The American legal system is on the verge of a remarkable historical achievement. In real time and under enormous pressure, it reacted to an American rebellion in a way that both fulfills justice to the participants and establishes a series of legal precedents that will stand as lasting deterrents to future rebellion. In an age when so many American institutions have failed, the success of our legal institutions in responding to a major crisis should be a source of real hope.
I am writing this newsletter days after the Michigan attorney general announced the prosecution of 16 Republicans for falsely representing themselves as the electors qualified to vote in the Electoral College for Donald Trump after the 2020 election. That news came the same day that the former president announced on Truth Social that he received a so-called target letter from Jack Smith, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate Trump’s efforts to nullify the election. The targeting letter signals that the grand jury investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol is likely to indict Trump, possibly at some point.
On Monday, a day before this new wave, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a desperate Trump attempt to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from prosecuting Trump and quash a special grand jury report on election misconduct from 2020. Trump’s team filed its petition on 13- an of July The court dismissed it just four days later. Willis can continue her job, and she expects to begin issuing indictments — including possibly her own Trump indictment — in August, if not sooner.
Assuming another Trump impeachment (or more than one) is imminent — or even if it isn’t — the legal response to January 6 will continue. But to truly understand where we are now, it is important to trace where we have been. If you rewind the clock to the late evening of January 6, 2021, America’s long history of peaceful transfer of power has ended, broken by a demagogue and his crowd. To make matters worse, there was no direct path to legal accountability.
Prosecuting acts of violence against police — or vandalism in the Capitol — was certainly easy enough, especially since much of the violence and destruction was caught on video. But just going after Trump’s thugs was hardly enough to address the extent of MAGA misconduct. What about those who helped plan and set the stage for the rebellion? What about the failed candidate who started it all, Donald Trump himself?
Consider the legal challenges. The stolen election narrative was promulgated by a simply staggering amount of defamation – yet defamation cases are hard to win in a nation that strongly protects free speech. Trump’s legal campaign was run by unethical lawyers who raised frivolous arguments – yet lawyer discipline, especially stretching across multiple jurisdictions, is notoriously difficult.
The list goes on. Trump’s team sought to exploit ambiguities in the Vote Counting Act, a 19th-century statute that could be one of the worst written statutes in the entire federal code. Plus, Trump’s a team advanced a constitutional argument called the independent state legislative doctrine that would empower legislatures to dictate or distort the results of congressional and presidential elections in their states.
There is more. When we watched rebels storm the Capitol, we watched the culmination of a seditious conspiracy, yet prosecutions for seditious conspiracy are both rare and difficult. And finally, the whole sorry and deadly thing was instigated by an American president – and an American president has never been impeached before, let alone for his role in illegally trying to overturn an American election.
Now consider the answer. It’s easy to look at Trump’s continued popularity with GOP voters and the unrepentant acceleration of parts of the right-wing media and desperation. 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, which repeated and amplified his election lies, paid a price. Fox News agreed to a staggering $787 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, and multiple slander cases continue against several right-wing media outlets.
Trump’s lawyers and his lawyer allies paid a price. Last month the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit confirmed the bulk of the sanction award against Sidney Powell et al The value of the Mos Eisley canteen by Trump-allied lawyers. A New York State Court of Appeals temporarily suspended Rudy Giuliani’s law license in 2021, and earlier this month a bar panel in Washington. recommended that he be dismissed. Jenna Ellis, one of Guiliani’s partners in dangerous dishonesty and frivolous legal arguments, admitted to making multiple misrepresentations in public censorship of the Colorado Bar Association. John Eastman, the former dean of the law school of Chapman University and the author of an infamous legal memo that suggested Mike Pence could overturn the election, is facing his own bar lawsuit in California.
Congress responded to the crisis of January 6, passing bipartisan Voter Counting Act reforms that makes repeated action of the congressional attempt to overturn the election much more difficult.
The Supreme Court responded, deciding Moore vs. Harperwhich gutted the independent state legislature doctrine and guaranteed that partisan state legislatures are still subject to review by the courts.
The criminal justice system responded by securing hundreds of criminal convictions of January 6 riotersincluding seditious conspiracy convictions for multiple members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. And the criminal justice system is still responding, moving steadily up the chain of command and control, with Trump himself seemingly the final target.
In about 30 months—light speed in legal time—the American legal system built the jurisprudence necessary to combat and deter American insurgency. Bar associations set precedents. Courts set precedents. And these precedents hold up in the face of appeals and legal challenges.
Wondering why the 2022 election was relatively routine and uneventful, even though the Republicans fielded a slew of conspiracy theorist candidates? Wondering why the right-wing media has been relatively tame after a string of tough GOP losses, especially compared to the deranged hysteria in 2020? Yes, it is important that Trump was not a candidate, but it is also important that the most lawless members of the right were tried, prosecuted and sanctioned.
The consequences for January 6 and the Stop the Steal movement are not exclusively legal. The mid-term elections also represented a profound setback for the extreme right of MAGA. According to an NBC News report, election-denying candidates “overwhelmingly lost” their races in swing states. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the relentless legal efforts also had a political payoff.
And to be clear, this responsibility did not come exclusively from the left — although the Biden administration and the Garland Justice Department deserve enormous credit for their responses to Trump’s insurgency, which were firm without overreaching. Multiple Republicans joined with Democrats to pass Voter Count Act reform. Both conservative and liberal judges rejected the independent state legislature doctrine. Conservative and liberal justices, including multiple Trump appointees, have similarly rejected Trump’s election challenges. Republican governors and other Republican elected officials in Arizona and Georgia withstood enormous pressure from within their own party to confirm Joe Biden’s election victory.
American legal institutions have so far passed the test of January 6, but the tests are not over. Trump is already trying to significantly delay the sentencing of his federal indictment in the Mar-a-Lago case, and if a second federal indictment arrives soon, he will almost certainly try 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 without any criminal conviction. And what if he wins?
Simply put, the American people can override the rule of law. If they elect Trump despite his allegations, they will empower him to end his own federal criminal prosecutions and make state prosecutions a practical impossibility. They will enable him to forgive his allies. The American voters will break through the legal firewall that protects our democracy against rebellion and sedition.
We cannot ask too much of any legal system. A code of laws ultimately does not replace moral standards. Our constitutional republic cannot continue 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 historic crisis, but any of its victories may still be temporary. Our nation can choose the law, or it can choose Trump. It cannot choose both.