President Donald Trump should be convicted by the Senate but not criminally prosecuted for inciting Capitol rioters, former FBI Director James Comey said Sunday, adding that it would give America space to "heal."
"The country would be better off if we did not give him the platform that a prosecution would for the next three years," Comey told the British broadcaster Sky News, which like NBC News, is owned by Comcast Corp.
"Instead, turn off the camera lights," said Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director in 2017 while he was leading an investigation into possible collusion with Russia by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
"I'd like to see some of the lights go out and he can stand on the front lawn at Mar-a-Lago and shout at cars in his bathrobe and none of us will hear it," he said.
Trump became the first president to be impeached twice last week for his role in encouraging a violent mob of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Senate will now decide whether Trump should be convicted on the incitement of insurrection charge, and there has been discussion of potential criminal charges arising from the same conduct after he leaves office.
Comey, 60, said he would like Trump to be convicted by the Senate and barred from holding federal office again, but he said he was concerned that a prosecution would impede President-elect Joe Biden's efforts to reunite the nation.
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"The country needs to find a way to heal itself, and the new president needs the opportunity to lead and heal us — both literally and spiritually," Comey said. "And that will be much, much harder if the Donald Trump show is on our television screens every single day in the nation's capital."
He said the trial would give Trump the attention he craves.
"That would go on for three or four years," Comey said. "How does Joe Biden do what our country needs him to do in that environment?"
NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the decision to prosecute a former president should be a balancing test between the strength of the criminal case and the socially and politically divisive consequences of a trial.
"If the case against Trump for incitement was a slam dunk, then the benefit of prosecution may outweigh the potential harm to the republic," Cevallos said in response to Comey's comments. "The prosecution's case is not a slam dunk. Trump has formidable free speech and other defenses to incitement."
America has been faced with a similar dilemma, he said, when President Gerald Ford controversially pardoned former President Richard Nixon, which many said cost Ford his popularity and election to a full term as president.
"We'll never know, but a Nixon prosecution might have prolonged — rather than solved — the country's pain," he said.
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The attack on the Capitol, the seat of American democracy, reverberated through the country, causing political upheaval just days before Biden comes into power Wednesday and leaving authorities throughout the country on alert for more violence.
Comey said he was optimistic that the threat of new violence will be neutralized, but he said it has to be taken very seriously by law enforcement.
He said he was "sickened" by the attack on the Capitol and the failure to defend the building.
"It mystifies and angers me," Comey said, adding: "It will be important for our country to understand that failure."