What about senior officials more generally? For instance, the martyr label was quickly given to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was prosecuted for lying to the FBI and then celebrated in right-wing media. Yet when the Justice Department moved to drop charges against Flynn as a result of political interference, only 30 percent of Americans thought it appropriate; the rest did not, or had no opinion on the matter. In fact, most senior officials enjoy little popular support. More than a third of Americans have never heard of Attorney General Bill Barr, and less than a third have a favorable opinion of him, while half of Americans are unfamiliar with Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose favorability rating is 15 percent. Minatory martyrs-in-the-making these are not. Indeed, after his imprisonment, Attorney General John Mitchell—the senior-most Watergate defendant—largely faded from public view.
Eliot A. Cohen: These old evils require old remedies
Finally, skeptics contend that the public can simply exercise accountability at the ballot box, or, as may happen, via a second impeachment, obviating the need for messy investigations. In November, Americans voted to replace an administration. Those in the prior administration were held to account, this argument goes—and in the most democratically legitimate way: by the people.
But elections are hardly sufficient to prevent the recurrence of wrongdoings. Liberal democracies, to borrow from the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, are not made accountable by elections alone. Plenty of countries regularly hold elections in which one batch of lawbreaking officials is supplanted by another, or in which lawbreakers reenter government through the next election, undeterred. In fact, elections and criminality often cohabit, especially in deeply polarized societies where loyal factions are unlikely to break from their leaders (see, for a sampling, Lebanon, Greece, Kenya, or Thailand). Elections by themselves do not guard against abuses of power.
As testament to this reality, various states prohibit officials from running again for public office if they are convicted of certain types of crimes, either indefinitely or for some period of time. Perhaps most infamously, Louisiana’s former Governor Edwards, who was ineligible to run for state office after spending eight years in prison, campaigned instead for Congress. (He had also easily won reelection for governor after his first legal entanglement ended with a hung jury.) In other cases, states have negotiated their leaders’ permanent exits. As part of a 2017 plea agreement, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama accepted a lifetime ban on holding public office in the state. Political accountability and judicial accountability are complements, not substitutes.
Of course, a governor is not a president—and our laboratories of democracy are experiments, not crystal balls. Learnings from the states may extend only so far. In fact, none of the risks raised by skeptics are unfounded, and many more exist: Prosecutions can distract from pressing policy priorities or be perceived as punishing political disagreement. They can appear as retaliation to some while leaving others disappointed and disillusioned. And they can reinforce notions of an incorrigibly corrupt Washington, deepening political cynicism by soaking the public with stories of crime. Almost uniformly, they are untidy, expensive, and time-consuming.