Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The testimony was heartbreaking. Choking back tears, two women who had tried to do their part for American democracy told their story; the story of how former President Donald Trump, in trying to hold on to power after losing an election, nearly destroyed their lives.
But the story that former Georgia election workers Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, told the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol is more than a recounting of how Trump’s assault on the 2020 election took a toll on two people. It provides further evidence of why the man who is still trying to undermine American democracy must be prosecuted.
Trump and his acolytes are not just undercutting faith in the system and they’re not only normalizing misinformation – they are poisoning the well that sustains democracy.
To be sure, prosecuting a former president is a risky proposition. But the evidence against Trump is strong and it is imperative: legal action must be taken.
The case being unfurled by the House select committee is nominally about what happened on January 6, 2021. It is about the past, but more importantly, it’s about the present as well as the future of the country.
Looking at what Moss and Freeman say they experienced, consider how the ideals of democracy were trampled in Trump’s plot to steal the election.
Moss and Freeman were neither prominent nor highly remunerated, but the tasks they performed were essential to the functioning of democracy, and they knew it. Moss recalled how her grandmother told her “how important it is to vote and how people before me, a lot of people, older people in my family, did not have that right.” She shared that her favorite part of the job was helping older people and disabled voters participate in democracy.
But then she took part in the counting of the 2020 votes in Georgia and Trump lost. That’s when she says the most powerful man in the world went against her with the venom of his lies. He railed against her and her mother Ruby. “He targeted me, Lady Ruby,” said Freeman, “a small-business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of a pandemic.”
Trump called Freeman, the mom, a “professional vote scammer and a hustler” in a call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said they had been passing “USB ports as if they were vials of cocaine or heroin,” as he invented ever more outlandish concoctions to try to deny American voters the president they chose. (On Wednesday, Moss said her mother had handed her a ginger mint.)
CNN’s Ryan Nobles recalls attending one of the Trump rallies where Moss was accused of tampering with ballots. “The crowd was vicious…Trump smiled and nodded along.”
Trump’s followers unleashed their fury against the women. The threats, the racist insults, kept coming. “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920,” one message read, according to Moss, suggesting perhaps lynching or who knows what horror.
As the threats mounted, the FBI alerted Freeman to the danger. She had to move out of her house. “There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” she told the committee. “Do you know how it feels to have the President of the United States target you?”
In a wrenching description of how her life has been turned upside down, Moss, her daughter, said, “I no longer give out my business card… I don’t want anyone knowing my name. I don’t want to go anywhere,” she said. “I don’t go to the grocery store at all. I haven’t been anywhere at all. I’ve gained about 60 pounds.” She was nervous but she held her composure. With tears escaping her eyes she said, “I just don’t do nothing anymore.”
One of the things neither she nor her mother Ruby do any more is election work. After what Trump and his followers did, who can blame them?
Moss was honored with a Kennedy Profile in Courage award, but that hardly makes up for the harm she experienced, or for the damage to the country.
Much of the evidence presented during the hearings has been offered by Republican officials who worked for Trump, showing that he didn’t just assault democracy, he ruined lives, intimidated officials, stirred up a mob and endorsed a plan that amounted to an attempted coup d’état. As the January 6 committee sets out layer upon layer of damning evidence against the former President, all eyes turn to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Garland said he and his prosecutors are paying close attention to the hearings. They have a historic choice before them. Indicting a former president is a daunting decision that could open Pandora’s box.
Advanced democracies don’t usually go after the losers of elections. It has never happened here, and the prospect that it could become a new trend is genuinely disturbing. Then there’s the risk of further inflaming a deeply divided and heavily-armed country, where the former president’s followers have shown a willingness to use violence to further his cause.
But Trump’s was not a normal presidency. And his behavior since the election is egregious beyond measure. If he had lied about the election, claimed he won and left it at that, there might be a case for moving on for the sake of national reconciliation. But that’s not what has happened.
Every day that passes, every day that Trump gets away with what he has done and what he continues to do to the country is a day that makes the injury deeper, the healing more difficult and the future more uncertain.
Even if Garland does not prosecute, Trump could still be indicted. The assault on the Capitol is hardly the former President’s first transgression. A grand jury in Georgia is in the midst of hearing evidence into whether the former President, who called Georgia officials and urged them to “find” votes, committed any crimes in the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Trump’s approach to elections seems reminiscent of his tactics on taxes: test the limits and hope for only the mildest of consequences. That strategy seems to have paid off for him so far.
But it’s one thing to try tricks on your taxes and quite another to attempt a coup.
Destroying two women’s lives may not have even ranked as an afterthought in Trump’s campaign to steal the election. But for the rest of the country awaiting a decision by the Justice Department, Moss and Freeman stand as proof of how Trump is dismantling American democracy one belief at a time, one poll worker at a time, one idealistic citizen at a time. That is not just heartbreaking. It demands action.