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Trump shows the benefits of prosecuting wayward politicians

The focus in the U.S. right now is an election 74 days away. The Democrats this week held a virtual convention, officially making Joe Biden their candidate for the presidency. The entire undertaking was aimed at charging Americans to get out and vote … against the eminently beatable Donald Trump.

While that’s certainly the primary goal for many Americans, most of whom disapprove of Trump’s performance, his mismanagement and his character, there’s already some talk about what happens after a Biden win. Specifically, about prosecuting Trump for the four years of corruption, self-dealing and the harm he’s inflicted on the country.

That’s a somewhat perilous issue at this point, as it assumes actions beyond a Biden win, though the first battle is the November 3 election. A Biden victory will certainly bring calls for prosecuting Trump, his family, many of his appointees and enablers, particularly in the Senate. That’s understandable given the level of incompetence and malfeasance that have been daily occurrences under the administration since it first took office.

Trump has certainly violated the law, as well as his oath of office. That much is clear. There are grounds to prosecute him and many in his circle. But there will be some hesitation given the optics of arresting, trying and jailing a former president, as well as going after other officials, as it will be taken as some as retribution, not justice.

Biden himself has acknowledged that issue.

“I will not interfere with the Justice Department’s judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue a prosecution,” he said in an NPR interview earlier this month.

But he hastened to add that an administration pursuing criminal charges against its predecessor would be “a very, very unusual thing and probably not very, how can I say it? good for democracy — to be talking about prosecuting former presidents.”

Many people will recognize that Trump is an egregious case, one that bears prosecution, but others will see it as a precedent to set off a wave of investigations and prosecutions of political opponents. Given the already dysfunctional partisanship in the U.S., that’s a fairly safe bet.

On the other hand, there’s considerable danger in allowing criminal activities to slide – it could simply encourage more corruption. There should be accountability, with politicians and bureaucrats paying a heavy price for not only direct self-dealing – aka fraud and theft – but also for harmful policies and poor decisions.

As the Center for American Progress notes, “the Trump administration is not simply trying to skirt the law—it is acting as if the law does not apply to it at all. If the rule of law is to have any meaning, it is incumbent on a future administration to make clear that it applies to everyone. The moral hazard of allowing the Trump administration to escape accountability would put our democracy permanently at risk.”

In Trump’s case, there are already numerous state-led investigations into his corrupt acts, both before and during his presidency, so he could end up in prison without any action at the federal level. But there are others in his orbit who may require federal indictments.

Despite the political implications, the public would be better served if the politicians and bureaucrats are prosecuted to the full extent of the law for each and every transgression.

Any hope of regaining even a modicum of public trust starts with each level of government introducing true accountability, which goes beyond outright criminality – we’d like to assume that’s already being rooted out, though that’s clearly not the case. The more prevalent issues lie with the long list of waste and corruption that’s routinely reported widely, though often to little consequence.

When it comes to political action, partisans turn a blind eye to all of the negatives, whether that’s in support of a particular party or a pet project. The rest of us look on apathetically, often resigned to the fact graft and corruption abound. A few note that incompetence is commonplace, from municipal bureaucracies through to the boardrooms of multinationals.

The only way that’s going to change is through the political will to push for true accountability. The politicians won’t do it, however, unless we force them to: they’re happy with a self-serving system that allows unfettered access to the cookie jar for themselves and their financial backers, as well as no repercussions for poor decisions that end up wasting money and harming the public, even if self-dealing wasn’t involved.

Quite simply, politicians have no interest in tightening up the rules to eliminate self-interest as a motivation for decision making among elected officials and bureaucrats. They’ll talk a good game, especially in opposition, but really want to keep their options open – they won’t even entertain rules to keep politicians from lying, on the hustings or otherwise.

Politicians write the rules for themselves. They prefer no rules, but failing that they draft vague rules with no enforcement. If there must be enforcement, then there are no penalties for breaking the rules.

We’re generally more informed, and thus more jaded, these days, a cultural shift that has naturally led to a lower opinion of those in government.

The key is to generate enough public outrage, and then to funnel that into action. Politicians, being out for number-one, want to be re-elected. To that end, they’re willing to listen to the public only if that means votes. Phone calls and letters can help sway politicians to do the right thing – that you and I think they should be doing that by default is another story.

Politicians want to stay in office – if enough people speak, they’ll listen. If enough people phone and write their elected officials, maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some changes.

Forcing politicians and bureaucrats to stop lying and serving themselves – no more lobbying, gifts, false promises and host of other unethical behaviour that is commonplace today – will help put us on the road to real accountability.

Politicians, bureaucrats and corporate officials have to be held in check to prevent their greed, malfeasance and incompetence from diminishing our lives and our wallets.

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