Line by Line

Trump's Second Impeachment Matters

Posted February 12, 2021

Updated February 16, 2021

Tags: current events, politics

Ex-president Donald Trump is the first president in United States history to be impeached twice, and the first to have his impeachment tried in the Senate after he's already left office. So why bother, if he's already out? There are several reasons people object to the second impeachment being tried at all, but I don't think any of them holds water.

Objection: He's already out of office, so it doesn't matter anymore.

Presidents are allowed two terms, and Trump has only served one. The terms aren't required to be consecutive, and running for a second term doesn't count as serving one. That means he still has one term left. There is precedent for this: Grover Cleveland lost re-election to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, but served a second term after defeating Harrison's own re-election campaign in 1892. Trump could do the same thing unless the Senate votes to bar him from running again.

More importantly, whether Trump tries to run again or not, it's only a matter of time before someone else picks up where he left off. We need to send a clear, decisive message that attempts to undermine our democracy in order to stay in power will not be tolerated. Not from Trump, not from anyone.

Objection: It's unconstitutional to impeach a president after he's out of office.

First of all, the House impeached Trump before his term ended. The impeachment is being tried after Biden's inauguration, but Trump was already impeached. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean the trial itself is constitutional, but I feel it bears mentioning.

In any case, Trump would not be the first person whose impeachment was tried after he'd already left office: Senator William Blount was expelled from the Senate in 1979 and War Secretary William W. Belknap resigned before he could be impeached in 1876, but they were both impeached and tried anyway. If it was okay then, but not now, that means there's one rule for presidents and a different one for everyone else, and despite what Nixon would tell you, that just isn't how it works.

In any case, the Senate did find the trial constitutional, so it's a bit of a moot point now.

I'm tempted to say that the senate shouldn't be deciding this question, and to find it telling that Republican senators who have no problem calling out the Supreme Court's “legislating from the bench” don't seem to have any such hangups about adjudicating from the Senate chamber. On the other hand, because impeachment is considered a political question rather than a legal one, it may not be possible to bring the constitutional issue before the court.

Objection: It's a waste of time and taxpayer money.

Since Trump is already gone, the argument goes, we're wasting time and money that should be spent on COVID-19 relief or other priorities.

I think we can dismiss this out of hand considering that these same people weren't complaining about Trump wasting time and resources on dozens of meritless lawsuits against states' boards of elections.

Besides, this is important. These are serious allegations pertaining to a historic act of violence, and seeing to it that justice is served is well worth the time and money.

Objection: Trump didn't even do what he was impeached for.

To recap: Before the election, Trump spent months raising the specter of massive voter fraud, even claiming that such fraud was the only way he could possibly lose. After the election, he claimed that he had actually won, but the election had been “stolen” from him due to voter fraud.

He filed 62 lawsuits attempting to claim fraud and overturn the results, but nearly all of those lawsuits were either withdrawn by Trump's legal team or thrown out by the courts. In these suits, his lawyers generally presented little to no actual evidence for their claims, which is why the cases were dismissed. That these cases were thrown out so quickly probably looks rather suspicious to anyone who isn't aware of the reasoning.

Trump also claimed that then-Vice President Mike Pence had the ability to refuse to certify the “fraudulent” results, but Pence had no such authority, knew it, and said so.

Then, on January 6th, Congress gathered to certify the results of the election. A group of Trump supporters gathered outside the Capitol in protest. Another group attended a rally held by then-President Trump, who told them again that the election had been stolen, and while he did mention that they should behave “peacefully,” he also told them to “fight like hell.” They then marched to the Capitol to join the protest there.

Many of those gathered then stormed the Capitol, overwhelming the relatively small number of Capitol police guarding the building. Some of the attackers appeared to be idiots putting on a show, but others came prepared with guns, knives, bombs, and what you may have heard described as “zip ties” but were actually the flexible plastic handcuffs that police use for riot control. The assault on the Capitol took five lives, if you don't count the two cops who committed suicide afterward.

While this was going on, Trump was still working on ways to overturn the election. He made a phone call to Senator Tommy Tuberville to try to convince him to delay the certification. The call ended when the senators were evacuated. I can't find anything saying whether or not Tuberville expressly mentioned the storming or the evacuation, but Tuberville remembers saying, “they just took the vice president out.”

According to Wikipedia's timeline of the assault, it was after this phone call, some eleven minutes after Pence was moved, that Trump tweeted that “Mike Pence didn't have the courage to” refuse to certify the results. [The phone call was actually two minutes after the tweet. See my follow-up post for more.]

Trump himself never bothered to mobilize the National Guard, though the governors of Maryland and Virginia mobilized theirs. Eventually Pence approved the order to send in the DC National Guard without Trump.

Though Trump eventually started asking the attackers to “remain peaceful” and to “respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue,” he initially stopped short of actually telling them to stop the attack. When he finally did so, it was in the same video that told them they were “very special.”

So let me put that another way: Trump spent months doing his best to convince his followers that the system was rigged against him—and, by extension, them. He filed several lawsuits that were quickly dismissed or withdrawn. He had a huge crowd of people at the Capitol who believed their last hope for letting the system do its job was for Pence to overturn the results himself, and then that didn't happen. He told this crowd to march down to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” And then they did. As they stormed the Capitol, he dragged his feet, made only token efforts to control the situation, made at least one statement attacking someone the mob was targeting, and capped it all off by telling the attackers how special they were.

What is a reasonable person supposed to conclude from this? If you're supposed to “fight like hell” or “you're not going to have a country anymore,” how are you supposed to do that “peacefully” when you believe the whole system is rigged against you and all the peaceful options have failed?

Even granting, for the sake of argument, that Trump believed he was doing all the right things to encourage a peaceful protest, the fact remains that his what his words and actions actually did encourage was the deadly assault on the Capitol.

As an aside, I have to give Mike Pence some credit here. Don't get me wrong: I'm not letting him off the hook for his whole-hearted support for nearly every evil thing Trump did or tried to do. But this one time, despite immense pressure from Trump and literal death threats from the mob, he put his duty to the republic and the constitution over his personal loyalty to Trump. That took guts. That doesn't make up for everything else, but he did the right thing this one time and I don't think we should punish him for it.

Now, if all that doesn't sell you, then look at what Trump's defense team is actually using to defend him. They leaned heavily on the argument that the trial itself was unconstitutional, an argument that would have completely sidestepped Trump's guilt or innocence had it prevailed. As of this morning, CBS News is reporting that the strategy is still to argue that Trump's “impeachment is unconstitutional and denies him due process.”

Failing that, their plan (at least as of a couple days before the trial) was to highlight Democrats' apparent support for rioting by Black Lives Matter protestors. The argument seems to be that if that speech wasn't incitement, then neither was Trump's, but that tu quoque doesn't necessarily mean Trump is innocent; it could also mean that some Democrats are guilty. But they're not the ones on trial.

What I'm getting at here is that this objection makes it seem like Trump's innocence is so clear-cut that the whole trial is pointless. If that were true, his defense team would just demonstrate that, rather than relying on these other arguments.

I'd like to end there, but there is one more objection to address.

Objection: The people who stormed the Capitol were Antifa or anarchists, not real Trump supporters.

First of all, that's not true. Several of them were identified as Trump supporters or QAnon adherents. (Remember that QAnon is a conspiracy theory about a secret "cabal" of cannibalistic, Satan-worshiping, child-trafficking pedophiles, and how Trump is the messianic hero who fights them.) But let's set that aside, because I know I'll never prove it to anyone's satisfaction.

Instead, let's ask why the “peaceful” protesters, the ones who stayed outside, were there. What were they protesting against? What did they want to accomplish?

Put simply, they wanted to overturn an election their side lost. They were protesting against Congress and the Vice President doing their job and certifying the results of an election. They were protesting against a system that gave the Trump campaign every opportunity (at taxpayer expense) to prove that fraud had occurred, because that system didn't give them the results they had expected.

What then? Surely I'm not being asked to believe that the entire crowd, including the people from Trump's rally, were leftist plants there to make Trump and his supporters look bad. Especially considering how many Trump supporters freely admitted to being in that crowd. At this point we're entering No True Scotsman territory.

So here's my bottom line: This is not just about punishing Trump, making sure he can never run again, or even making sure no future politician can do what he did. It is about those things, and they're all important, but it is also—even more importantly—about sending a message to Trump's supporters: This behavior will not be tolerated. Freedom of speech may protect the right to demand that an election be overturned, but those demands must fall on deaf ears. Calling for violence, let alone actually committing it, is not protected and will not be tolerated—from anyone. What happened at the Capitol on January 6th can never happen again. They will not get their way.