And now, as a nation, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.
The bombshell news out of Washington this morning turned out not to be the unsealed indictments against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort (which deal mainly with Manafort’s money-laundering and tax evasion). Instead, it was a guilty plea by former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, who lied to the FBI about his meetings—as a member of Trump’s campaign—with figures connected to the Russian government who claimed to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Papadopoulos’s guilty plea is the best evidence to date that the Trump campaign encouraged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Just as importantly, Papadopoulos has apparently been cooperating with investigators since his arrest in July. That raises the specter that higher-level indictments may soon drop.
As of this writing, the President has yet to respond directly to the Papadopoulos plea. He did, however, tweet this about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats:
It was perhaps predictable that this President would attempt to shift the halo of criminality surrounding his administration onto his political opponents. It’s also really, really dangerous. If Trump’s desperate call to divert criminal scrutiny onto the Democratic Party takes hold—and there are already signs that House Republicans stand prepared to do his bidding—we may find ourselves in a situation in which criminal investigations are just another weapon to be wielded against one’s political opponents, regardless of the underlying facts.
That’s the stuff of banana republics, not a country governed by the rule of law. Politics is a contact sport, and back-and-forth mudslinging is to be expected. But people who enter public service shouldn’t have to worry about the possibility that they’ll be targeted for criminal liability by people who happen to have different political beliefs. They shouldn’t have to worry that their freedom and livelihood will be threatened as a diversion from their political opponents’ unlawful activities.
This notion—that criminal charges shouldn’t be bandied about for political gain—isn’t just some abstract ideal. It’s at the core of what America stands for. Our Bill of Rights provides explicit protection for political speech and assembly. It buttresses those protections with robust requirements for criminal procedure. In so doing, the Bill of Rights helps ensure that members of the political opposition aren’t hauled into court on trumped-up, unprovable charges.
These core American ideals, however, have been severely eroded in recent month. We started down a dangerous path with Benghazi, with the email investigations, with the chants of “Lock Her Up.” We stand at a fork in that path today.
So here’s a quick plea. Republicans must resist any temptation to turn the Russia investigation into a story about the DNC, or Hillary Clinton, or whomever. This is story about potential criminal collusion with a foreign power. That collusion, if it occurred, was perpetrated by members of a Republican presidential campaign team. Democrats—at least so far as has been reported—have nothing to do with it. The “but-what-about-isms” we’ve so frequently seen in recent years should not extend to this criminal investigation.
At the same time, those of us on the left should resist the temptation to spike the football, or to gleefully demand that particularly despised members of the Trump Administration be locked up. I have as much disdain for the political and rhetorical actions of the Trump Administration as anyone. But if people are going to face criminal charges, or go to prison, it should be because of the laws that they broke—not the norms they transgressed, or the harm they inflicted on this country through political means. The independent investigation into Russian collusion must be permitted to run its course. And the charges should follow the evidence.
Political sins demand a political response. Criminal charges should be reserved for crimes. It’s a basic tenet of democratic government, but it’s one that seems gravely at risk today.