When historians debate who was the worst president in U.S. history, Donald Trump will be chosen hands down — in no small part because he is the only president to have been impeached twice. But whether he will become the first president to be convicted remains an open question.
Seldom in life does anyone get a second chance to rectify a grievous failure, but passage by the House on Wednesday of an article of impeachment against Trump affords every Republican senator that chance (except for Mitt Romney of Utah, who did vote to convict Trump on one count the first time). They must all decide now whether to protect our democracy from Trump and future would-be autocrats or to be enablers and apologists for what can now fairly be called the worst presidential misconduct in our history.
Republican senators who voted to acquit Trump in February — in a hollowed-out trial without witnesses — misread the president, completely seemingly convinced that impeachment alone might temper his actions. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mike Braun, R-Ind., indeed, famously predicted that Trump would be chastened by being impeached; that has clearly not been the case.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., acknowledged that the actions for which Trump was impeached the first time — asking Ukraine's president to investigate Joe Biden while withholding aid to Ukraine — were inappropriate, but he contended that the voters should judge Trump's conduct rather than the Senate by convicting him in an impeachment trial nine months before the election.
Republicans can now vote to protect the Constitution and convict Trump, or they can be forever viewed as complicit in his attack on democracy.
In the months between Trump's acquittal and Election Day, Senate Republicans' failure to remove Trump caused immense harm as the Covid-19 pandemic raged, killing tens of thousands of Americans. Trump tried to falsely discredit mail-in balloting and the overall integrity of states' election systems while retaliating against brave public officials who testified — under subpoena — in the House impeachment proceedings.
Then, when the voters, in fact, decided in the November election that Trump should be replaced by Biden, Trump launched a baseless attack on the integrity of the electoral system and the Electoral College, finally culminating in a violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 intended to disrupt the formal counting of the electoral votes by Congress.
Collins, Braun and Alexander could not have been proven more wrong that Trump would be chastened or that he would let the voters determine his fate. Rather, Trump's Senate enablers not only allowed Trump to escape the consequences of his abuse of power by their near-unanimous vote to acquit in February; they essentially signaled that he could violate the Constitution with no fear of consequence.
And so, for the last year, Trump has sped through the Republicans' green light by seizing unfettered power in ways that his loyalists may not have envisioned, risking even the safety of Republican elected officials and his own vice president in his efforts to remain in the White House past the end of his sole legal term in office.
Our democracy is under attack, and the attacker-in-chief resides for five more days in the White House.
Republican senators — who were in justifiable fear for their safety and, indeed, their lives when Trump instigated an armed insurgent attack on the Capitol last week — now have a choice. They can vote to protect the Constitution and convict Trump, or they can be forever viewed as complicit in his attack on democracy.
At best, Trump is clueless about the criminal culpability of his repeated abuse of power — though, given what we know about his news consumption habits and the warnings of his lawyers, that seems unlikely; at worst, he remains defiant in his belief that, as president, he is above the law.
The latter seems more likely: Trump this week defended his fiery rhetoric at the Jan. 6 rally (in which he entreated his supporters to be "strong" in marching to the Capitol, where the electoral votes were to be counted) as "totally appropriate."
But it was there that a Capitol Police officer was murdered, other law enforcement officials were injured, a woman trying to violently breach the Speaker's Lobby was shot dead, three other protesters died, a crowd chanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence and elected representatives hid in fear. Our Capitol was desecrated.
The mob action was designed to stop, if not overturn, a lawful and fair presidential election by keeping Trump in power; if it had succeeded, it would have been an unconstitutional coup.
Trump’s Senate enablers allowed Trump to escape the consequences of his abuse of power by their near-unanimous vote to acquit last February.
The criminal justice system, though slow, will inexorably bring to justice those criminally responsible for the riots, property destruction, physical violence, threats and deaths. But impeachment is the sole remedy to condemn for all time Trump's support of an insurgency against the United States government. If the Senate convicts Trump, a simple Senate majority can bar him from ever again holding any federal office.
The founders knew well the opprobrium that impeachment and conviction by the Senate would entail. Much has been written about the breadth of the presidential pardon power, but the Constitution expressly states that the president "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." In Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton argued that this limit on the pardon power would be a strong deterrent to those who might plot treason.
The late Rep. Peter Rodino, D-N.J., who chaired the Judiciary Committee in 1974 when it approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, said our constitutional system was "stressed" by impeachment — but the president, ultimately, was held accountable for his actions.
And unlike Trump, Nixon resigned when Republican congressional leaders told him that he would likely be convicted in a Senate impeachment trial.
As grave as it was, Nixon's misconduct in Watergate pales in comparison to Trump's efforts to incite a mob in an insurrection to overturn a lawful presidential election. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican member of the House, was blunt in her condemnation: "There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United State of his office and his oath to the Constitution."
Her powerful condemnation should be a clarion call to others in her party. Our democracy is under attack, and the attacker-in-chief resides for five more days in the White House — and he has made clear his intention to try to hold that office again. Duty demands that he be convicted by the Senate and, by a Senate vote, barred from ever again holding the power of the presidency. His enablers have one last chance to do the right thing or be relegated to the gallery of Trump's disgraced accomplices.
They should not be fooled that Trump will be chastened by the judgment of history. He clearly doesn't care.