In January 1642, King Charles I was fed up with malcontents in the English Parliament who would not accede to his high-handed rule. He accused five members of the House of Commons of treason and then marched on Parliament with an armed guard, demanding that they be turned over. Not only did the Commons refuse to surrender the offending lawmakers; it passed a resolution authorizing armed resistance to any royal official attempting to arrest a member.
Public outcry against Charles' action was so great that he was driven out of London by angry citizens. Later that year, the English Civil War began, and the next time Charles saw London, he was a prisoner facing execution.
At least Charles had the guts to go to Parliament in person.
After President Donald Trump stirred up a seditious mob and sent it to storm Congress last week, he retreated to the White House. As rioters threatened members of Congress who refused to help him steal the presidential election, the president watched the spectacle on television.
On Wednesday, many of those same members of Congress voted to impeach Trump in a historic (somewhat) bipartisan vote, alleging that he incited the insurrection. Now the article of impeachment moves to the Senate for a trial, with conviction carrying the penalty of removal from office and possible disqualification from future federal office. Opponents of impeachment have suggested that Trump's actions, while bad, are not bad enough to rise to the level of impeachment or that Congress should just wait out the next week and let the problem solve itself with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. Both arguments are dangerously misguided, and both misunderstand the vital role of impeachment in protecting our constitutional order.
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For the American founders, the story of Charles I was a paradigm case for why presidents had to be removable from office via impeachment. At the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin noted that "History furnishes one example only of a first Magistrate being formally brought to public Justice. Every body cried out [against] this as unconstitutional." Charles had violated no law, so his trial and execution — however warranted by principles of political justice — were open to criticism as procedurally irregular. Better, Franklin thought, "to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it."
The complaints against Charles were, at their core, about an executive's aggrandizing his office and attempting to push out institutions that had rightful claims to share in constitutional governance. So, too, were the complaints that led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and the resignation of President Richard Nixon as he stared down almost certain impeachment and conviction in 1974. Trump's entire presidency has been an exercise in sidelining other institutions, especially Congress, where his wholesale refusal to participate in oversight has marked a radical departure from previous administrations.
But whipping an armed crowd into an angry frenzy and then telling them to go to the Capitol is several giant steps further. And Wednesday, by making Trump the first American federal officeholder of any sort to be impeached twice, the House of Representatives recognized this fact. The Senate should do the same by convicting Trump, removing him from office immediately and disqualifying him from holding federal office in the future.
A number of Republicans have argued, in the words of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, that impeaching Trump so close to Biden's inauguration "will only divide our country more." Some commentators have argued that Trump's speech does not rise to the level of criminal liability and that the First Amendment therefore prevents his impeachment or that a "snap impeachment" is constitutionally improper.
These arguments completely misunderstand the role of impeachment in our constitutional order. Presidential impeachment was not intended to be an extension of criminal law. It was, instead, intended to remove from office a president who had, in Franklin's words, "rendered himself obnoxious" the way that Charles had. And surely some such incidents are so obvious that they render protracted proceedings unnecessary — sometimes "snap" judgments are just easy calls. As with Charles' actions, the division here has been caused by the executive himself, not by those seeking to protect the constitutional order.
Yes, there is less than a week remaining in Trump's presidency. But a president can do a lot of mischief in an hour, let alone a week. Perhaps more important, if the Senate does vote to convict, it could also disqualify him from holding "any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States." Congress could simultaneously prevent the possibility of a 2024 comeback and also make a point about his worthiness for public "honor" or "trust." That is well worth doing, even if it comes only once Biden has taken office.
Ultimately, Congress should remove and disqualify Trump from office, not simply because he is unfit, and not simply because his continuance in office represents a danger to the Republic. It should do so because he has attempted to use force to overthrow the constitutional order, and Congress should stand up, not simply for itself, but for our entire system of government. Trump has lowered the bar in many different ways during his presidency. The Senate can begin to undo some of that damage by repudiating the seditious last act of a lawless presidency.
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