It turns out that there is a heavy price for trying to steal votes, defaming defenseless election workers and invading the US Capitol to try to thwart a democratic transfer of presidential power. And accountability is moving ever closer to Donald Trump.
America’s judicial system is accelerating its effort to punish the ex-president, his acolytes and supporters who tried to subvert the 2020 election, in the process becoming the primary vehicle shoring up the country’s still-threatened democracy.
On Thursday alone, two members of the far-right Proud Boys group received long sentences despite their pleas for mercy from a judge after they were convicted of seditious conspiracy for their actions during the January 6, 2021, mob attack on Congress.
“The nature of the constitutional moment we were in that day is something that is so sensitive that it deserves a significant sentence,” Judge Timothy Kelly told one of the defendants. The admonition encapsulated the effort by the criminal justice system to respond to an unprecedented assault on US democracy.
In another case this week that hit closer to the former president, one-time Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani lost a defamation lawsuit from two Georgia election workers that he and Trump had targeted in one of the most lopsided and pernicious acts of any commander in chief in modern memory. A lawyer for the two election workers vowed on CNN to pursue accountability “to the end of the Earth” in a damages trial.
Trump on Thursday quietly entered a not guilty plea in a vast racketeering case in Georgia that charges him and 18 others – including Giuliani – with trying to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in the swing state. Trump’s former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows could hear imminently whether his bid to move the state case against him to federal court will succeed, after he endured a tough cross-examination Monday over his claims he was simply doing his job.
Also on Thursday, a judge cleared the way for future hearings and trials in the case to be televised, increasing the possibility of a national moment of shared accountability.
A legal and political storm lies ahead
Trump denies all wrongdoing in each of the four cases for which he is awaiting criminal trials – two of which are related to 2020 election interference. The others arise from his mishandling of classified documents and a hush money payment made to an adult film star before the 2016 election. Legal losses for those lower in his orbit do not necessarily mean juries will eventually convict him.
Yet the increasing number of convictions in January 6-related cases and indictments of Trump and his allies, taken together, do represent a response from a democracy that is defending itself. While Trump claims such cases are an example of a “witch hunt,” the judicial process is grinding slowly on. The time it has taken to bring cases, however, has inserted the justice system squarely in the middle of the next presidential campaign, fueling claims that Trump – and not American voters – is the true victim of election interference. For example, Tanya Chutkan, a federal judge in Washington,DC, this week set a trial date of March 4 in Trump’s federal election subversion case – a day before the critical Super Tuesday primaries.
An attempt to hold a former president to account for alleged crimes committed in office was always going to be hugely polarizing. Trump’s custom of attacking any organization that seeks to check his power or counter his alternative version of reality – including the media, political institutions and the FBI – almost always means those bodies emerge tarnished, especially in the eyes of his supporters.
But the judicial system’s efforts are politically radioactive because of the potential sanctions that Trump could face – including jail time if he is convicted. The possibility is also growing that the Republican Party could nominate a convicted felon for president – and effectively trigger a constitutional crisis. The former president and a conservative media machine have, meanwhile, convinced millions of Americans that he did nothing wrong after the last election. From that perspective, any convictions against him would only underscore his argument that American justice is corrupt.
These grave potential consequences are one reason why there are valid questions about the risks of criminally charging an ex-president and front-running Republican candidate in the middle of election season. And various legal experts have differing opinions on whether each case is correctly charged or whether the time it has taken to bring the cases to court was merited. Yet no democracy would last long if it failed to respond to the alleged crimes committed by Trump and his acolytes after the 2020 election. And the ex-president is only proving his ongoing threat to the institutions of the US political system with his constant attacks on judges, prosecutors and opponents, which have forced many of them to embrace increased security protection.
Recent weeks of drama that saw Trump show up to be arrested, the furor over his mug shot and his claims that he’s being unfairly targeted have tended to obscure the fundamentals of the accusations against him and his associates. But at its root, the election cases come down to this: An effort by a president and those loyal to him to leverage his vast power to reclaim an election that he lost. This involved an attempt to malign election workers, who represent the foundation of governance for the people by the people, and then Trump backers resorting to violence after his attempts to pursue legal, constitutional and political means to overturn the election came up short.
The sentencing of two leading members of the Proud Boys convicted of seditious conspiracy represents another success for the Justice Department, which has brought hundreds of cases against those who were involved in the attack on the Capitol. It also sends a message to supporters of future presidential candidates – including in 2024 – that there are consequences for threatening the peaceful transfer of power.
Joe Biggs received a sentence of 17 years while a second member of the group, former Marine Zachary Rehl, got 15 years in prison, among the most stringent sentences yet imposed for anyone who took part in the sacking of the Capitol. Both men expressed regret for the way that they had been caught up in moments of political madness after the last election, which was precipitated by Trump’s false claims that he had won.
A tearful Biggs had pleaded with the judge for some leniency. “I know that I have to be punished and I understand,” he said, but added, “please give me the chance, I beg you, to take my daughter to school and pick her up.” He added: “I know that I messed up that day, but I am not a terrorist.” The judge did not agree with the prosecution’s initial request for a 33-year sentence but he appeared acutely conscious of the stakes of the trial.
“Our Constitution and laws give you so many important rights that Americans have fought and died for and that you yourself put on a uniform to defend,” Kelly told Biggs. “People around the world would give anything for these rights.”
The two Georgia election workers who were publicly attacked by Trump and Giuliani are, meanwhile, an example of the searing human cost of Trump’s bid to stay in power after the 2020 election.
Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss testified movingly last year to the House select committee that investigated January 6 during the last Democratic-run Congress, about how the ex-president’s claims that Freeman was a “vote scammer” and a “hustler” had ruined their lives and reputations. Trump’s use of his huge public platform against two innocent individuals raises concerns that election workers, who are vital to America’s capacity to choose its own leaders, will be intimidated from wanting to serve in future elections. In two unrelated cases on Thursday, the Justice Department secured guilty pleas involving threats against election workers in Arizona and Georgia – part of the recent success of its relatively young Election Threats Task Force.
After a judge ruled that Giuliani had lost the defamation suit because he had failed to provide information sought in subpoenas, Moss and Freeman said in a statement that the former mayor had “helped unleash a wave of hatred and threats we never could have imagined.” They added, “It cost us our sense of security and our freedom to go about our lives.”
Giuliani’s defeat in the case will raise new questions about his capacity to pay what could be substantial damages, given previous indications he was struggling to meet legal costs and the fact he’s in deep in other cases, including as a co-defendant in the election racketeering case in Georgia. Michael Gottlieb, an attorney for the election workers, said he expected that his clients would see restitution after a trial date for damages between November and February. “We will follow the trail to the end of the Earth to get accountability for our clients here,” Gottlieb, who took the case pro bono, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”
That same sense of impending – and delivered – accountability also hung over the court in Washington, DC, where the “Proud Boys” leaders were sentenced.
A sobbing Rehl told the judge that he had lost his military pension and much more since his arrest, becoming the latest member of Trump’s extended movement to pay for crimes related to the 2020 election.
“For what it’s worth, I stand here today and say that I am done with all of it. I am done with politics; I am done peddling lies for other people who don’t care about me,” Rehl said.
The coming turbulent months in America will decide whether Trump ever finds himself in a similar position.