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What Might Accountability For President Trump Look Like?


We're going to begin the program today considering the question that was on many people's minds but has new urgency after the violence last week at the Capitol. That question is, what does accountability look like - not just for the people who attacked the Capitol personally, but also for President Trump himself and others who abetted his conduct? Many Democrats and even a handful of Republicans are now calling for the president to resign. But if he doesn't, Democrats are preparing to launch proceedings tomorrow to impeach Trump for the second time, although it's just days before the end of his term. And the top federal prosecutor for Washington, D.C., has not ruled out charging the president for his role in inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol.

But are those the only options? Protect Democracy says no. Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group formed in 2017 to consider ways to counter and reverse what it calls corrupt and authoritarian behavior at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The group recently released a comprehensive report on how accountability processes can prevent future abuses of power.

Joining us now to tell us more is Ian Bassin. He is the founder and executive director of Protect Democracy, and he previously served as associate White House counsel under President Obama. Ian Bassin, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

IAN BASSIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, I just wanted to talk about why your group exists to begin with because your work far precedes last week's events at the Capitol. So as briefly as you can, can you just describe, what are the core principles or concerns that got your group to form itself to begin with?

BASSIN: Well, I think a lot of us in this country, myself included, didn't realize that in the early days of the 2000s, democracy began to actually retreat around the world. And you saw a rise - from Turkey to Hungary to Venezuela - of authoritarian movements. And the election of Donald Trump in the United States was a marker that that trend had come to this country. And although Trump was symptom, not cause of it, we needed to make sure that we were addressing it so we didn't go down the road of these other nations.

MARTIN: Your report is entitled Toward Non-Recurrence: Accountability Options for Trump-Era Transgressions. So start with, how are you defining accountability?

BASSIN: Well, accountability generally involves a number of things. First, it involves establishing a shared set of facts and understanding of abuses that took place and what went wrong. It then involves apportioning responsibility in order to establish deterrence so that it doesn't happen again. It then pulls the community together around a shared commitment of what the norms should be, since they were just violated, and how we will all jointly commit to upholding them in the future. And typically, that's done through a number of methods that we can talk about. But one important thing we learned in doing the research for this report is that not engaging in a process of accountability bears far more risks than some of the risks inherent in doing it.

MARTIN: Let's just talk about that a bit more, if you would. I mean, a number of sort of prominent figures - the South Carolina Republican, Lindsey Graham, the former FBI director, James Comey, who, for his part, is certainly no fan of this president - has suggested that it's better to just kind of move forward - not to impeach the president, for example, not to consider prosecuting him, for example - that the division that it would inflame further isn't worth it. What is your argument to that?

BASSIN: Well, I think it's important that it's not just an argument. It's evidence and data from history and international experience. Now, there are those who are saying, as you allude to, that there are risks of engaging in accountability - a risk of creating a norm of retaliatory responses, that it could distract from other priorities, that it could deepen cynicism in Washington. And those risks are absolutely real. But the notion that that parade of horribles would result if there were accountability for the gross abuses that we have seen is largely rooted in an argument of speculation from people like Jim Comey or Lindsey Graham.

But when you look internationally and you look at history, what you find is that the risks of not acting are actually worse. What happens is that abusers return to power often and engage in even more abusive behavior. A new baseline of norms is established that says, all of this behavior is actually normal and acceptable, and others can engage in it. In fact, more people believe that there is impunity for wrongdoing, and distrust in the system deepens.

To put this in terms I think we all could understand, as every parent knows, if a child takes a cookie from the cookie jar when he's not supposed to, and you just move on, not only will he do it again, but next time, so will his brother and sister.

MARTIN: What is the most important task ahead around accountability? Is it documenting the occurrences so that there is at least a chance to have a shared set of facts in a moment when a lot of people just refuse to accept a shared set of facts? Or does it also require some sanction? Does there - does it require that there be some consequence?

BASSIN: There are four things that I think a effective accountability regime would do. The first is establish a shared set of facts. And so either the Congress or the president - government 101 - after an event like what happened last Wednesday in the Capitol happens, you form a commission to figure out how did that happen, what went wrong, and how do we prevent it from happening again. That's what we've always done from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11 to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Second, there needs to be investigation for criminal misconduct and prosecution. If, in fact, as the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia said appropriately last week, if the facts meet the elements of a crime, someone should be charged no matter their position.

Third, there are going to need to be institutional reforms. In fact, our organization has worked with members of Congress on a bill called the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which would establish reforms to fix what has been broken and to prevent it from happening again, largely in the same way in the post-Watergate period there was a raft of reforms that addressed the abuses of the Nixon presidency.

And then lastly, the private sector has a role to play. After Watergate, the American Bar Association undertook a massive project about how to ensure the legal profession didn't engage in the wrongs that it did during Watergate. That's why every lawyer now, in order to get barred, has to take an ethics exam.

MARTIN: That was Ian Bassin, who's founder and executive director of Protect Democracy. That is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group formed, as we said, to consider ways to counter and reverse what it calls corrupt and authoritarian behavior at the highest levels of U.S. government. The group recently released a comprehensive report on accountability processes, and it's available now.

Ian Bassin, thank you so much for talking with us.

BASSIN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.