The Not-So-Quiet Majority Keeping Trump Accountable

The question that hovers over all of American public life in 2024 is a daunting and unprecedented one: Will Donald Trump face accountability for all of his alleged misdeeds?  Should he? And if so, how?

While this gets debated by commentators and various political actors, one crucial fact seems to get lost. Most Americans believe that Donald Trump should face the music. 

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When asked if Trump should be immune from prosecution just because he was still president at that time, a solid majority of 64% of Americans said no, according to a January 2024 CBS/ YouGov poll, and a similar majority of 65% of New Hampshire voters concurred, as seen in a poll conducted by Marist College.

This almost feels surprising, but it shouldn’t. Media accounts have tended to focus more on Americans’ feelings about Donald Trump or what happened on January 6. Yet a larger majority of Americans have coalesced around the bedrock principle that no one—not even a former president and current presidential candidate—is above the law.

Critically, this does not mean that Donald Trump is automatically to be deemed guilty; that is for juries to decide. It does mean, however, that he must stand trial. He cannot escape the law and claim perpetual immunity simply because of his status. He cannot circumvent the criminal justice system by claiming he’s special and thus deserves some alternative set of rules different from the ones the rest of us must follow. He cannot live in a gold encrusted bubble free of mugshots and consequences. No one can—and that’s the whole point. That’s what living under the Constitution and the rule of law means. That’s why the words carved into the front of the U.S. Supreme Court are “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW.” No one gets to make up their own rules.

A majority of Americans have stayed true to this principle, and their steady insistence on accountability has been paramount. While this majority may not be as loud as Trump and his MAGA base, it is the biggest reason Trump is now likely about to stand trial as a criminal defendant. There is a clear constituency for accountability, and without that, many if not most of the prosecutions of Trump would likely either have fizzled or would never have been brought in the first place.

Indeed, in the Trump legal saga, it has sometimes been public opinion that has led the way, and prosecutors have sometimes followed behind. January 6 is the most important example of this phenomenon: while there was an initial outrage at the assault on the Capitol in the days immediately after, once Trump left office and was not convicted by the Senate in the second impeachment proceeding, investigatory efforts focused exclusively on the foot soldiers in the insurrection rather than its leaders. We now know that the Department of Justice and FBI declined to investigate Trump’s alleged role in January 6 for over a year, from 2021 into 2022. Yet there remained a steady drumbeat for a fully comprehensive investigation into January 6—and that public pressure was ultimately manifested in the creation of the House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack, brought into being by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in June 2021.

By all appearances, the Committee was a game-changer. Its investigation delved into the relevant documents and witness testimony and laid an evidentiary foundation for what was to come. Perhaps even more critically, it shone the brightest of spotlights not only on the violence of the attack but on the larger conspiracy, of which the attack was only one part. As a result, in December 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Special Counsel Jack Smith to oversee an escalated investigation of January 6, as well as the Mar-a-Lago documents case, with a mandate to prosecute the leading figures of those cases, no matter how high up.

Read More: Holding World Leaders Like Trump Accountable Is Democratic

We also saw a similar dynamic play out in the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation of Trump. When District Attorney Alvin Bragg scuttled the investigation in February 2022, he ignited a firestorm of criticism, sparked in part by the public resignations of veteran prosecutors Mark Pomerantz and Carey Dunne. Yet a year later, Bragg revived the hush money portion of the investigation and, in a jaw-dropping reversal, became the first prosecutor to criminally indict Donald Trump.

In both cases — the January 6 investigation and the Manhattan DA investigation — it does not appear that the prosecutorial decisions were triggered by shocking revelations of new evidence or of whistleblowing witnesses. Instead, it appears that the cases moved forward because of a popular insistence on the rule of law, an insistence on accountability, an insistence vocalized and made into reality by the persistent public demand for transparency and thorough investigation. The people’s message has been clear: We must get to the bottom of this.

This public outcry has been driven by immense frustration over the inability of our justice system to hold powerful elites to account — even when there are mountains of evidence and dozens of witnesses. From Bill Cosby to Jeffrey Epstein to Trump’s inner circle (Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were both convicted, but Trump pardoned them), it often feels as though no justice is possible if the accused perpetrator is wealthy and well-connected enough. “They will get away with everything,” the pessimists declare, and any time they’re proven right, that pessimism hardens into a corrosive cynicism. Indeed, only 35% of Americans believe Trump will be convicted in his federal criminal case regarding January 6. Yet if people increasingly believe the system is broken, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a potential death spiral for the Republic.

Our system must be based on faith and trust, or it is nothing. If we do not believe that right makes might, then might will rule triumphant, and we will slide into the abyss of kleptocracy and autocracy, where there is no law, only power and force.

There is often great and understandable trepidation involved in the pursuit of a high-profile investigatory target. That is, all too often, the default—and our would-be oligarchs float above the law.

Now, at long last, the public has marched in, where some prosecutors had feared to tread. 

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