By BRIAN A. HOWEY
After reluctantly coming out of retirement to lead a fledgling nation, in 1796 President George Washington gave up power, which at that point in human history had been unthinkable. In his “Farewell Address” he warned that the preservation of the Union was at the core of nationhood.
“We must guard our inheritance,” Washington said. “If we allow sectional jealousies to eclipse national interests, the republic will be in peril.”
Four years later, after President John Adams was defeated for reelection by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the idea of a “peaceful transfer of power” was further established. Adams was bitter over the defeat to his rival, but abided by the verdict of the American people.
For 220 years, these precedents by Washington and Adams endured, enshrined in our rollicking politics through 44 presidencies, until the people, by a plurality of more than seven million votes, rejected a second term of President Donald J. Trump in 2020.
On Tuesday, special counsel Jack Smith filed four criminal charges against Trump, alleging that the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was “fueled by lies — lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government.”
Starting around Nov. 13, 2020 by using “baseless fraud claims” that had been rejected by some 60 courts (with many of these cases presided over by Trump-appointed judges), Trump pushed seven state legislatures – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – to establish alternative electors. He attempted to convince Vice President Mike Pence to embrace the fraudulent electors scheme, reject legitimate Electoral College verdicts, throwing the election outcome back to these states. After Pence refused, Smith alleges that Trump attempted an outright coup d’etat on Jan. 6, with a mob moving from a Trump speech on the Ellipse to erecting gallows on Capitol Hill while chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.”
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” Pence said. “Our country is more important than one man. Our Constitution is more important than any one man’s career. I chose the Constitution and always will.”
Former Republican New Jersey governor and Trump ally Chris Christie was far more blunt: “The events around the White House from election night forward are a stain on our country’s history and a disgrace to the people who participated. This disgrace falls the most on Donald Trump. He swore an oath to the Constitution, violated his oath and brought shame to his presidency.”
That Trump is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has a 30 to 40% lead over his closest rival in many polls while facing more than 70 criminal charges filed against him in two federal jurisdictions (along with one in New York) is a collision of epic forces with the peaceful transfer of power as well as the rule of law hanging in the balance.
Sometime in 2024, either jurors or American voters will render a verdict in what will be the trial (and the election) not just of the century, but, perhaps, the millennium.
“This is the moment that will decide our future as a democracy,” observed Tom Nichols of The Atlantic. Or as New York Times reporter Peter Baker writes, “At the core of the United States of America v. Donald J. Trump is no less than the viability of the system constructed during that (1787) summer in Philadelphia. Can a sitting president spread lies about an election and try to employ the authority of the government to overturn the will of the voters without consequence? In effect, Jack Smith … charged Mr. Trump with one of the most sensational frauds in the history of the United States.”
The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board observed: “Donald Trump’s post-election behavior in 2020 was deceitful and destructive, and his malfeasance on Jan. 6, 2021, was disgraceful, but was it criminal? We’ve argued that an indictment of a former President should be based on serious charges with enough evidence to convince most Americans that it is justly brought. We doubt most Republicans will see this one in that light, and that means we are headed for more difficult and dangerous months ahead.”
To put this in Hoosier parlance, if Purdue defeats Michigan State on the hardwood or gridiron, and then the loser claims the rules weren’t fair or the refs stole the game, they would be branded “poor losers.” Pence told Fox News, “The President specifically asked me and his gaggle of crackpot lawyers … to literally reject votes. They asked me to reject votes, return votes, essentially, to overturn the election.”
In writing this, I am mindful of Donald Trump’s political strengths in Indiana, winning the contested 2016 primary and carrying the state’s 11 Electoral College votes twice. But it is worth noting that key Hoosier Republicans (Pence, former National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and former Medicaid/Medicare Director Seema Verma) who served under Trump are not backing him for a second term.
Such a second Trump administration would likely be festooned with crackpots and cranks. Whether he returns for a second term will be in the hands of voters in November 2024.
-Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.