President Donald Trump has staged an unprecedented attack on the peaceful transition of power. He has refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory, spread wild conspiracy theories, and incited a mob that ransacked the Capitol. Those who still deny that he is, and always has been, a danger to American democracy simply don’t want to see the world for what it is.
Trump’s outrageous actions help explain why so many people—including Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, conservative writers at right-leaning publications, and many of my Atlantic colleagues—have called for Trump to be removed from office immediately. Trump will likely use the time he has left in the White House to pardon many of his accomplices, and perhaps even himself. The closer the date of his departure, the angrier and more vindictive he grows.
The case for removing Trump from office is strong. If I could wave a magic wand that ended his presidency instantly, and ensured that we would never hear from him or his supporters again, my arm would by now be in need of urgent medical attention. But such a magic wand does not exist. Any attempt to usher Trump out of the White House before January 20 is likely to fail. Even in the highly unlikely case of success, Trump’s opponents would pay a heavy price. Instead of leaving the White House as a sore loser who had lost the support of the American people, Trump would paint himself as a courageous martyr cast out by the “deep state.”
The best way to contain the danger Trump continues to pose to our democratic institutions is, simply, to run out the clock.
Trump’s opponents could try to remove him from office through either impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
To remove Trump from office under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, the vice president and the majority of the Cabinet would need to agree that he has become incapable of exercising the duties of the presidency. If Trump contested this determination, as he surely would, Congress would decide his fate. Unless two-thirds of both the House and the Senate declared him unfit, he could resume his duties.
Use of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment would have an important advantage over impeachment. The initial step would be taken by Trump’s own appointees. This would minimize the risk that the attempt to oust him would turn into a purely partisan affair that pits the great majority of Democrats against the great majority of Republicans.
Even so, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment is neither a wise nor a realistic path toward removing Trump from office. It is unwise because it would clearly violate the spirit of the amendment. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the country needed clearer provisions for how to handle emergency situations in which a president becomes incapacitated. As Lyndon B. Johnson explained in his second State of the Union address, he would soon “propose laws to insure the necessary continuity of leadership should the President become disabled or die.” Trump simply does not fit that criterion.
As I have argued ever since he declared his candidacy, Trump is morally unfit for office. A man so beholden to his own ego, and so willing to attack the country’s institutions, should never have been elected president of the United States. But this does not mean that he is either mentally or physically incapacitated. On the contrary, he remains what he always has been: an authoritarian populist who believes that he alone speaks for the American people, and who is unwilling to tolerate constitutional constraints on his power. To oust him by use of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment would amount to fighting an antidemocratic leader by antidemocratic means.
The second problem is simpler but more definitive. Some members of Trump’s Cabinet are clearly disgusted by his recent actions. But there is simply no indication that a significant number of them is willing to claim that he is incapacitated. Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos have, instead, chosen to resign. And although Vice President Mike Pence defied his boss by affirming the electoral count, he has since ruled out making use of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
This leaves one more avenue: impeaching Trump for a second time.
According to the Constitution, presidents can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And Trump’s behavior is exactly the kind of contingency that the Founders had in mind. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, the purpose was to find a remedy for “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Unlike the Twenty-Fifth Amendment route, a second impeachment trial could zero in on the most appropriate charge: Does Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election amount to an act of sedition?
The answer to that question, in my mind, is yes. And if I were a member of Congress tasked with voting on articles of impeachment, I would likely vote in the affirmative. But as I argued when the idea of impeaching Trump was first seriously discussed, that is not the only bar that those who seek to impeach a sitting president have to clear. Even if the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, it makes sense to wield this political tool only if doing so is likely to contain the damage he is able to inflict on American institutions. As in the first time around, I don’t believe this to be the case.
When Democrats in Congress began impeachment proceedings over the Ukraine phone call, many commentators predicted that conservatives would finally recognize Trump’s misdeeds. Congressional Republicans would desert the president en masse. The country would finally unite in disgust at the arsonist in the White House.
In reality, the impeachment trial quickly turned into a mostly partisan affair. It barely harmed Trump’s popularity. He was acquitted on a party-line vote, and gained an even stronger hold over the GOP. Doing the same thing all over again likely won’t have a different result.
Trump is more isolated now than he has been at any point in the past four years. Although about half of House Republicans raised some kind of objection to the Electoral College count, all but a handful of Senate Republicans ultimately defied his pressure to contest it. Right now Trump is set to leave office as a diminished leader whose attempt to subvert American democracy lost him the support of key leaders in his own party.
Anybody who wants to ensure that Trump fully fades from view when he leaves office needs to think hard about how to accelerate the trend of his diminution. There is no easy answer to how to do that. But trying to remove Trump during his last days in office is likely to be highly counterproductive.
Once authoritarian populists win high office, they are very difficult to beat. Even when they lose an election, they or their allies usually manage to claw their way back into power.
The experience of other countries suggests that the best way to contain the danger posed by aspiring autocrats is to beat them in free and fair elections. If they are ousted in any other way, they or their political inheritors can always tell their supporters that they failed only because they were betrayed.
Against the odds, Americans pulled off that momentous feat. Some 81 million people turned out to support Joe Biden. Once all the votes were in, he carried off a clear victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. When Americans look back at the end of Trump’s tenure, this is what they should focus on: not the machinations of congressional leaders in Washington, but rather the will of the American people.
Trying to remove Trump from office for a second time would be a fitting way to signal how many Americans consider him a dangerous demagogue. But it would likely fail. And in the process, it just might help him escape the most embarrassing predicament in which he has found himself since descending that infamous escalator in the spring of 2015.
We have survived 1,450 days since Donald Trump took office. Scary though the next days may prove, we can survive another 11.