Newsweek

The Choice: Accountabi­lity or Unity

The new president has a CRITICAL DECISION to make about the best way to move the country forward

- BY STEVE FRIESS

Joe Biden has a critical choice to make about the best way to move the country forward.

You can only be noncommitt­al about the crucial question of accountabi­lity for Donald Trump so long, especially when you are the next president of the United States. And for Joe Biden, with mere days left before he takes the oath of office on January 20, that time is just about up.

The 78-year-old Democrat, more comfortabl­e preaching the politics of unity and reconcilia­tion than backing a fire-and-brimstone approach, has not publicly—or privately, advisers say—backed impeachmen­t or pushed for conviction in the Senate, even as a groundswel­l for justice emerged in the wake of the Capitol riot. He hasn’t weighed in on whether he wants to pursue criminal investigat­ions into Trump’s behavior—such as allegedly inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol and pressuring state officials to change the outcome of the election—but instead says he’ll leave that decision to the Justice Department and his Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland. Alternativ­ely, for anyone hoping for a grand gesture to help heal the country, say, along the lines of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon to move America past Watergate, Biden has stated for months that that’s not the way he plans to end this particular long national nightmare.

Yet Biden saying little to nothing about how he will tackle the deep polarizati­on within the country and mounting pressure to hold Donald Trump accountabl­e will no longer be a viable option either.

That Biden inherits a traumatica­lly riven nation will be readily apparent as he takes to the steps of the Capitol to be sworn in this week. For the first time since 1869, the outgoing president won’t even be there. Biden will stand in the shadow of the same building where two weeks ago a violent mob went on a deadly rampage out of anger over perceived but unfounded election fraud claims and where one week earlier Trump was impeached for his alleged role in fomenting that attack. The audience will be considerab­ly smaller than usual too, partly because of the uncontroll­ed pandemic but also to protect attendees from threats of further violence.

What’s more, few on Biden’s side are in a conciliato­ry mood, as factions of the Democratic Party push aggressive­ly to ensure there are consequenc­es for Trump’s possibly illegal actions while in office, partly to punish the president but also to bolster the

IF YOU TELL PEOPLE IN POWER THAT YOU ARE GOING TO NOT PROSECUTE WHEN THEY BREAK LAWS IN UNBELIEVAB­LE WAYS, THEN THEY MIGHT AS WELL GO FOR IT.”

rule of law and send a message to future leaders that such behavior will not be tolerated. Time and again during the debate prior to the vote to re-impeach Trump, Democratic members of Congress labeled the president and some of his supporters as “traitors,” using words like “sedition” and “armed insurrecti­on” promulgati­ng a white nationalis­t ideology that needed to be ripped from the American body politic and tossed on history’s ash heap.

“It’s Joe Biden’s job to be a moral leader and to repudiate what Donald Trump has done,” says Cliff Schecter, co-founder of the political consultanc­y Blueamp Strategies that created ads for Biden’s campaign. “Reach out to our better angels, sure, but also point out that you’re not going to do it the way that Trump did it. He needs to more clearly speak out about the damage Trump has done to our country.”

Biden, then, must try to wedge himself between an unstoppabl­e force and an immovable object and lead both. He will, aides say, reject the binary choice between “healing” and “justice” in favor of a combinatio­n approach in which he focuses on reconcilia­tion while allowing Garland and prosecutor­s on the state and local levels to follow the evidence to whatever charges and trials may come. As Biden said in a speech outlining his proposal for a $1.9 trillion stimulus package: “Unity is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. It’s a practical step to get any of the things we have to get done as a country, get done together.”

To the new president, what becomes of Trump is less important than what becomes of Trump supporters. Within Biden circles, the oft-stated goal is to move the United States “away from the Jerry Springer presidency to a Mr. Rogers presidency” in which messages of comity and neighborly Americana are so constant and frequent that they come across as both corny and heart-felt.

It’s a tricky transition, when factions of the country are at an emotional boiling point and attention on what to do about Trump could prove a giant distractio­n that might undermine the ambitious legislatio­n Biden hopes to pass.

Setting the Agenda

THE Solution, according To biden INSIDERS: Focus on what the new president can control—including the messaging around proposed initiative­s. Framing the benefits of proposed legislatio­n in a way that speaks to the concerns of Trump voters as well as his Democratic base is critical.

“Whether Trump can run again in 2024 and whether he can tweet or make noise in some other way aren’t things [Biden] can do anything about,” says a transition official involved in guiding Garland’s confirmati­on. If Trump is convicted in the Senate, he could be barred from running for office again, but Biden sees that as a matter for Republican­s, 17 of whom would have to vote to convict, to decide. “What he can do,” the official says, “is highlight an agenda that speaks to the frustratio­ns of Trump voters in hopes that if their lives improve, their anger will abate.”

Bidenites believe much of the agenda—increased stimulus checks, major infrastruc­ture spending that creates jobs, funding to build out training programs to give coal and steel workers skills needed for greenenerg­y enterprise­s—can soothe the white workingcla­ss anxiety that led many to support Trump. While there is no plan to re-examine the 2020 election for the non-existent widespread fraud alleged by Trumpists, Biden is open to a “holistic effort to delve into election practices” that would include funding to help localities beef up cybersecur­ity as well as

DO WE NEED TO HEAL? ABSOLUTELY. BUT NOT AT THE PRICE OF OUR NATION’S SOUL.”

measures to protect the voting rights of people of color, the Garland aide says.

That’s not to say Biden plans to ignore the rifts in American society, especially on matters of race. There will be a reckoning of some sort, but the president will be only tangential­ly involved to the extent that he “will make the right kinds of signals, the overtures to the Trumpers that he wants to govern them, too, but also condemnati­ons of white supremacy and support efforts to return it to the fringes of society again,” another Biden adviser explains.

Yet it could be more complicate­d than that. Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologi­st who studies deradicali­zation, believes Biden and other Democratic leaders must try to avoid embarrassi­ng or humiliatin­g Trump followers. “The first thing that needs to be done is to cool the rhetoric and reduce vindictive­ness in all shapes and forms,” says Kruglanski, co-author of The Radical’s Journey: How German Neo-nazis Voyaged to the Edge and Back. “That means not demonizing Trump voters including the StopTheSte­al-ers, because offending them is unlikely to bring them back into the fold. This is something Biden seems well-equipped to do given his track of working across the aisle.”

A Big Gesture

To pardon or not To pardon, IS That a question?

Historians struggle to identify a precedent that comes close to the circumstan­ces Biden faces or similar to Trump’s norm-busting presidency and populist movement. Senator Joe Mccarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, whipped up an anti-communist furor in the 1950s that included spreading lies about political enemies with false accusation­s that ruined lives and careers, but he never amassed the sort of power Trump has, says University of Texas presidenti­al historian Shannon O’brien, author of Donald Trump and the Kayfabe Presidency.

“Mccarthy was a senator who was one of 100 and had a structure above him inside that system that contained him,” O’brien says. “In Trump, we have somebody who is at the top of the executive branch and who is only contained by the Constituti­on and the checks and balances by the other branches.”

The only analog to what Biden confronts, O’brien says, is the “long national nightmare” that was Watergate when it became clear that President Richard Nixon had been personally involved in a cover up of

a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. In 1974, President Gerald Ford granted a blanket pardon “for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in” during Nixon’s entire White House tenure. A Gallup poll in the immediate aftermath found that 53 percent of Americans opposed the pardon and pundits have long believed it helped Jimmy Carter defeat Ford in 1976. But by 1986, sentiment had flipped: 54 percent of Americans felt Ford had done the right thing in enabling the country to move forward.

Biden, who was a freshman senator from Delaware at the time, “will probably look at that through his own perception of history to make choices to avoid the hatred that Ford got and the mistrust Ford created with that decision,” O’brien says.

Indeed, in Trump’s case, Biden has already foreclosed that prospect. Asked point-blank about clemency for Trump in May, long before Trump’s election misinforma­tion campaign, the Capitol riot and the second impeachmen­t but amid speculatio­n of possible investigat­ions into Trump’s financial conduct as president, Biden told MSNBC’S Lawrence O’donnell: “It’s hands off completely. The attorney general is not the president’s lawyer. It’s the people’s lawyer. We never saw anything like the prostituti­on of that office like we see it today.”

Precious few observers have seriously floated the idea at all since the Capitol riot. One exception is former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing by Trump in 2017 led to the appointmen­t of special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his years-long probe into foreign interferen­ce in the 2016 election. Comey told the BBC the day after Trump’s re-impeachmen­t that Biden should “at least consider” a Trump pardon “as part of healing the country.” The backlash on social media was withering, a preview of what Biden might face if he took that advice.

University of Baltimore law professor Ken Lasson, a conservati­ve, also stepped into the line of fire with an essay in the January 10 Baltimore Sun positing that Biden could “largely avoid the quagmire of political turmoil he’s about to inherit” by offering Trump and “any potentiall­y culpable Cabinet or staff members” full pardons for “misdeeds they may have committed while in government service.” Lasson, who tells Newsweek that he wrote the essay prior to the riot, nonetheles­s stood by the message. “The country is so polarized now that I think a pardon would serve to dampen that,” he says. “Biden is gonna get attacked no matter what he does.”

Still, the Nixon pardon has come under fire in recent years as a precedent that enabled other presidenti­al malfeasanc­e by depriving the nation of a proper reckoning regarding Nixon’s conduct. “The country could have withstood a trial, and there’s no reason why Nixon should have escaped justice while everybody else who was involved in helping him with his crimes didn’t,” says Jeff Timmer, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-trump PAC made up of former Republican­s. “If I could transport back to 1974 and advise Ford, I’d say don’t pardon him.”

Democratic consultant Cliff Schecter goes further, suggesting that President Barack Obama also relied on the Ford rationale of wanting to move the country forward when he directed his Justice Department not to pursue investigat­ions into President George W. Bush’s tenure related to how the U.S. got into the Iraq War as well as the use of torture in that conflict. Both of those examples, Schecter says, gave Trump license to skirt the law.

“If you tell people in power that you are going to

not prosecute when they break laws in unbelievab­le ways, then they might as well go for it if they’re the type of people who will,” says Schecter, co-host of the Un Presidente­d podcast. “Do we need to heal? Absolutely. But not at the price of our nation’s soul. There’s no point in healing if healing is saying you can get away with whatever crimes you commit so you just go ahead and commit them and we’ll just hope for the best and we’ll all sing Kumbaya. That’s the way you end up with a fascist government. That’s what you end up with autocracy.”

One event that could force Biden to take a stand on the pardon question is if Trump tries to pardon himself before his presidency ends. Legal experts have reportedly warned Trump that it is probably not constituti­onal—no president has tried so it’s untested—but Trump seems eager to defy that advice.

“If he tries to pardon himself, it almost requires a strong reaction by Biden and makes it much less likely that there’s a positive ending for President Trump,” says Duquesne University President Ken Gormley, a legal historian who interviewe­d Ford at length about the Nixon pardon. “This would mean that any future president could sell the most sensitive state secrets, including the nuclear codes, to a foreign adversary for $1 billion in cash, and then pardon himself and walk out the door and there’d be no consequenc­es. A future president could decide to actually plant a bomb in the middle of the Capitol and blow it up to get retributio­n against adversarie­s and then pardon himself. It is impossible that this can be the rule.”

Two more reasons Biden probably won’t bother to offer a pardon: Supreme Court precedent dictates that Trump would have to accept legal responsibi­lity to accept it, and it would only cover alleged crimes on the federal level anyway. Trump has yet to acknowledg­e any responsibi­lity for any of his myriad scandals in the White House or prior to taking office. Absolving him of federal crimes wouldn’t address his potential culpabilit­y in New York, where Trump is under state- and city-level investigat­ions for issues related to his business dealings and tax filings, or in Georgia, where the Fulton County district attorney is weighing whether to look into the legality of the president’s January 2 call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensper­ger to “find” him the precise number of votes to give him victory in the state.

“It takes two for this to work,” Gormley says. “It cannot be that Biden would extend a pardon and

EVERY AMBITIOUS DEMOCRATIC PROSECUTOR IN AMERICA IS GOING TO TRY TO FIND SOME WAY TO GET AT [TRUMP].”

President Trump would accept it and then deny any responsibi­lity for anything and continued to create issues for Biden. There’s no advantage to him in taking that rather dramatic step that will certainly upset members of his own party.”

Pardon, self-pardon or nothing, Trump will “spend the rest of his life in court because of the New York cases and God knows what civil litigation will come up,” says John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont Mckenna College. who voted Democratic for president in 2020 for his first time. “Every ambitious Democratic prosecutor in America is going to try to find some way to get at him.”

Trumpism’s Strong Hold

THE legal morass ahead won’t help biden win over Trumpists so invested in the anti-establishm­ent disruption Trump triggered, but realistica­lly there’s little that will given how intense emotions are and how unshakably polarized the nation remains. Even after the deadly storming of the Capitol, two-thirds of Republican­s still believe Trump has made the party better, according to a new Axios/ipsos poll—including 96 percent of those who identify as Trump Republican­s. And more than half want him to run again in 2024. What happens within the Republican Party, says Timmer, is well beyond the new Democratic president’s control.

“I don’t see much changing over the next four years,” he says. “Trumpists still control the apparatus of the party, they control the money. Trump is still a free man who is going to be running a shadow presidency. Whether he openly declares a candidacy or not, he’s frozen the field for 2024.”

Even the shift among some Republican politician­s to finally disavow Trump after the Capitol riot won’t make much of a difference, Timmer says. While many denounced the president’s behavior, only 10 GOP Representa­tives actually voted for impeachmen­t, less than 5 percent of the Republican membership. And at least one of those members, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, now faces calls for her resignatio­n from party leadership as a result. (Minority Leader Kevin Mccarthy, who voted against impeachmen­t but said Trump “bears responsibi­lity” for the riot, defended Cheney and rejected calls for her ouster the day after the vote.)

“We’re not going to suddenly see the establishm­ent wing of the Republican Party assert its dominance,”

I DON’T SEE MUCH CHANGING OVER THE NEXT FOUR YEARS. TRUMPISTS STILL CONTROL THE APPARATUS OF THE PARTY, THEY CONTROL THE MONEY.”

Timmer says. “It’s not dominant. It’s been subsumed. The Republican Party is going to look however Trump wants it to look for the foreseeabl­e future.”

That makes the likelihood slim that many Republican­s will be receptive to outreach by Biden. “Trumpism is the view that only Trump’s supporters are properly American,” notes Robert Talisse, a Vanderbilt University philosophy professor and author of several books on political polarizati­on. “In a lot of these cases, the very idea of ‘partisan division’ is not quite apt because some of these opponents don’t sit on the same spectrum of partisansh­ip as Biden does. It is something that has to burn out.”

Effective change likely needs to come from within the GOP, not outside of it, Talisse says. “We can’t approach this as if the burden for healing the country and fixing these deep fissures falls strictly to Biden,” he says. “The real rot is in the Republican Party.”

What’s more, with the FBI bracing for several waves of demonstrat­ions and possible violence in the run-up to Biden’s inaugurati­on and beyond, Democratic activists says Biden must combat Trumpism through an agenda that investigat­es and roots out white supremacis­t ideology.

“They’re telling us they’re coming back, they’re going to continue to be disruptive and we have to take them seriously when they make that threat,” says Margaret Huang, CEO of the hate-group watchdog nonprofit the Southern Poverty Law Center, of racist groups involved in the Capitol siege. “We have to anticipate that [they] are recruiting, mobilizing and spurring others to join them. We have to anticipate that there are going to be other efforts at the state level and national level. We need to anticipate that this is going to continue for a while.”

Walking a Fine Line

THAT’S why huang and OTHERS hope biden, FAR from being overly accommodat­ing to Trumpists, pushes forward a comprehens­ive agenda on racial justice and other political imperative­s that “goes beyond reconcilia­tion.” That is, that while reaching out a hand to all of the Americans who opposed him in November, he doesn’t forget the ones who elected him.

For Huang, this would include appointing a senior adviser on racial justice under his incoming domestic policy chief Susan Rice and establishi­ng a National Truth, Racial Healing and Transforma­tion Commission as proposed by Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. And while Biden will be hands-off—mum, in fact—on whether Attorney General Garland, if confirmed, investigat­es Trump or Trump administra­tion figures, those close to the discussion­s say Biden does want the Department of Justice to step up surveillan­ce of white supremacis­t hate groups that Trump’s DOJ demoted as a priority.

Kruglanski, the psychologi­st, agrees that such a reckoning is necessary but worries that executing it poorly could inflame divisions even further. White people who have glommed onto Trump’s messages were ripe for it because they fear dramatic societal changes—new technology and globalism that is killing jobs, the country’s increasing­ly multi-ethnic population, changes in social mores around gender and sexual orientatio­n—are “divesting them of their significan­ce, of their dignity, their respect.”

“Impeaching the president and removing him from office or entangling him in prosecutio­n after he’s departed from the presidency is going to have effects that need to be weighed against the unintended consequenc­es that would consolidat­e or unify the populist movement that he was leading,” he warns. “It might deter some but others will see Trump as a hero, a martyr of the movement. His suffering is going to be a rallying cry for continuing the fight.”

Timmer thinks Biden has managed his precarious circumstan­ces well so far. “I give him an A++ in the way he’s conducted himself since the election and the signals he’s sending and the strength he’s showing and choosing with his words, the calculatin­g method by which he’s choosing to speak and the times he’s chosen to address things,” says Timmer, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. “He’s a canny enough, successful enough politician and has a decent enough character that he recognizes the position he’s in and the signals he can send by trying to forge some level of bipartisan consensus.”

Huang, too, believes Biden can soothe the nation and begin a process toward a calmer future. “I honestly, truly believe that we will overcome all of this and the country will come out in a better space because we’re going to have to deal with and reckon with this violence,” she says. “I’m optimistic because we have a record number of people voting to say we want a different world. I think we can get there. But we’re going to need leadership and effort from the incoming administra­tion.”

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 ??  ?? RALLYING CRY The fervor of the pro-trump forces whipped up by the outgoing president, here at a rally in Georgia, could prove problemati­c for incoming President Joe Biden as he seeks to unite a divided nation.
RALLYING CRY The fervor of the pro-trump forces whipped up by the outgoing president, here at a rally in Georgia, could prove problemati­c for incoming President Joe Biden as he seeks to unite a divided nation.
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 ??  ?? Biden would prefer to focus on his legislativ­e agenda but some Democrats are pushing hard for the new administra­tion to pursue legal action against Trump, seen below walking by supporters the week before he was to leave office.
Biden would prefer to focus on his legislativ­e agenda but some Democrats are pushing hard for the new administra­tion to pursue legal action against Trump, seen below walking by supporters the week before he was to leave office.
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 ??  ?? MAKING IT OFFICIAL House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, flanked by other Democratic Representa­tives, signs the article of impeachmen­t against Donald Trump on January 13, making him the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
MAKING IT OFFICIAL House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, flanked by other Democratic Representa­tives, signs the article of impeachmen­t against Donald Trump on January 13, making him the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
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Former FBI Director James Comey (right) has suggested Biden should consider pardoning Trump. The only other U.S. president to get a pardon: Richard Nixon (below, left), who was exonerated pre-emptively of crimes by his successor Gerald Ford (below, right).
PARDON ME? Former FBI Director James Comey (right) has suggested Biden should consider pardoning Trump. The only other U.S. president to get a pardon: Richard Nixon (below, left), who was exonerated pre-emptively of crimes by his successor Gerald Ford (below, right).
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 ??  ?? A DIVIDED GOP
Trump supporters continue to believe he has been a force for good in the Republican Party. Republican­s like Wyoming’s Liz Cheney (left), who voted for impeachmen­t in January, have taken a lot of heat for their actions.
A DIVIDED GOP Trump supporters continue to believe he has been a force for good in the Republican Party. Republican­s like Wyoming’s Liz Cheney (left), who voted for impeachmen­t in January, have taken a lot of heat for their actions.

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