Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Will Trump Be the First President to Be Impeached Twice?

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On Monday, the House of Representatives introduced an article of impeachment against President Trump for “incitement of insurrection” in response to the attack on the Capitol last week. If, as is expected as early as Wednesday, the House votes to adopt the article, along with any others being considered, it would be the first time that a president has been impeached twice.

A majority of Americans believe that this is the right action for Congress to take, and there’s reason to believe it could be successful: On Tuesday, The Times reported that Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, is privately welcoming impeachment as a means of purging Mr. Trump from his party. But with only eight days before Joe Biden takes office, what would impeachment accomplish, and at what cost? Here’s what people are saying.

The case for and against impeachment

The Times columnist Bret Stephens argues that the moral case for impeachment is clear: “Trump has the blood of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick on his hands. Legal analysts can debate whether Trump’s speech met the so-called Brandenburg test for incitement to violence, but it’s irrelevant to an impeachment. Everyone except his most sophistical apologists agrees that Trump whipped up the mob, including the mob itself.”

Yet some members of Congress — and not just Republicans — say they fear impeachment will only scar the country further. “Let’s move on. Let’s get President Biden into place,” said Joni Ernst, a Republican senator from Iowa who voted against her party’s objections to the certification of electoral votes last week. “Let’s get the new administration going and let’s start healing our nation.”

Such overtures are tempting, but in the end unconvincing, the Times editorial board argues. “In many ways, it would be easier to let Mr. Trump leave office and attempt to consign the storming of the Capitol to the past,” the board writes. “But, ultimately, there can be no republic if leaders foment a violent overthrow of the government if they lose an election.”

Impeachment, its proponents argue, is a means not only of punishing the president for inciting the mob on Wednesday but also of preventing him from encouraging future acts of political violence. In an appearance on Tuesday, Mr. Trump showed no contrition for his role in the Capitol incursion and, referring to calls for his removal, warned, “be careful what you wish for.”

“With each day, Mr. Trump grows more and more desperate,” David N. Cicilline, a House Judiciary Committee member who helped write the impeachment article, argues in The Times. “We should not allow him to menace the security of our country for a second longer.”

Impeachment is a lengthy process, however, and it may be practically impossible to convene a trial before Jan. 20. As my colleague Nicholas Fandos explains, the Senate is not in session, and all 100 senators would have to agree to change the schedule, a highly unlikely prospect. “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,” Yascha Mounk writes in The Atlantic. “But it would likely fail.”

As an alternative, David E. Kendall argues in The Washington Post, Congress should instead move to censure the president, which it could do in a matter of days. “While not entirely satisfying, a strong bipartisan censure resolution is the most effective way of forging a speedy, clear and enduring public sanction against Trump’s conduct,” he writes. “While admittedly symbolic, it is what is needed at this moment: an immediate bipartisan judgment that is strong, unequivocal, indelible and undeniable, a clear judgment that Trump’s conduct was a profound betrayal of both his duty and the basic legal rules of our democratic republic.”

But if Congress has only symbolic gestures at its disposal, it might as well choose its grandest, Benjamin Wallace-Wells argues in The New Yorker. “Congress should impeach Trump, even — and maybe especially — if the act is only symbolic,” he writes, noting how, as the historian David Blight told him, the impunity former Confederates enjoyed in the wake of the Civil War paved the way not for reconciliation but for white revanchism. “Congress has a similar opportunity to the one it had in 1865: to punish a political crime, and so to shape its memory.”

And that punishment, the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie argues, must come from Congress. That the president himself incited the mob, he writes, “makes it an actual attack on the separation of powers: an attempt, by the executive, to subvert the legislature by force and undermine the foundation of constitutional government.” Such an attack, in his view, compels the legislative branch to reassert its strongest power to check the presidency, and that power is impeachment: “Here, Congress doesn’t need courage. It just needs a sense of self-preservation.”

But even some who believe the case for impeachment is right on the merits caution that it could backfire for Democrats. As Markus Wagner notes in The Conversation, Mr. Biden himself is lukewarm about the prospect, no doubt because a Senate trial would eat into the first days of his term. “This would distract from the critical goals Biden has for his first 100 days and beyond,” he writes. “Last, but not least, it would make confirmation of Biden’s cabinet picks more difficult.”

That seems to be the view of James Clyburn, the third-most powerful Democrat in the House, who told CNN on Sunday that Democrats ought to wait until the spring to pursue impeachment further. Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, struck a similar note, maintaining that “President Biden’s going to want the Senate to spend their time, at least near term, getting his cabinet approved.”

But other lawmakers insist that waiting simply isn’t an option. “If we allow insurrection against the United States with impunity, with no accountability, we are inviting it to happen again,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told ABC on Monday. “This is an immediate danger right now.”

The danger she cites is not merely hypothetical: The F.B.I. has warned that far-right extremist groups are planning armed marches on all 50 state capitols through the week of inauguration. And on Monday, the Capitol Police briefed House Democrats about a potential plot to encircle the Capitol and assassinate members of Congress — and reminded them that the purchase of bulletproof vests was a reimbursable expense.

The disqualification factor

If the Senate convicts Mr. Trump, it could also vote to disqualify him from ever holding public office again. The Constitution does not specify whether disqualification requires the same two-thirds majority that a conviction does, but in the past Congress used only a simple majority vote to disqualify three federal judges, as my colleague David Leonhardt explains. The disqualification could happen after Mr. Trump leaves office, but because of the lack of precedent, it would likely come before the Supreme Court.

Impeachment isn’t the only way Mr. Trump could be disqualified. The other is Section 3 of the 14th Amendment: Enacted after the Civil War to prevent former Confederates from returning to power, it allows Congress to bar anyone who has “engaged in insurrection” against the Constitution from ever holding office.

From a political perspective, the historian Eric Foner tells The Nation, the 14th Amendment is a simpler remedy than impeachment: Whereas impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate for conviction, Congress could rule a simple majority in both chambers sufficient for disqualification under the 14th Amendment. “It is not a judicial proceeding,” he says. “It’s a political proceeding. It doesn’t involve lawyers or trials. It is simply about qualification for office. You could have one afternoon of debate and a vote.”

In The Times, Deepak Gupta and Brian Beutler argue that Congress should use this power not as a substitution for impeachment but as a complement to it. “Make no mistake: This was an insurrection,” they write. “Republicans should be on notice that whether or not they face a vote on conviction and removal of Mr. Trump, they will at the very least be compelled to vote by a Democratic-controlled Congress on barring Mr. Trump from ever holding public office again.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

MORE ON THE SECOND IMPEACHMENT

“New revelations about Trump’s cruelty demand a bigger response” [The Washington Post]

“Impeach Trump? Weighing the Pros and Cons” [The New York Times]

“Democrats Are Pursuing the Wrong Impeachment Charges Against President Trump” [Politico]

“If Republicans want to promote unity, they should join Democrats in impeaching Trump” [The Washington Post]

“It Was Supposed to Be So Much Worse” [The Atlantic]

“If Trump Is Impeached and Convicted, He’ll Lose His Post-Presidency Perks” [Mother Jones]

WHAT YOU’RE SAYING

Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Will Trump and His Republican Allies Ever Face Consequences?

Don from New Jersey: “For his unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Hitler was found guilty of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, serving but nine months. Trump is not Hitler (yet). Five years does not seem too heavy a sentence for one whose aspirations are only for himself and not for our nation and its Constitution.”

Jean-Philippe Koch from Geneva: “Generally, members of the law enforcement and army are politically conservative. The recent examples in Germany have shown that fascists have infiltrated the police and intelligence service. Wouldn’t it be interesting to investigate why the assault was not foreseen by the F.B.I., why the Capitol was not better defended and why so many of the U.S. Capitol intruders have not been arrested by the U.S. law enforcement?”

Jerry from London: “My worry is that taking measures against Trump will simply make him a martyr in his supporters’ eyes and prolong the division. Fact is, he represents a facet of the American mind-set based on self-interest, greed and bigotry, and until people start to think differently, hopefully by means of education, the conflicts will continue.”

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