The United States Senate is now considering an article of impeachment against Donald J. Trump. For the first time in our nation’s history a president has been impeached twice for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And, for the second time in just over a year, we’ll know whether Republican senators have the courage and the character to put country over party.
The single article of impeachment to be considered by the new Senate is clear as to what is at stake. After laying out detailed evidence of Trump’s incitement of violent insurrection, the indictment concludes:
“President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government. He threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch of Government. He thereby betrayed his trust as President, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.
“Donald John Trump thus warrants impeachment and trial, removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”
Does anyone seriously believe that Trump did not commit the offenses enumerated in the impeachment article? He almost certainly committed many more crimes, both before and since the Nov. 3 election. But this one will do to support the point that he should be convicted by the Senate.
Sadly, in all likelihood, he won’t be.
Trump supplicants in and out of Congress make several arguments against conviction. (Few actually attempt to defend Trump’s behavior).Some Republican politicians argue that it is unconstitutional to convict someone who is no longer in office. Numerous constitutional scholars refute that assertion and point both to precedent to bolster their case and to the invitation to future late-term mischief if there’s no remedy after a president leaves office.
The sheer chutzpah of those who oppose holding Trump accountable is breathtaking. Some of them say with a straight face that seeing impeachment through to conviction will cause further divisions in the country and would undercut President Biden’s pleas for unity. That argument, especially coming from political arsonists such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, is particularly galling.
Recently, a new, somewhat chilling argument is heard from the right. That is, a post-presidency conviction of Trump would set a bad precedent. After all, it’s suggested, when Republicans are back in power in the House and Senate, maybe they’ll retaliate by seeking to impeach and convict former Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton (again), and Obama. And where, they imply, could that lead?
Just try to imitate the moral contortions required to come up with that possibility!
As is often the case in politics, specious or dumb ideas are simultaneously spouted by the other side. Some Democrats are arguing that an impeachment trial will get in the way of considering the Biden/Harris legislative agenda. Nonsense. The Senate has shown the ability to multi-task. It did so during the Clinton trial in 1997. And I was a first-hand witness to a dual-track system in 1978, during the Carter administration, when the Senate handled at the same time the hot potatoes of the contentious Panama Canal Treaties and the proposed deregulation of natural gas prices.
The argument coming from some Democrats that bothers me most is that to try Trump for his crimes only brings him more attention, and that is what he craves above all else. We should, they say, deny him that satisfaction. “Let’s move on,” the argument goes. Ignore Trump.
To ignore Trump today is to forget, and so forgive, his civic sins. To not move ahead with sanctions is to ignore his evil. To not punish is to truly set a bad precedent.
Ah, yes, but what about the unfortunate reality that there are probably not enough Republicans with courage and principles in the Senate to convict? (Note: It is time to clarify an essential point: The Constitution mandates that conviction will occur upon the agreement of two-thirds of those present, not two thirds of all 100 senators. For example, two-thirds of 90 is 60; two-thirds of 80 is 54, etc. In the COVID-19 era, in winter when airports close, when many senators are well up in age, who says absenteeism might not occur?) Finally, let’s look at a key constitutional provision, one mentioned in the article of impeachment:
Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits any person “hold[ing] … office … under the United States” who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the United States or has aided or abetted such insurrection or rebellion.
The Senate has a viable and effective option at its disposal if there is no conviction. Censure is not enough. There must be real punishment. The Senate must go further, and do so in concert with the House. Here, a look at football rules against “targeting” may be helpful. That’s when a player uses the crown of his helmet as a weapon to strike another player.
If there is the appearance of targeting, but the video replay leaves open the question of intent, a 15-yard penalty is in order. That also serves as a warning against a second offense. But when evidence suggests a deliberate act, the penalty has an added feature: ejection from the game. Over the season multiple such ejections can lead to suspension or fines.
Donald Trump’s crimes were neither incidental nor unintentional. They were meant to be lethal — to our democracy, and perhaps literally to elected officials who were just doing their work to ensure that democracy prevailed. That’s not a 15-yard offense. That’s worthy of expulsion and suspension.
The Constitution is clear about how this might be done: Invoke Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. The Senate can pass a joint resolution spelling out the offenses and the prescribed penalties (it requires only a simple majority), send it to the House (which would almost certainly pass it — again by simple majority), and then it would go to President Biden for his signature. It would be the law.
This approach is clean, clear cut and doable. Let’s get on with it.
Les Francis served as Rep. Norman Mineta’s first congressional chief of staff before moving to Jimmy Carter’s White House as deputy assistant to the president and eventually deputy White House chief of staff. He remained active in national politics and public affairs from offices in Washington, D.C., for four decades before returning to his native California in 2016.