Column: Who should hold Trump accountable for Jan. 6?

President Joe Biden stands at a lectern, surrounded by statues and pillars
President Biden speaks from Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol to mark the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol by supporters loyal to then-President Donald Trump.
(Drew Angerer / Associated Press)

The headline you never thought you’d read said it all: “Jimmy Carter: I fear for our democracy.”

The 97-year-old former president has set the gold standard for post-presidencies, creating a pro-democracy foundation and traveling to dozens of countries over the years to monitor elections and try to ensure that they were free and fair — like America’s — and “unhindered by strongman politicians who seek nothing more than to grow their own power.”

Yet there he was in a New York Times op-ed, lamenting the state of his own country’s democracy, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection incited by one of his successors, a wannabe strongman who wouldn’t accept defeat.


Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Carter didn’t name Donald Trump, though it seems high time that he and the three other former presidents drop their tradition-bound silence about Trump’s conduct and take a united, bipartisan stand explicitly denouncing Trump for the threat he poses to American democracy. Carter, instead, wrote of “unscrupulous politicians” who are “promoters of the lie that the election was stolen.”

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, likewise, did not name Trump on Wednesday in a televised speech when he laid out the work of Justice Department over the last year in arresting and criminally charging 725 insurrectionists, tacitly responding to complaints that the department is focused too much on prosecuting the small-fry rioters rather than targeting the big-fish coup plotters, including the insurrectionist in chief.

Garland plainly was referencing Trump and his circle when he said that the cases to date are providing “the evidentiary foundation” for prosecutions of higher-ups. He committed to “holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law.”

Trump must be held accountable, politically and legally. But it’s not for Garland, who is intent on restoring the department’s nonpartisan independence after four years in which Trump used it as his personal law firm, to name the former president until he has an actual, winnable legal case against him. Americans like their gratification served up instantly but justice, and the rule of law, doesn’t work that way.

What is required on the anniversary of Jan. 6 is nothing less than a national awakening.

Jan. 6, 2022

Nor should Joe Biden, as president of the United States, have to take the lead in holding Trump politically accountable. In normal times, that work would be bipartisan in Congress. Yet after a year in which nearly all Republicans have refused to join Democrats in either impeaching or investigating the former president, Biden stepped up on Thursday with a forcefully delivered speech in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall marking the anniversary of the insurrection Trump incited.

Biden called Jan. 6 a “day of remembrance” — which is right for the gravity of the threat we still face.


The president also didn’t name Trump, but instead referred to him 16 times as the “former president,” including in a way sure to get under Trump’s skin: “He’s not just a former president. He’s a defeated former president.”

Not only is Trump a loser, Biden said, he rallied a mob and then the commander in chief did nothing as the citadel of democracy came under attack — “sitting in the private dining room of the Oval Office in the White House, watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours.”

Biden also justifiably mocked Trump and his enablers for rejecting the 2020 presidential-election result yet accepting Republican victories in votes for governors, U.S. senators and especially House members “on the same ballot, the same day, cast by the same voters.”

As soon as the smoke cleared, Trump sympathizers began to downplay or deny the unprecedented attack on democracy.

Jan. 5, 2022

This speech was unprecedented — never has an American president had to indict his predecessor for refusing to accept the will of the people. But it had to be delivered; the danger is if we become accustomed to this destruction of political norms.

For Biden, the address certainly was a departure after a year in which he’d dismissed “the former guy” as not worth his attention, reflecting the Trump fatigue of many Americans among the 81.3 million who voted against the former president.

Yet Biden, like most of us, never expected that Trump’s lies would become truth for the overwhelming share of Republicans and metastasize into justifications for state and local partisans to pass laws and make appointments that could subvert future elections.

Before, during and after Biden’s speech, Trump issued four statements doubling down on his lies, including one he’s lately hammered on, “The Big Lie was the Election itself.” Biden addressed that doozy explicitly — “Can you think of a more twisted way to look at this country?” — and added, “Here’s the truth: The election of 2020 was the greatest demonstration of democracy in the history of this country.”

Don’t believe Biden? Ask the Trump administration officials who declared the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

Unless Trump is held accountable, he and his followers will have license to continue their anti-democratic offensive. Democrats and a Democratic administration cannot do it alone, along with the very few Republicans willing to commit career suicide.

Voters also have a responsibility: Research the candidates on your ballots, whether they’re running for county clerk or Congress. Determine whether they’ve ever denied or questioned Trump’s defeat. If they have, vote against them.

Vote like our democracy depends on it. Because it does.