardon himself, but that would almost certainly trigger a legal challenge from the next US attorney general. (The US Supreme Court would have to decide if a president is or is not above the law; I’m guessing it would choose the latter.) It seems to me the US Department of Justice must act no matter what. Democracy would benefit from it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.