Trump Has Left Congress No Choice

The Capitol riot was a tragic farce, but the type of political violence it represents poses an existential threat to democracy.

House of Representatives votes to impeach Donald Trump on Jan 13.
Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty

The first impeachment of Donald Trump was an act of self-preservation by Democrats. The second is an act of self-preservation by Congress.

In 2019, the Democratic congressional leadership initially resisted the cries for impeachment that had been building since the party gained control of the House of Representatives; Speaker Nancy Pelosi memorably and ineffectually quipped that Trump was “almost self-impeaching” in May of that year.

But when a whistleblower revealed that Trump had attempted to strong-arm the leader of Ukraine into falsely implicating then-aspiring Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a crime, the House had to act. Allowing Trump to use his authority as president to coerce foreign leaders into doing his bidding would leave the country vulnerable to similar acts in the future. The sustained public attention to Trump’s corrupt motives also substantially neutralized his planned attack on Biden, who ultimately prevailed in November.

Every Senate Republican—except for Mitt Romney of Utah, who described Trump’s attempt to rig the election as “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine”—voted to acquit the president. The rest of the Republican caucus either approved of Trump’s conduct or concluded that the political benefits of allowing him to continue to abuse his authority were greater than the cost of removing him. Tragically, Romney’s remarks turned out to represent a failure of imagination.

On January 6, Trump incited a mob to assault the Capitol, hoping that it could coerce federal lawmakers engaged in the ceremonial counting of Electoral College votes to overturn the results and install Trump as president. A police officer was killed, and the incident came very close to being a bloodbath—several of the rioters entered the Capitol intent on killing Pelosi and Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence. (Trump had castigated Pence for disloyalty, after Pence acknowledged that he could not use his authority as vice president to overturn Trump’s defeat.) The House swiftly impeached Trump again, making the Manhattan real-estate mogul the only president ever to be impeached twice.

Republicans now face a choice between their long-term interests and short-term self-preservation. It takes two-thirds of the Senate to convict a president, a threshold so high that it has never been reached. Convicting Trump and barring him from federal office would earn senators the wrath of the Trump faithful, upon whom the current composition of the Republican Party is dependent to win elections. Failing to convict him would leave open the possibility of a Trump restoration, which might offer some political advantages but would also exacerbate the ideological extremism that turned Arizona and Georgia into states with two Democratic senators.

The reason to convict Trump and bar him from office forever is rather simple: No sitting president has ever incited a violent attack on Congress. Allowing Trump to do so without sanction would invite a future president with autocratic ambitions and greater competence to execute a successful overthrow of the federal government, rather than the soft echo of post-Reconstruction violence the nation endured in early January. The political incentives for the Republican Party in convicting Trump may be unclear, but the stakes for democracy are not. The Senate must make clear that attempted coups, no matter how clumsy or ineffective, are the type of crime that is answered with swift and permanent exile from American political life.

That Trump is responsible for the assault on the Capitol is clear far beyond a reasonable doubt. Trump informed the assembled crowd on January 6 that “if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” and that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He then directed the mob at the Capitol, falsely telling the rioters he would accompany them, retreating to the White House instead. Those arrested after the attack have themselves told the authorities they were acting on the president’s admonitions. Behind the scenes, Trump was attempting to orchestrate an autogolpe using the Justice Department to force states to overturn their vote tallies; he was foiled only by the threat of mass resignations. The mob was his last resort.

I recognize that the costs for the GOP in convicting Trump would be high, and in the aftermath of their 2020 electoral losses, Republicans are in no mood to offer more ammunition to their rivals. Democrats would obviously be delighted to see Republicans divided, and conservative lawmakers may believe that, even if Trump deserves conviction, the damage to their political and ideological priorities would be too great.

To avoid a difficult choice, some Senate Republicans have coalesced around the cowardly and nonsensical argument that ex-presidents cannot be tried by the Senate. But neither the text of the Constitution nor the intent of the Framers can justify, say, a president ordering a drone strike on the Supreme Court and then resigning and retiring to private life without consequence. Or imagine a president ordering a politically aligned militia to assemble outside Congress in order to compel the opposition party to pass a law he favors, without explicitly ordering an attack. An acquittal would represent an invitation to a future president to use force to bend Congress to his will.

The Capitol riot was a tragic farce, but the type of political violence it represents poses an existential threat to democracy. Congress now faces a question not just of self-preservation, but of deterrence. Parties change over time. Although today it is the Republican Party that is struggling with a faction that does not accept the legitimacy of its political opponents, a century and a half ago that description applied to the Democratic Party. Any president from any party who incites a violent attack on another branch of government in order to seize power should be forever barred from holding office.

If Congress cannot uphold that principle, it will not survive the next attack if it comes.