Try Him Now

US
President Donald Trump walks down the West Wing colonnade to the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., November 13, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

One week after he fomented a mob that stormed the Capitol, interrupted the certification of the Electoral College vote, and left five people dead, Donald Trump became the first president in American history to be impeached twice in a single term. It is now the job of the Senate to try him. Incoming majority leader Chuck Schumer is exploring ways to force the Senate to meet in emergency session. The current majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, says that won’t happen. That is a mistake. The trial ought to begin as soon as the upper chamber of Congress receives the article of impeachment. There is no reason to delay. And there is no time to waste.

Obstacles to a speedy trial are either procedural or unpersuasive. Is the Senate truly unable to perform its constitutional function before Joe Biden’s inauguration? The senators are around. It’s not like they have anything better to do. Plenty of them live within driving distance to the Capitol. Others are planning confirmation hearings next week for Biden’s nominees.

Would the Senate take this nonchalant attitude toward another Pearl Harbor or 9/11? Such a parallel is not drawn lightly. The January 6 attack on Capitol Hill also lives in infamy. Donald Trump’s behavior since the election guarantees that he will be remembered as a villain of American history. This menace to American democracy is no less urgent because it comes from within. On the contrary: Internal threats to the rule of law deserve rapid and unequivocal suppression.

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The New York Times reports that McConnell believes, correctly, that Trump committed an impeachable offense. If so, why wait to adjudicate the House’s charge? To uphold the Senate’s reputation as the saucer that cools hot tea? The metaphor doesn’t make sense. The president smashed the porcelain.

The arguments put forward for idleness are not convincing. Democrats worry a trial might interfere with President-elect Biden’s agenda. But the trial doesn’t have to be long. All the facts are in evidence. They are plain to anyone who can read or watch television. Senators could reach a verdict prior to inauguration. Indeed, it is best they do so, even if the trial concludes only hours before Biden takes the oath. That way the Senate avoids the question of whether it is constitutional to convict a president who has left office.

The president’s supporters, and a few of his opponents, say that trial, conviction, and removal would further divide this country. They are afraid of more violence. The risk of action, in their view, outweighs the costs of inaction. Better for the country to look the other way. Perhaps the tiger will slink off into the jungle.

This is a line of thought that is not easy to dismiss. It is often encountered in foreign policy debate. Another word for it is appeasement. But there is a better way to handle challenges to constitutional government. That way is deterrence. Increase the cost of transgression past the price the adversary is willing to pay. How? Through awe-inspiring action. Not just the show of force in Washington ahead of Inauguration Day, or the massive FBI investigation to apprehend the trespassers, vandals, and murderers, and to disrupt ongoing criminal activity. Trying and convicting Trump before his term is up stigmatizes his conduct. It sets a precedent. Up to this point, Trump has set the example. Now let Congress turn him into an example of what happens to presidents who endanger the Constitution and its officers.

Some opponents of impeachment say it’s unnecessary. What Trump did on January 6 was self-marginalizing, they argue. He will leave office despised, distrusted, and rebuked. The New York state attorney general and Manhattan district attorney will hound him. There is no path for him to return to the White House. He’ll follow Richard Nixon into the shadows. But Nixon already had been elected twice. And Nixon possessed the rudiments of a conscience.

Donald Trump cannot police himself. His first Senate acquittal did not prevent him from spreading lies and conspiracy theories about the election. Nothing he did before, during, or after the battle of Capitol Hill lessens his culpability in that egregious event. He pressured Georgia’s secretary of state, its chief elections investigator, and a U.S. attorney to find the votes necessary for him to win. He castigated Mike Pence for failing to perform an unconstitutional act, placing his own vice president’s life in danger. He watched idly as the rioters sacked the people’s House, defaced the legislative branch with urine and feces, interrupted the operation of government, and caused death and destruction. He refused to take responsibility. And he implicitly threatened more chaos if Congress impeached him.

The devotion that Trump’s most fanatical supporters feel toward him will not go away on its own. It has to be severed. And Congress is in a position to act. Would conviction make him a martyr? Perhaps to a select few. But it would also weaken him and his cause. The Scopes trial delegitimized William Jennings Bryan. Joseph McCarthy didn’t recover from censure. If convicted, Congress could forbid Trump from holding office and strip him of taxpayer-provided benefits such as a pension, office space, and travel budget. He won’t be able to contest the constitutionality of that conviction, and its consequences, if it happens before his term ends. Why give him the chance?

The House of Representatives drew a line when it impeached Trump for the second time. It was heartening to see some Republicans join Democrats in impugning his assault of the Constitution. But if the charge against Trump is as serious as many congressmen and senators believe it to be — and it is — then there is no excuse for delaying a trial until he is out of office. At that point, if impeachment fails, the only remaining constitutional tool to rein him in will be the Fourteenth Amendment.

If Leader McConnell wants the Trump era to end, he should reconsider his decision and call the Senate to order. Donald Trump has spent his life dodging the consequences of his misbehavior. For once, he must be punished. And before it’s too late.

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