Prosecute Trump? Biden Is Wary, but His Voters Are Eager

New presidents want to look forward, not back, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. is no exception, taking office with a lengthy menu of plans and an aggressive timetable for scrubbing away the policies of his predecessor.

But Mr. Biden’s often-expressed desire not to dwell on the sins or even the potential crimes of President Trump, in the name of national unity, is clashing with the will of Democratic voters who want to fully air any wrongdoing and punish Mr. Trump and his enablers, after an election in which many Biden voters were inspired less by passion for him than by rage at the president.

Starting with a split-screen inauguration week, in which Mr. Trump’s Senate impeachment trial could begin as soon as Thursday, the opening chapters of the new administration are likely to be marked by tension among Democrats about how to move forward. Party institutionalists led by Mr. Biden want to hammer out deals with congressional Republicans, while the Democratic base is eager for Mr. Trump, his allies and his family members to be held fully accountable.

“Many of us voted to get Trump out, not necessarily to be pro-Biden,” said Nancy MacEoin, 47, a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia. “Backing off any sort of prosecution of Trump is going to alienate those people.”

Interviews with two dozen Biden voters across the country found near unanimity that it was important for the Senate, the Justice Department and state prosecutors to aggressively pursue Mr. Trump, his family members and top aides — holding them accountable well beyond the impeachment charge against the president for inciting the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. The consensus cut across differences of ideology, income, race and sex.

“He’s a crook and he needs to pay for the crimes he’s done,” said Teresa Steele, a Republican in Denton County, Texas, who voted for Mr. Biden.

After the House impeached Mr. Trump last week, Mr. Biden — who took no public position on the matter before the vote — said he hoped the Senate trial would not conflict with confirmations for his cabinet nominees or other top priorities like a new economic stimulus package.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, called for Senate Democrats to stand down on impeachment, warning, “We will be delaying indefinitely, if not forever, the healing of this great nation if we do otherwise.”

But Democratic voters vehemently rejected the idea that by aggressively pursuing Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden would sacrifice political capital or impede the country from unifying, a theme of his campaign.

“I can’t help but cringe when I hear Republicans calling for unity,” said Laura Gutknecht, 67, an engineer at a radio station in Madison, Wis. “Now, unity? It’s very hard to take them seriously. They’ve done nothing to unite the country, unless it’s uniting against this person or that group.”

Many Democrats were scornful of trying to work with elected Republicans at all, citing the obstruction by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, to almost all Democratic initiatives of recent years.

“For the last four years, everything the Democrats tried to do, they got the door slammed in their face,” said Mike Worley, a retired engineer in Panama City, Fla. “Every single motion, Mitch McConnell killed. Democrats have been doing their jobs. Am I worried about the Republicans getting upset? Please, you’re kidding me. I want to see them cringe and cry.”

Some Biden voters said they hoped that convicting Mr. Trump in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds vote, would not slow down important priorities of the new president, including speeding economic relief during the coronavirus pandemic, pushing for more affordable health care and raising the minimum wage. “If they’re going to work on impeaching Trump, that’s great,” said Belinda Rogers, a bus driver in Austin, Texas. “But they also need a priority of helping all people. That means bringing the minimum wage up so people can afford to live.”

Polls show that Mr. Trump is leaving office with the lowest approval rating of his presidency, and that a majority of Americans say he bears some responsibility for the lawless breach of the Capitol by his supporters. In a Pew survey, a majority of Democrats said Mr. Biden should try his best to work with G.O.P. leaders in Congress. But a majority of Republicans want their leaders to “stand up” to Mr. Biden rather than seek consensus.

After leaving office, Mr. Trump will face legal jeopardy that he had avoided as the sitting president. In New York, federal and state prosecutors are reportedly looking into an array of possible violations, including hush-money payments to women who said they had affairs with him, as well as the practices of Mr. Trump’s businesses. In Georgia, a district attorney is weighing a criminal investigation of Mr. Trump for trying to coerce elections officials to “find” him more votes after he lost the state.

Last year, Mr. Biden said he didn’t think it was “good for democracy” to prosecute a former president. He said he would leave the choice of whether to pursue federal cases to the Justice Department. And by naming Merrick B. Garland, a moderate appeals court judge, to be attorney general, Mr. Biden signaled a reversal of Mr. Trump’s warping of the Justice Department to attack his political enemies.

But many Democratic voters said that letting Mr. Trump go unpunished, including his potential violation of the constitutional ban on profiting from a foreign government while in office, would only encourage future autocratic behavior in the White House.

The Trump Impeachment ›

From Riot to Impeachment

The riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, followed a rally at which President Trump made an inflammatory speech to his supporters, questioning the results of the election. Here’s a look at what happened and at the ongoing fallout: