Donald Trump was rightly impeached for his role in the appalling events of January 6, 2021. Now, the Senate must vote to convict and disqualify Trump from any future federal office without delay.
However, Trump is not solely responsible for the treacherous assault on the Capitol. Members of Congress who vouched for the president’s lies about election fraud must also be sanctioned for their role. And those who went even further, planning and participating in the protest that birthed the mob, should be removed from office.
Unlike in the president’s case, there must be no rush to justice. Truth is paramount. The culpability of Congress members must be established with scrupulous objectivity and care, without fear or favor. Investigations into various aspects of the insurrection by the relevant House and Senate committees are critically necessary. However, because perceptions of partisan opportunism must be avoided at all costs, the work of telling the whole story, and assigning responsibility to members of Congress for the parts they played in it, is best carried out by a non-partisan, independent commission similar to the 9/11 commission. That’s why Congress should work across the aisle to create and empower such a commission, and commit to carrying out its recommendations.
A brief review of the facts so far shows that the case for the president’s immediate conviction and removal, and the creation of an independent commission, could hardly be stronger.
On January 6, 2021, a seditious mob incited by President Trump descended upon the Capitol with the express purpose of menacing the ongoing certification of the 2020 election. A portion of the larger group smashed and battered its way into the Capitol, disrupting Congress as it tallied the states’ electoral votes.
The swarm of Trump loyalists, animated by the president’s outrageous lies about election fraud, swiftly overwhelmed meager lines of Capitol Police. One officer was killed in the siege. Another was dragged into the mob and brutally beaten with boots, fists, and a flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes. The mob routed both houses of Congress from their chambers. Members of the House and Senate, fearing for their lives, were forced into hiding. Repeated requests for federal backup were ignored, denied, and then only belatedly fulfilled by Trump administration officials, leaving Congress stranded for hours in grave danger. Rioters set up a gallows outside the Capitol and howled for the lynching of Vice President Mike Pence—an act that some of the rioters seem to have entered the Capitol with grave intent to carry out. Trump loyalists bristling with military gear roamed the halls and chambers of Congress seeking to abduct and kill elected representatives of the American people.
If not for the alacrity and courage of Capitol Police officers who delayed the mob and led members of Congress out of harm’s way, the worst among the insurrectionists might have succeeded in carrying out horrific acts of political terror. The discovery of bombs and other caches of weapons near the Capitol — together with eyewitness reports, social media chatter, and the invaders’ own self-recorded footage — has made it chillingly clear that the sack of the Capitol, as terrifying as it was, might have become a blood-soaked massacre.
Donald Trump was impeached last week by the House of Representatives for “incitement of insurrection.” There can be no doubt that this was justified. From the moment it became clear he would lose the election, Donald Trump worked tirelessly to discredit the result and disrupt the transfer of power to president-elect Joseph Biden. The deadly riot that ensued from his speech at the “Stop the Steal” rally was the logical culmination of this effort to undermine the democratic process. For the last two months, the president has inflamed his supporters with the groundless lie that the election was stolen. With the help of allied politicians and media outlets eager to repeat and amplify his lies, the president was able to work his devoted base into a lather of incendiary indignation. On January 6, he charged them up and set them loose on Congress.
The ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment— Liz Cheney, Tom Rice, Dan Newhouse, Adam Kinzinger, Anthony Gonzalez, Fred Upton, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Peter Meijer, John Katko, and David Valadao — deserve honor and gratitude for rising to the defense of country and Constitution in the face of violent threats and intense partisan pressure. Their valor and integrity fatally undermines the dangerous claim that Trump’s second impeachment was nothing more than a vindictive act of partisan hostility.
Now that he has been impeached (again), Donald Trump must be convicted by the Senate, and permanently barred from federal office. Every hour he has remained in office, steadfast in the lies that fed the mob’s fury, the civil peace and the stability of our rattled Republic has been at risk. Allowing a president to complete his term after fomenting a violent assault on Congress is bad enough. Refusing to convict, or avoiding a Senate trial altogether, would render the Constitution’s mechanisms of executive accountability meaningless, setting a dangerous precedent that could invite the collapse of our constitutional order.
The peaceful transfer of power, and the losing party’s assent to the legitimacy of the electoral process, are essential to preserving American democracy. Trump trampled over that sacred principle—sinned unforgivably against the stability of republican self-rule. The Senate must now act in the interests of all Americans to lessen the likelihood that any future chief executive will be tempted to follow Trump’s demagogic example.
There is too much at stake to further delay mounting a trial, or to draw it out for days or weeks past Biden’s inauguration. There is no need for a lengthy Senate trial because the facts that justify impeachment and removal are not obscure. The only real questions are the meanings that Senators will attach to those facts and the considerations, both moral and prudential, that will shape their final decision.
The Senate must consider, above all, whether the threat of violence and mob rule will be allowed to loom over the deliberations of the first branch of government. Trump sent his mob to the Capitol to make that threat vivid in the minds of legislators. If such a sensational act of violent intimidation is not repudiated and punished in the strongest possible terms, the events of January 6 are destined to presage a plague of political violence—one that will spread to every state Capitol in this country.
The choice now is to stand up to the mob and the demagogues who have inflamed them or accept a politics that operates in the shadow of violence for years to come. Republicans, in particular, must bear in mind that the mob descended on the Capitol to intimidate them. The noose was meant for Mike Pence, not Nancy Pelosi. Trump loyalists, emboldened by the riot, are already threatening Republican legislators to scare them into falling in line. Some have confessed to the fear that voting against Trump will be met with violent reprisal. Therefore, decent Republicans must consider whether they wish to submit to the rule of their party’s most violent faction. If they fail to summon the courage to bring the hammer down on Trump, they may very well lose control of their party to the lawless extremism that he has cultivated within its ranks.
Impeachment and conviction of the president do not exhaust the necessary measures in the aftermath of January 6. Trump must also be held legally accountable for any crimes he may have committed, which will be doubly necessary should the Senate again fail in its duty.
Blame for the insurrectionary riots cannot be laid entirely at Donald Trump’s feet. Many Congress members actively encouraged Americans to believe that the election was tainted by fraud, that Biden may not have been legitimately elected, and that our democracy could be irreparably harmed should he be allowed to take office. They should be held responsible for the dire consequences of propagating these lies. The worst offenders may merit official censure or worse. Most deserve to be abandoned by donors, saddled with strong primary challengers, and punished by voters at the ballot box.
It appears that some Republican members did more than amplify destabilizing falsehoods. Some may have actively planned to bring a mob to the Capitol steps with the intent of influencing the electoral count. If that is the case, they should be removed from Congress and face criminal prosecution.
However, it is essential that any such sanctions imposed on Congress members be grounded in a scrupulous, comprehensive accounting of the factors that contributed to the siege. This disaster was caused by the opportunistic deployment of lies for political gain. If we are to have any hope of restoring stable, functional, constitutional government, the process by which we investigate these events and mete out justice must be a model of careful, proper procedure.
Amy Zegart and Herbert Lin of Stanford University have developed a careful proposal for a commission on January 6, based on an extensive assessment of past commissions (including the 9/11 commission). Congress should expeditiously create such a commission and commit across the aisle to follow its findings, wherever they may lead.
Donald Trump authored this dark, destabilizing, deadly chapter in our nation’s history with antagonism toward justice and contempt for the truth. Unless we hasten to rebalance the scales of justice, restore the supremacy of fact, and re-commit to a common reality and common good, Donald Trump’s reprehensible legacy will linger like a toxic fog and continue to poison our public life long after he has gone.