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NBC News reports, “President-elect Joe Biden has privately told advisers that he doesn’t want his presidency to be consumed by investigations of his predecessor” and that 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.”
We can learn a lot from who is surprised by this and who is bothered or outraged by this.
If Donald Trump or any member of his family sees the inside of a courtroom after his presidency, the only way any criminal charges stick is if the prosecutor has absolutely no ties to the Biden administration or the Democratic Party. Trump will argue he’s the target of a political vendetta.
Any Biden administration Department of Justice is already hobbled by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ campaign-trail declaration that if she was elected president, the Justice Department “would have no choice and that they should” go forward with obstruction of justice charges against Trump once he’s out of office. (This prompted even CNN’s Don Lemon to ask, “Why is it okay for you to advocate for the Justice Department to prosecute somebody” but not Trump?)
No one should be all that surprised that Biden has other, higher priorities beyond investigating and prosecuting his predecessor. He’s been in this position before. As I wrote back in October:
…after Barack Obama became president, some Democrats wanted prosecutions of his predecessor and Bush administration officials for alleged “war crimes,” the CIA’s rendition programs, etc. Even before he was sworn in, President-elect Obama indicated he had no real interest in that: “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. . . . And part of my job is to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.” Obama recognized that he could extract vengeance upon the preceding administration, or he could get his agenda passed, but not both. This outraged quite a few folks on the left, who had convinced themselves that the Bush administration policies ranked among the greatest crimes in human history.
If elected, Joe Biden will face a similar choice. He can set out to put the preceding administration behind bars — and watch Trump make the O. J. Simpson trial look quiet, obscure, and dignified — or he can focus on enacting the policies he wants passed by a Congress that will still probably be closely divided. But Biden can’t have both.
Way back in 2003, Joseph Wilson publicly fantasized about seeing “Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” Lots of people in politics convince themselves that their opponents are not merely foolish or incompetent, but a gang of crooks who need to be locked up behind bars. They envision total comeuppance, as a jury convicts on all counts, and their political foes are taken away, handcuffed and scowling, like the end of a Law & Order episode. But political careers rarely end that way.
That Saturday Night Live sketch about voters who hate Trump so much that they don’t know what they will do without him was funny in part because it was true. “The only thing I’ve talked about for four years is Donald Trump.” “My entire personality is hating Donald Trump. If he’s gone, what am I supposed to do, focus on my kids again? No thanks.” After January 20, the country’s attention will turn to other problems — beyond the conversation with the Ukrainian president, and defiance of congressional subpoenas, and the emoluments clause, or conspiracy theories about Russia, or the sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service, or whether the payments to Stormy Daniels constituted a campaign-finance violation.
A president who was elected in large part because of his promise to move on from the endless circus of Trump has to, you know, actually move on from the endless circus of Trump.