Editor’s Note: Republican Charlie Dent is a former US congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2016 and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The 2020 election is over, and Joe Biden won. The score is on the board, and there is no time left on the clock. It’s time to get on with the transition and move America forward.
President-elect Joe Biden ran a campaign to heal the nation. He wants to turn the political temperature down in America and seek bipartisan agreements on matters of public policy. In short, Biden wants to steady the ship of state and return White House operations to some semblance of normalcy. If Biden is successful in calming the raucous, angry American political dialogue, he may, mercifully, make politics boring again.
To advance his “Build Back Better” agenda, Biden must look forward, not backward. Hard as it may be, he must resist the temptation and reject the politics of spite and retribution. No doubt Biden will hear demands from some elements of the Democratic base to “lock him up” and cries to unleash the full power of the US Department of Justice against his vanquished opponent, Donald Trump. And why not? After all, it’s a fair turn of events given the numerous Trump campaign rallies where shameful chants of “lock her up,” a reference to Hillary Clinton and her alleged misdeeds, were a regular refrain. There have been reports that Biden has expressed reluctance in pursuing investigations of Trump, concerned it would further divide the country.
If this is true, then Biden has the right idea.
To be sure, none of this is to suggest that Trump has not violated norms, traditions and standards of conduct with alarming indifference to the damage he has brought upon the presidency itself; he most assuredly has swung a wrecking ball at the very institutions that undergird the American constitutional order.
Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller spent nearly two years investigating the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to the Russians. Mueller found no criminal conspiracy but did not exonerate the President on the question of obstruction. If the Biden Justice Department were to bring charges against Trump for conduct while in office after he leaves the White House, it would invite a severe backlash. Trump and his supporters would cry “witch hunt,” which may pressure Republican lawmakers to push back against Biden’s forward-looking agenda on Covid-19, infrastructure and other important issues.
Pressing legislative issues under consideration would be drowned out by the prosecution of a former president. Just as impeachment dominated the narrative and virtually every news cycle, so would a federal criminal prosecution that nearly half of Americans would label political.
On the legitimate question of accountability, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for abuse of office and obstruction regarding his brazen attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in exchange for the release of promised military aid. Though Trump has denied any quid pro quo, impeachment will forever be a stain on Donald Trump’s record, reputation and legacy. And it will hurt.
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For those who believe impeachment was not enough of a sanction, then the legal problems of Trump and his family under investigation by authorities in the State of New York could bring some satisfaction. Those allegations are a separate matter and fair game for prosecution. Those issues primarily deal with Trump’s business dealings and are largely unrelated to his presidential duties.
Not putting pressure on the US Department of Justice to prosecute Trump will be unpopular with much of the Democratic base, but it may be necessary to steer the ship of state from turbulent and dangerous waters. It won’t be easy. The alternative will be more bitterness and the never-ending cycle of hostility that define today’s American political debate.
It’s time to heal.