Some Democrats want to move past Trump. But ignoring his seditious acts threatens American democracy

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries delivered a message Monday about the posture of House Democrats' leadership team regarding Donald Trump's relentless attempts to engineer a fascist takeover of the American republic. 

“We’re not looking backward," Jeffries told reporters during a press conference. "We’re looking forward to the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20th.” 

That forward-looking vision came less than 24 hours after the Washington Post posted smoking-gun audio of an hour-long phone call in which Trump (aka Mafia Don) attempted to threaten and cajole Georgia's top election officials to "find" enough votes to overturn the state's election results. 

Nonetheless, Kate Bedingfield, an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden offered a similar take to Jeffries, saying, "The country is ready to move forward."

But the problem with simply rushing past Mafia Don's political grave is that ignoring his seditious acts is as much a threat to the future of American democracy as Trump's failed efforts were in the first place. In short—seditious, traitorous acts left unchecked beget seditious, traitorous acts. In fact, Senate Republicans with the twinkle of 2024 presidential bids in their eyes are already lining up in support of Trump's effort to tear down democracy in order to maintain his grip on power. Trump's final gambit is all but certain to fail on Wednesday during a joint session of Congress to certify the election results, but the major takeaway is that plenty of future GOP Trumps are waiting in the wings to trash representative democracy on the way to meeting their own political ends unless a price is exacted for doing so. And the lesson those Republicans have learned so far—just as Trump learned from his acquittal—is that there's no serious price to pay, political or otherwise, for betraying the country.

Both the incoming Biden administration and Congress have a role to play in safeguarding our democracy for generations to come. One is criminal and the other is a matter of governance. Biden must appoint smart, resolute leaders to the Justice Department and then simply get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Hamstringing justice in any way with regard to Trump's endless assault on the law and the Constitution would be disastrous for the country's future. But Biden can easily make those appointments to the Department of Justice and then rightfully send the message that his administration is focused on the task of righting the ship in regard to the pandemic and the faltering economy. 

House Democrats, however, cannot afford to simply move along, as if the threat to our democracy ends once Trump is summarily booted from the White House residence. That is a patently false contention given the upheaval we are already witnessing in the Republican party. Trump must be held to account. That can be done in several ways, a couple of which are already in process.

One way is by making a criminal referral to the FBI over Trump's attempted election crimes, an investigation that Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Kathleen Rice of New York are already urging FBI Director Chris Wray to undertake.

Another possibility is censuring Trump over his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson introduced a censure motion on Monday with the support of 90 of his colleagues. That number will likely grow in the coming days and weeks as Congress gets back to work—or at least, it should grow, since there are presently 222 Democratic members of the House.

Impeachment is another potential option, but to what end at this point? Trump is just over two weeks away from removal and, as we have already seen, the effort would surely be blocked by the GOP-controlled Senate. Heck, more than a quarter of the Senate Republican caucus has jumped aboard Team coup at this point. 

What does seem a worthy effort, however, is continued investigations of Trump and his minions. Not only do the facts need to come out, but if Democrats are to draft legislation to safeguard our democracy against future Trumps, they will need to know exactly what actions he and his enablers took in their extensive efforts to kneecap America's institutions and systems of governance. 

But none of those three options—a criminal referral, censure, and ongoing investigations—amount to simply "looking forward." What is past will haunt the nation and Democrats, in particular, if it is buried before an autopsy can be conducted and people held to account for their roles in assaulting and undermining America’s democracy. 

‘This is how democracies die’: House Democrats’ flagging urgency on Barr’s depravity is inexcusable

The rule of law is the very virtue that separates a democracy from a dictatorship. Though one’s ability to vote is a feature of democracy, elections are meaningless without a functional legal apparatus to safeguard them. People are allowed to cast votes in virtual dictatorships all the time, but their collective will is ultimately crushed by leaders who rig the outcomes. Without the rule of law America is doomed as a democracy, and the sanctity of the legal system is exactly what Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, are working to dismantle in real time by turning the Department of Justice into a tool of the State.

Trump is reportedly seething after enduring three years of investigations for which he is constitutionally incapable of taking any responsibility. Sure, he called for Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, and Russia followed suit almost immediately by hacking the Democratic National Committee. Sure, he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and withheld desperately needed funding and political backing to pressure him into doing so. But Trump is never wrong, can never be questioned, and surely has never been held accountable in his life. And now that he will carry the stain of impeachment to his grave, there’s going to be hell to pay and the nation’s top law enforcement officer has proven eager to help wherever possible.

But this goes way beyond the interference Barr ran last year on public release of the Mueller report, which otherwise would have been devastating to Trump. Barr is now intervening in the administration of justice on multiple cases, weaponizing the Justice Department against Trump’s political enemies, and shielding Trump’s allies from the full force of the law.

The list of interventions is simply staggering. In brief, they include a relentless effort to find wrongdoing by the officials at the FBI and CIA involved with launching the Russia investigation in 2016, taking specific aim at former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (who was already denied his pension benefits by Barr’s predecessor after decades of service at that bureau).

And on the leniency side, Barr has moved in recent weeks to lighten the punishment for two Trump loyalists and former campaign advisers, Mike Flynn and Roger Stone. In service of that goal, Barr removed the Senate-approved U.S. attorney in D.C. and replaced her in the interim with a close ally from his office, Timothy Shea, who has gladly done Barr’s bidding. Shea is the guy who earlier this week signed off on overruling the sentencing recommendations made by the four federal prosecutors on Stone’s case who have all since resigned in protest. While all these actions are indefensible, Barr’s interference with the sentencing recommendations of a Trump ally was so unprecedented that it has elicited an outcry from a groundswell of former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials.

“I’ve never seen so many prosecutors, including those who aren’t political or those who haven’t been following this situation closely, go to red alert so quickly,” Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. Attorney in the Obama administration, told the Washington Post. “The reason is this: If a president can meddle in a criminal case to help a friend, then there’s nothing that keeps him from meddling to harm someone he thinks is his enemy. That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.”

Vance’s prognosis isn’t hyperbole. America is teetering on the edge and Republican lawmakers have proven to be nothing but a herd of sycophantic lemmings. Unfortunately, House Democrats, who do have some agency, haven’t exactly been robust in their response. Barr has agreed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing but not until March 31. 

At her weekly press conference Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Barr “a sad disappointment,” saying he had “deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing the Department of Justice sentencing recommendations” in the Stone case, among other things.

But frankly, Democrats should be jumping up and down about this in order to shine a public spotlight on the Justice Department’s turn toward becoming nothing short of an instrument of authoritarianism. How about a bicameral press conference? How about burying the Justice Department in subpoenas just to make a point? How about a speedier timeline for Barr’s hearing? Some actual outrage spiraling into public spectacle would be useful here. We need leadership to meet the moment so American voters will understand the stakes here and be fully operational when they hit the polls in November. 

Trump and Barr ramp up their abuses of power—and Senate Republicans are responsible for all of it

This is what a liberated post-acquittal Donald Trump looks like: not chastened, as some of the more dishonest Senate Republicans said they hoped he would be, but ever more brazen in his corruption and his destruction of democratic institutions. Tuesday was a nightmare for justice in the United States of America, with three top prosecutors either stepping down from the case or resigning entirely as Attorney General William Barr obeyed a Trump tweet and intervened in the sentencing recommendations for Trump buddy Roger Stone.

That came after the news that Barr is working with Rudy Giuliani to dig up and launder dirt on Trump’s political opponents, and after the firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother from their White House jobs because he testified at the impeachment inquiry. Trump and Barr are committing the abuses, but every single Republican senator other than Mitt Romney gave them permission. Said “Go right ahead, we won’t do a thing about it.”

Every day that goes by and every new abuse that Trump commits shows why it's so important to retake the Senate. Please dig deep to defeat vulnerable Republicans in 2020.

I’m talking about Susan Collins, up for reelection in Maine. Cory Gardner, up for reelection in Colorado. Joni Ernst, in Iowa. Thom Tillis, in North Carolina. Kelly Loeffler, who will be facing Georgia voters for the first time after being appointed to replace former Sen. Johnny Isakson. David Perdue, also in Georgia, meaning there are two Senate seats at stake in one state. Martha McSally, who lost a Senate election in Arizona in 2018 and was appointed to a Senate seat anyway—she needs to lose for a second time in a row. 

Every single one of these people voted to let Trump continue his lawlessness. They voted that way when any halfway sensible person knew that he would take the vote as permission to do more and worse. These senators intended to give him that permission—and do more and worse he has. He has been publicly vindictive against Vindman for daring to testify to what Trump did on Ukraine. His attorney general is systematically perverting the administration of justice to cater to Trump’s personal desires, to protect his friends and persecute his opponents, making a mockery of the Justice Department's mission statement to “ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” 

Every Republican senator but Mitt Romney voted to tell Trump that he is above the law. In 2020, voters can make some of them pay for that. Give now to send the opposite message—that no one is above the law—by defeating these Republicans in 2020.

Barr tightens grip on FBI, saying any 2020 candidate investigations must first get AG approval

There won't be any investigations of Donald Trump this campaign season. Attorney General William Barr sent a memo Wednesday to the FBI and U.S. attorneys across the nation instructing them to get his approval before opening any new inquiries during the 2020 election cycle, according to The New York Times.

Barr used the backdrop of 2016 and the inspector general's report criticizing some aspects of the FBI's investigation into Trump's campaign as justification for his new decree. The department, he wrote, had a responsibility to safeguard against "improper activity or influences" in the election. “In certain cases, the existence of a federal criminal or counterintelligence investigation, if it becomes known to the public, may have unintended effects on our elections,” Barr wrote.

In other words, Trump is still really pissy about the Russia probe—even though it was never public—and wants to ensure that none of the other corrupt activities he is surely engaged in will interfere in his election, not to mention get investigated at all.

Barr, a man who skewed the rollout of the Mueller report in Trump's favor and declined to investigate Trump Ukraine call for criminal violations, advised, "we also must be sensitive to safeguarding the department’s reputation for fairness, neutrality and nonpartisanship.” Whatever reputation the Justice Department had for delivering fairness is already long gone under Barr's leadership.

In the big picture, this is just one more move by Barr to consolidate power. During the Senate impeachment trial, Barr also installed a loyalist as the new U.S. attorney in D.C., the largest U.S. attorney’s office in the country that also happens to handle many of the most politically sensitive cases in Washington. In another recent development, the Justice Department, which had recently sought six months of jail time for former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, is now saying probation time would be acceptable. 

In ways both obvious and cunning, Barr continues to prove his commitment to doing Trump’s bidding, no matter the task.