Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, (@DeanObeidallah) a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Joe Biden should follow his own sage advice from the statement he released hours after the “not guilty” vote by 43 Republican senators in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial led to his acquittal. Biden implored us to be vigilant in protecting our “fragile” democracy and noted that “each of us has a duty and responsibility as Americans, and especially as leaders, to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
To that end, the most effective way Biden can defend our fragile democracy is by calling for a full criminal investigation into the role Donald Trump played in the January 6 attack on our Capitol.
At the outset, let’s be 100% clear that no criminal prosecution should ever be commenced for political reasons. That’s illegal and truly un-American. Conversely, no prosecution should ever be rejected for political reasons either – such as hoping that by not prosecuting a political figure it will foster more “unity.” That approach is just as wrong.
But look at the facts surrounding the January 6 deadly attack, which appears to meet the legal definition of “domestic terrorism” since it was intended to “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and affect the conduct of government by measures that included mass destruction.
After this week’s impeachment trial, there’s no denying Trump’s significant role in inciting the attack on our Capitol. Even GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell declared after the trial that, “Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” suggesting that Trump could indeed face criminal charges for his role in the attack.
“We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation,” said McConnell. “And former Presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”
In sum, Trump attacked our democracy for two months with his “Big Lie” – and as we heard from House manager Rep. Eric Swalwell during the impeachment trial – he spent $50 million to further that falsehood after the election. Trump then repeatedly encouraged his most rabid followers to Washington DC on January 6 for what he promised would be “wild.”
Trump clearly brought them there that day at that time because the count, mandated by the Electoral Count Act of 1887, was the final step in certifying Biden’s win. He had to have known that by this time there was no way for his supporters to “Stop the Steal,” as he called for them to do in the days leading up to January 6 and in his speech that day. And it seems some of his supporters clearly got that message, declaring during and after the attack that they waged their siege because Trump asked them to do so. In what system of law can you have countless people arrested for engaging in an act of domestic terrorism, but the very person some said incited that attack still walks free?!
Look at how past American presidents have responded to acts of terrorism on US soil. After the deadly Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building on April 19, 1995, President Bill Clinton declared, “Let there be no room for doubt, we will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe.”
Similarly, on the evening of 9/11, President George W. Bush told America, “The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice.”
These presidents offered no ambiguity, rather simple moral clarity. They made it clear they would do everything necessary to ensure that all involved in the terrorist attacks would be prosecuted.
In mid-November, when then President-elect Biden was asked if his Department of Justice would possibly investigate Trump, he stated, “I would not dictate who should be prosecuted or who should be exonerated.” But times have changed. Our very democracy was attacked on January 6 – and Trump was one of the most powerful figures encouraging that attack.
As President Bush stated to a joint session of Congress days after 9/11, “Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings, but it can also threaten the stability of legitimate governments.” That warning from 20 years ago still echoes loudly today, and demands that all involved in the January 6 attack be held criminally accountable to protect our Republic.
We should leave it to the Department of Justice to articulate the exact laws that Trump may have violated, but Biden – like Presidents before him addressing terrorist attacks upon our homeland – must speak with moral clarity. That means calling for Trump’s role to be criminally investigated, regardless of any political concerns he might have about undermining “unity.”
Anything less sends the message that what Trump did was politics as usual. It wasn’t. It was criminal. It cannot be our nation’s future. And the only way to prevent that is by ensuring “swift, certain and severe” justice for all involved – especially the man whose rhetoric incited that attack: Donald J. Trump.