WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is, once again, playing politics with impeachment. On CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, she warned that President Trump has to be removed because he poses an imminent threat to the country. We have a “deranged, unhinged, dangerous President of the United States, and we’re only a number of days until we can be protected from him,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
Well, if Trump is that dangerous, why didn’t she call the House back immediately to pass articles of impeachment, and then challenge the Senate to come back into session and hold a trial this week? Instead, she is waiting until Wednesday — a full week after the Capitol riot — to hold a House vote. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., suggested this weekend that Pelosi could wait until well into the Biden presidency before sending impeachment articles to the Senate. “Let’s give President-elect [Joe] Biden the 100 days he needs to get his agenda off and running,” Clyburn said. “And maybe we will send the articles sometime after that.”
Pelosi is politicizing what are very serious and weighty questions: Did the President of the United States engage in impeachable conduct? And is it prudent to impeach him when the Constitution will remove him from office in a matter of days?
On the first question, the answer is clearly yes. It is true that, as some legal scholars have pointed out, Trump would never be convicted of incitement in a criminal court. As former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy, who successfully prosecuted “blind sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman for incitement, said, “An incitement case is very difficult in criminal court. ... You have to intend that a violent crime take place.” McCarthy points out, however, that the issue in impeachment is not criminal liability, but whether the president committed what Alexander Hamilton described as political offenses that call into question his fitness for office. And by that standard, McCarthy says, what Trump did was “clearly an impeachable offense” and “a deep betrayal of his obligations as president ... to protect our elections, rather than undermine them, and to protect Congress.”
For more than six weeks, Trump ginned up anger among his supporters, telling them they had re-elected him in a landslide and that their victory was being stolen from them. He then brought a massive crowd to Washington on the day that Congress was meeting to confirm Biden’s Electoral College victory, and urged them to march on the Capitol. He might not have intended for his supporters to storm the building, but he recklessly stoked a throng of people who did just that — and five deaths occurred.
Instead of immediately rushing to the cameras to call off his supporters, Trump sat back and watched them ransack the Capitol. An hour after they had overwhelmed police barricades, Trump poured gasoline on the fire, tweeting, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country.” (Indeed, Trump never even bothered to call to see whether the vice president was safe.) Only at 2:38 p.m. did Trump feebly tweet urging the already violent mob to “Stay peaceful!” It was not until 4:17 p.m. — nearly three hours into the assault — that Trump finally posted a video telling his supporters, “You have to go home now.” Even then, he spent more time claiming his “landslide” election was “stolen” than calling for calm.
And while Trump might not have intended to provoke violence, he intended to send a crowd to coerce Pence into committing an unconstitutional act by invalidating electoral votes cast for Biden. That is an abuse of power. Trump told the crowd that “all Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president.” They swarmed into the Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence” when he refused. Trump played with matches and started a forest fire — that makes him culpable for the death and destruction that ensued, even if he didn’t intend to set the fire.
The second question is more difficult. If Trump had nine months left in office, rather than nine days, there is no doubt that he should be removed from office. It is unclear, however, whether at this late date, an impeachment trial is in the country’s best interests. It would divide the country, turn Trump into a martyr, and keep him front and center for months into Biden’s term. There is also the risk that he might be acquitted, because some Republicans might decide they cannot convict a president who has already left office, while others fear alienating constituents who just voted to give Trump a second term. Trump could then claim vindication. The best thing might be to let him simply leave in ignominy. But Pelosi seems to care more about politics and retribution than what is best for the country.