A brief history of Republican presidents committing crimes and getting away with it:
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both got away with murder and fraud. Each had a hand in the Iran-Contra deal that illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to illegally fund a war in Central America. Reagan smiled and said “I don’t recall,” and got away with it. Bush Sr. just pardoned everybody with the glad assistance of then-again-AG William Barr, and got away with it.
There were no consequences for anyone except C.I.A. Director Bill Casey, who died of a “brain hemorrhage” the day after he was named by a sworn Congressional witness for being materially involved in providing arms to Nicaraguan rebels as part of the larger Iran/Contra scheme. Cue the spooky music, fine, but that was the most convenient death in the history of the Republican Party. I’m just sayin’.
The incoming Clinton administration waved the rancid Reagan/Bush administration off into the sunset before busying themselves by bollixing the health care reform movement for a generation. President Clinton was eventually impeached for lying about a liaison with an intern, but not for deliberately bombing water treatment facilities in Iraq (an act of biological warfare against a civilian population).
And then came George W. Bush, the gold standard for modern-day war criminal presidents. Before he was done, Bush oversaw the murder, maiming and displacement of millions of civilians overseas, the loss of thousands of American lives in those wars and right here at home, laundered trillions of taxpayer dollars into the bank accounts of friends and allies, and treated the Constitution like it was a wad of toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Remember the “comedy” video of Bush looking for the (still) missing Iraqi WMD in the Oval Office? That is the distilled essence of his eight years in office.
President Barack Obama — no stranger to war crimes, he — came into office after Bush and his wreckers departed, arriving under the groaning weight of two failed wars and a shattered national economy. Surveying these challenges, Obama decided it was better to “look forward, not backward” regarding the Bush administration’s two-term smash-and-grab crime spree. Again, there were no consequences for any of the incredible traumas Bush visited upon the nation and the rule of law.
Today, Bush enjoys the quiet life of a painter. His muses include small dogs, himself in the shower, and the faces of the soldiers he fed into the meat-grinder of his illegal wars. Occasionally he reappears on my television with people like Ellen DeGeneres to try and sell those soldier portraits and rehabilitate his image without a scintilla of self-awareness.
Four years later — or 40, if you peg it to Reagan — we are passing through a gruesome crucible, a compounding of crises and tribulations that have shaken the nation to its bones. A quarter million people are dead in a pandemic that rages unchecked almost a year after its arrival. Caged children at the border may never see their parents again. Constitutional strictures are not even a speedbump to those in power. The Treasury has been looted, again.
Hovering over it all like an orange thundercloud is Donald Trump, who would not hold his office if some form of justice had been visited upon the transgressions of his predecessors. From Reagan to Bush to Bush to Trump, the absence of consequences for departing brigand presidents has led to more flagrantly corrupt and harmful behavior by the incoming ones. Jumping from rock to rock to rock, each finds their own landing rock a little bigger, a little safer than the one before. And so they push it, and get away with it, and here we are.
Today, Donald Trump is all but defeated. The walls of his West Wing fortress of solitude have started to buckle, as his own people have begun to reach out to President-elect Joe Biden despite Trump’s standing order that everyone say he won the election and nothing is real and leave me alone. His crimes and transgressions are as vivid and visible as the daily death toll. Sooner or later, he will be gone from the building, and the presidency… and then what?
“President-elect Joe Biden has privately told advisers that he doesn’t want his presidency to be consumed by investigations of his predecessor,” reports NBC News. “Biden has raised concerns that investigations would further divide a country he is trying to unite and risk making every day of his presidency about Trump…. They said he has specifically told advisers that he is wary of federal tax investigations of Trump or of challenging any orders Trump may issue granting immunity to members of his staff before he leaves office. One adviser said Biden has made it clear that he ‘just wants to move on.’”
That’s a far goddamned cry from the middle of last May, when the Associated Press reported that, “Democratic candidate Joe Biden said that if he wins the presidency he would not use his power to pardon Donald Trump or stop any investigations of Trump and his associates. ‘It is not something the president is entitled to do, to direct a prosecution or decide to drop a case,’ Biden said Thursday on MSNBC. ‘It’s a dereliction of duty.’”
The so-called criminal “justice” system is no arbiter of true justice, and no one should be surprised that it lets the most powerful among us off the hook. Even if, somehow, the most brutal court-based consequences were visited upon a Republican president, it would not upend or transform the system that created and coddled them in the first place.
Yet we also must recognize that there can be no moving on, not ever, if this hamster wheel of unaddressed Republican presidential corruption, wrongdoing and violence is not stopped. If there is no reckoning, someone like Trump will happen again, but worse. Imagine where we’d be if Trump actually liked doing, y’know, work. His laziness saved us from the abyss as much as all the pushback by activists and opponents, and that is a terrifying truth. The next iteration of Trump won’t be so slovenly, and that iteration is already out there, waiting for the main chance to pounce.
How that reckoning — and the substantial structural changes required to prohibit future Bush and Trump-type presidencies — may come to pass is an open question worthy of serious debate. In fact, we may need to think far outside the box of the court system to deliver anything resembling a national reckoning with Trumpism and, more broadly, white supremacy.
Still, there is no question that reckoning with Trump’s wrongdoing must happen in some way — we must not simply relegate his perpetration of mass death, dishonor and disgrace to the dustbin of history.
If I could pick just one reason why we must not simply “move forward,” it would be the people in South Dakota who are dying of COVID even as they deny with their parting breath that it’s COVID that’s killing them, because Trump said it was fake. This is happening multiple times daily across the Midwest, and the medical professionals can only hold their hands as these victims of Trump pass bewildered into whatever awaits us on that further shore.
The simple fact of this horrifies me to my marrow. Trump, along with his congressional and media allies, did this monstrous thing to tens of millions. They did it to their own people –and to everyone else — and they are still doing it today. COVID is not real, the election wasn’t real, nothing is real but that which comes from the gob of the overlord. This is a crime so huge that it may not even technically be against the law. What would you call it? First-degree murder of the truth? Negligent homicide of science? Manslaughter by misinformation? (As we know, some of the most violent phenomena on Earth, from drone warfare to mass incarceration to lethal capitalism, are not considered crimes by the U.S. government.)
Yet Trump did it, and his allies helped, and if there is no price paid for this — if there is no reckoning of any sort — we will never recover, and the next one will be worse for having gone to school on the unpunished Trump.
Allowing investigations would provide a space for a national truth-telling, even if many of Trump’s hypnotized followers will refuse to listen. Most of them are and will ever be unreachable, but if even a few are turned by the truth, it is a worthy endeavor. One less person dying of COVID who won’t believe it’s COVID is a victory worth pursuing.
Consequences, of course, may not come to be penal in the end, though the Manhattan district attorney and New York State attorney general look to have a say in that. After George W. Bush left office, the wars he started all but disappeared from public awareness. The WMD he so viciously lied about fell down the memory hole, and the country whistled through eight relatively calm years of Obama, thinking we had dodged a bullet… until November 9, 2016, when that bullet caught us right between the eyes. This cannot be allowed to happen again, by whatever means suit best.
On May 15, Joe Biden said he would not interfere with investigations into Trump. He must keep his word on this, and he must take steps to encourage a national reckoning on a larger scale, the likes of which we may not be able to imagine — but must endeavor to try. Otherwise, this nation may be headed toward a future where the Trump administration might be looked back upon as “the good old days.”
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?