February 8, 2021 – On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate steps away from the business of legislating to focus on defending American democracy, and senators become judge and jury in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
The House has voted to impeach Trump for inciting the deadly January 6 insurrection that sacked the U.S. Capitol, set the Congress to flight, and sent a shiver of anarchy down the spine of the republic. Now it’s for the Senate to decide whether to convict him on that charge.
After the evidence and arguments are heard, the senators will decide a single question: whether to hold Trump to account for instigating a bloody attack against democracy itself in a failed attempt to cling to power in defiance of the public will.
Their vote will be their answer, and it will tell us who believes it’s wrong in this country, and who thinks it’s okay, for a president to throw a spear at the heart of our democracy and be allowed to walk away with a shrug if he happens to miss.
Republicans tipped their hand on January 26 when 45 of the party’s 50 senators voted to not hold the trial at all, claiming it’s unconstitutional to try a president on impeachment charges after he’s left office.
It’s a bogus argument that misconstrues the Constitution and obscures the need for accountability that it was written to ensure.
The Constitution provides impeachment as a way for Congress to hold a president to account for conduct at odds with the trust the office demands in exchange for the powers it confers. In summoning his supporters to assault the Capitol, Trump betrayed that trust and abused those powers.
He willfully launched a baseless attack on the process of free and fair elections that form the foundation of our constitutional democracy. With a tyrant’s fist, he attempted to overturn the results of those elections and subvert the will of the majority through violence that killed five people. He violated his oath to defend the Constitution, challenged the very essence of self-governance, and provided a model to those who might similarly seek to rule this country by fear and force.
The ex-president’s naked attempt to derail our system of government cannot be ignored, condoned, or tolerated—neither by a free people purporting to live in a democracy nor by the officials we elect as its stewards.
Had Trump succeeded, he would have upended two-and-a-half centuries of constitutional democracy that has survived wars both civil and global. Had that been attempted by a foreign adversary, it would have invited swift and certain retribution.
It’s even more nefarious and, in some sense, even more dangerous to encourage sedition from within the White House. What Trump did must be repudiated, not only in word but in consequence, for the sanctity and defense of our democracy.
The House did its job when it voted to impeach Trump as president. Now the Senate should follow suit and find him guilty as charged, a step that would require a two-thirds majority vote.
That wouldn’t remove him from office, of course: voters did that in November, by a margin of more than 7 million votes. It would, though, affirm our commitment as a nation to democracy, the Constitution, and justice under the law. It would buttress the guardrails of our system of governance with the force and authority of congressional precedent. And it would send a message to future presidents that there are lines they dare not cross, even as their terms come to a close.
Those are reasons enough to serve Trump with the justice the Constitution prescribes. His conviction, though, could do one thing more. If convicted by the Senate, the body, by simple majority, could vote to disqualify him from holding public office again.
It’s an extreme step in our country, and should be, to strip a person of their right to run for office, taking them out of the stream of the electoral process. It’s an extraordinary response. In this case, it’s justified. It is, in fact, imperative.
The facts in the case are not in dispute.
As the nation watched, Trump spent the months before the November election priming his supporters to reject as illegitimate any outcome other than his re-election, going so far as to call on right-wing militants like the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
After he lost the election by more than 7 million votes, Trump, in plain view, abandoned any pretense of governance. He focused, instead, on overturning the election results, at one point putting a mafioso-style squeeze on Georgia election officials he asked to “find” the votes needed to make him the winner of a state he lost.
Failing to prevail in arm-twisting, recounts, and the courts, Trump turned to plan B: using the bully pulpit to publicly press, again and again, the big lie that he had won the election. Falsely and without evidence, he asserted that the election had been “stolen,” fomenting anger among his base and laying the groundwork for the insurrection that would follow.
Then, on January 6, as Congress convened to formally count the votes in the Electoral College—which Biden won by a 306-to-232 margin—Trump addressed thousands of his backers at a “Save America” rally in the shadow of the Washington Monument. There, Trump stirred the mob into a rabid frenzy, directing them to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” on his behalf.
All of this is a matter of public record. We watched it play out in plain sight.
Trump denies only that his actions resulted in the predictable—and predicted—attack on the U.S. Capitol. He was simply exercising his First Amendment right, his lawyers argue, to express his view that the election was stolen.
No president, though, has the right to abuse his office to wage a campaign of disinformation and attempted disenfranchisement meant to overturn the duly certified results of a free and fair election and obstruct the orderly transfer of power. To equate that with constitutional freedom of speech offends every American of conscience. Trump’s First Amendment argument would be about as likely to succeed in court as any of the 62 lawsuits his team filed against the election results—61 of which failed.
And yet, Trump’s lawyers continue, he bears no culpability for the Capitol assault because he did not participate in “insurrection or rebellion” or incite others to “engage in destructive behavior.”
But the nation and, indeed, the world watched when the horrors of January 6 followed Trump’s actions and rantings as night follows day.
We watched as the violent and vengeful mob of Trump supporters ran roughshod through the Capitol, threatening the lives of elected members of Congress as well as staff, disrupting the tally of the election results, all with the intent of prohibiting the orderly transfer of presidential power.
These violent extremists desecrated the marbled halls and paneled chambers that have borne witness to generations of epic debates over taxes and spending, war and peace, social needs and obligations, civil rights, responsible public oversight of corporate conduct, and the meaning and worth of life and death.
Shameless white supremacy was on full display by marauding Trump supporters asserting the privilege to ransack the Capitol and parade through the seat of representative governance in America bearing the Confederate battle flag, months after peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were met with rubber bullets, baton beatings, tear gas, and worse from Louisville, Kentucky, to Lafayette Park, D.C.
The nation grieved the senseless deaths of five people in the January 6 melee, including Brian Sicknick, the U.S. Capitol Police officer murdered by insurrectionists who killed him with a fire extinguisher.
This had never happened before. It wouldn’t have happened last month, either, if Trump had not deliberately spread the lie that the election was stolen, stoked the anger of those he misled, and then explicitly called them to action on the day of the assault.
“In all of this, President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of government,” reads the bipartisan article of impeachment House Democrats passed with the support of 10 Republicans. “He threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch of government. He thereby betrayed his trust as president, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.”
All of that is true. If a direct attack on our democracy is not an impeachable act, what is? If Senate Republicans won’t stand up and defend the Constitution against that kind of breach, what, if anything, does their oath of office mean? And if we, as a nation, are too cowed by a strongman and the seditious mob of insurrectionists in his thrall to demand better of those we elect to represent us, then our democracy is in grave danger.NRDC combines the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild. www.nrdc.org