The American legal system is on the cusp of a remarkable historical achievement. In real time and under immense pressure, it has responded to an American insurrection in a manner that is both meting out justice to the participants and establishing a series of legal precedents that will stand as enduring deterrents to a future rebellion. In an era when so many American institutions have failed, the success of our legal institutions in responding to a grave crisis should be a source of genuine hope.
I’m writing this newsletter days after the Michigan attorney general announced the prosecution of 16 Republicans for falsely presenting themselves as the electors qualified to vote in the Electoral College for Donald Trump following the 2020 election. That news came the same day that the former president announced on Truth Social that he’d received a so-called target letter from Jack Smith, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. The target letter signals that the grand jury investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol is likely to indict Trump, perhaps any day now.
On Monday, a day before this wave of news, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a desperate Trump attempt to disqualify the Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis from prosecuting Trump and to quash a special grand jury report about 2020 election misconduct. Trump’s team filed their petition on July 13. The court rejected it a mere four days later. Willis can continue her work, and she’s expected to begin issuing indictments — including potentially her own Trump indictment — in August, if not sooner.
Presuming another Trump indictment (or more than one) is imminent — or even if it is not — the legal response to Jan. 6 will continue. But to truly understand where we are now, it’s important to track where we’ve been. If you rewind the clock to the late evening of Jan. 6, 2021, America’s long history of a peaceful transfer of power was over, broken by a demagogue and his mob. To make matters worse, there was no straight-line path to legal accountability.
Prosecuting acts of violence against police — or acts of vandalism in the Capitol — was certainly easy enough, especially since much of the violence and destruction was caught on video. But prosecuting Trump’s thugs alone was hardly enough to address the sheer scale of MAGA misconduct. What about those who helped plan and set the stage for the insurrection? What about the failed candidate who set it all in motion, Donald Trump himself?
Consider the legal challenges. The stolen election narrative was promulgated by a simply staggering amount of defamation — yet defamation cases are difficult to win in a nation that strongly protects free speech. Trump’s legal campaign was conducted by unethical lawyers raising frivolous arguments — yet attorney discipline, especially stretching across multiple jurisdictions, is notoriously difficult.
The list continues. Trump’s team sought to take advantage of ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act, a 19th-century statute that might be one of the most poorly written statutes in the entire federal code. In addition, Trump’s team advanced a constitutional argument called the independent state legislature doctrine that would empower legislatures to dictate or distort the outcomes of congressional and presidential elections in their states.
There’s more. When we watched insurrectionists storm the Capitol, we were watching the culminating moment of a seditious conspiracy, yet prosecutions for seditious conspiracy are both rare and difficult. And finally, the entire sorry and deadly affair was instigated by an American president — and an American president had never been indicted before, much less for his role in unlawfully attempting to overturn an American election.
Now, consider the response. It’s easy to look at Trump’s persistent popularity with G.O.P. voters and the unrepentant boosterism of parts of right-wing media and despair. Does anything make a difference in the fight against Trump’s lawlessness and lies? The answer is yes, and the record is impressive. Let’s go through it.
The pro-Trump media ecosphere that repeated and amplified his election lies has paid a price. Fox News agreed to a stunning $787 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, and multiple defamation cases continue against multiple right-wing media outlets.
Trump’s lawyers and his lawyer allies have paid a price. Last month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the bulk of a sanctions award against Sidney Powell and a Mos Eisley cantina’s worth of Trump-allied lawyers. A New York State appellate court temporarily suspended Rudy Giuliani’s law license in 2021, and earlier this month a Washington, D.C., bar panel recommended that he be disbarred. Jenna Ellis, one of Guiliani’s partners in dangerous dishonesty and frivolous legal arguments, admitted to making multiple misrepresentations in a public censure from the Colorado Bar Association. John Eastman, the former dean of Chapman University’s law school and the author of an infamous legal memo that suggested Mike Pence could overturn the election, is facing his own bar trial in California.
Congress has responded to the Jan. 6 crisis, passing bipartisan Electoral Count Act reforms that would make a repeat performance of the congressional attempt to overturn the election far more difficult.
The Supreme Court has responded, deciding Moore v. Harper, which gutted the independent state legislature doctrine and guaranteed that partisan state legislatures are still subject to review by the courts.
The criminal justice system has responded, securing hundreds of criminal convictions of Jan. 6 rioters, including seditious conspiracy convictions for multiple members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. And the criminal justice system is still responding, progressing steadily up the command and control chain, with Trump himself apparently the ultimate target.
In roughly 30 months — light speed in legal time — the American legal system has built the case law necessary to combat and deter American insurrection. Bar associations are setting precedents. Courts are setting precedents. And these precedents are holding in the face of appeals and legal challenges.
Do you wonder why the 2022 election was relatively routine and uneventful, even though the Republicans fielded a host of conspiracy-theorist candidates? Do you wonder why right-wing media was relatively tame after a series of tough G.O.P. losses, especially compared to the deranged hysterics in 2020? Yes, it matters that Trump was not a candidate, but it also matters that the right’s most lawless members have been prosecuted, sued and sanctioned.
The consequences for Jan. 6 and the Stop the Steal movement are not exclusively legal. The midterm elections also represented a profound setback for the extreme MAGA right. According to an NBC News report, election-denying candidates “overwhelmingly lost” their races in swing states. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the relentless legal efforts also had a political payoff.
And to be clear, this accountability has not come exclusively through the left — though the Biden administration and the Garland Justice Department deserve immense credit for their responses to Trump’s insurrection, which have been firm without overreaching. Multiple Republicans joined with Democrats to pass Electoral Count Act reform. Both conservative and liberal justices rejected the independent state legislature doctrine. Conservative and liberal judges, including multiple Trump appointees, likewise rejected Trump’s election challenges. Republican governors and other Republican elected officials in Arizona and Georgia withstood immense pressure from within their own party to uphold Joe Biden’s election win.
American legal institutions have passed the Jan. 6 test so far, but the tests aren’t over. Trump is already attempting to substantially delay the trial on his federal indictment in the Mar-a-Lago case, and if a second federal indictment arrives soon, he’ll almost certainly attempt to delay it as well. Trump does not want to face a jury, and if he delays his trials long enough, he can run for president free of any felony convictions. And what if he wins?
Simply put, the American people can override the rule of law. If they elect Trump in spite of his indictments, they will empower him to end his own federal criminal prosecutions and render state prosecutions a practical impossibility. They will empower him to pardon his allies. The American voters will break through the legal firewall that preserves our democracy from insurrection and rebellion.
We can’t ask for too much from any legal system. A code of laws is ultimately no substitute for moral norms. Our constitutional republic cannot last indefinitely in the face of misinformation, conspiracy and violence. It can remove the worst actors from positions of power and influence. But it cannot ultimately save us from ourselves. American legal institutions have responded to a historical crisis, but all its victories could still be temporary. Our nation can choose the law, or it can choose Trump. It cannot choose both.
David French is a New York Times Opinion columnist. He is a lawyer, writer and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a former constitutional litigator, and his most recent book is “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.” @DavidAFrench
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