This post first appeared at BillMoyers.com on January 15, 2021.
Let’s start with the basics. The US Constitution establishes a system of checks and balances consisting of three equal branches of government – legislative (Article I), executive (Article II), and judicial (Article III). On January 6, 2021, the head of the executive branch, Donald Trump, incited a mob to attack the legislative branch and then did nothing to stop it. As a result, Congress was unable to perform its constitutional duty, which was to certify the election of the candidate who beat him – President-elect Joe Biden.
That’s an impeachable offense for which the Senate can and should convict Trump and bar him from ever holding federal office again.
The Facts are Undisputed
- Pre-election polls showed Trump losing decisively to Biden. So months before November 3, Trump launched a pre-emptive attack on the election itself by claiming that he could lose only if it was “rigged.”
- Trump lost the election by more than seven million popular votes and 74 electoral votes. Continuing his assault on the right of the people to select their president, he refused to concede, claiming falsely that the election had been “stolen” from him. “Stop the Steal” became the rallying cry.
- Trump and his allies then filed more than 60 unsuccessful court challenges seeking to reverse the outcome of a legitimate election. In none of those cases did any court find any evidence of the widespread fraud that he blamed repeatedly for his loss. Even Trump’s loyal attorney general, William Barr, who went in search of such fraud, found nothing worth pursuing.
- When the courts and Barr refused to call the election into question, Trump pressured state election officials to overturn the will of 81 million voters who wanted him out of office.
- As the date for congressional certification of Biden’s win approached, Trump pressured Vice President Mike Pence – as presiding officer of the session – to act unconstitutionally and decline to certify the vote.
- When Pence refused, Trump spoke for more than an hour to an organized mob of thousands whom he had called to the Capitol on the day of certification for a “Stop the Steal” rally. He continued to lie about the election, saying:
- “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”
- “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election.”
- “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election… All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people.”
The Law is Clear
- Impeachable conduct – “Treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors” – encompasses a defeated presidential candidate’s attempted coup d’etat against the legitimate constitutional government of the United States. Constitutional scholars across the political spectrum have echoed Prof. Michael Stokes Parkman’s view: “If Trump’s misconduct is not impeachable, nothing is.”
- Proof of a crime is not required for impeachment, but Trump probably committed several federal felonies. “Seditious conspiracy” is an agreement by at least two people to hinder the execution of federal law or to seize federal property. The agreement need not be express and can be inferred by willful participation in the unlawful plan with intent to further it. Conviction can lead to imprisonment for up to 20 years. “Inciting rebellion or insurrection” against the authority of the United States can result a 10-year prison term.
- The felony-murder rule might even apply. In some circumstances, a person who engages in a violent felony can be held responsible for deaths that occur during the course of that crime. For example, suppose two people try to rob a bank and a bank security guard pulls out a gun and kills one robber while the other is waiting in the getaway car. The driver of the getaway car could be held liable for the death of his fellow robber. Trump’s incitement led to five deaths, including the mob’s murder of a Capitol Police officer.
What’s the Defense?
Trump is throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something will stick. Nothing will. His defenders rely principally on the First Amendment, but there is no constitutional right to incite an insurrection. According to the US Supreme Court, the Constitution does not protect conduct that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to produce such action.”
- Although Trump claims that his January 6 speech to the mob was “totally appropriate,” it wasn’t, especially in the context of the speeches preceding his. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, called for “trial by combat.” Donald Trump Jr. told the mob, “If you’re going to be the zero and not the hero, we’re coming for you, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”
- Members of the mob were already heading toward the Capitol when Trump himself exhorted them, “We fight like hell. If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore… Our exciting adventures and boldest endeavors have not yet begun… We’re going to the Capitol. We’re going to try and give them [Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country…”
- But even if Trump’s words and deeds did not meet the Supreme Court’s test, the First Amendment still wouldn’t save him. High-level government officials can be held accountable for their speech in ways that private citizens cannot. As Prof. Ilya Somin notes, “Donald Trump himself has fired numerous cabinet officials and other subordinates because they expressed views he didn’t like.” And for the same reasons that impeachment does not require proof of a president’s criminality, the fact that his speech might not lead to civil or criminal liability is not a defense anyway.
During the House debate on impeachment, some Republicans complained that the process had not involved hearings and witnesses. There was no need. Trump’s impeachable conduct occurred in plain sight. Newspapers and allied governments around the world correctly labeled the attack on the Capitol an attempted coup.
Finally, unlike a criminal proceeding, conviction in the Senate does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The purpose of impeachment is to get a president out of office and then, by subsequent majority vote in the Senate, assure that he never returns.
Saving American Democracy Begins with Truth and Accountability
Most Republicans argue that Trump’s impeachment undermines efforts to unify the country. The opposite is true.
A US president encouraged a mob to attack a co-equal branch of government and then watched the violence unfold for hours on television. But in the eyes of most Republicans, Trump remains blameless. Although 70 percent of the GOP believe that the mob was undermining democracy and must be held accountable, 70 percent also say that the president who incited it is somehow protecting democracy. Even more of them – 87 percent – say that Trump should not be removed from office.
Without accountability for subverting the nation’s political system, unity is impossible. That requires a common understanding and acceptance of facts. America’s body politic cannot heal without first ridding itself of the infection that Trump’s lies have caused. Impeachment is a necessary first step in that cleansing process.
As Trump and his allies dissemble in the days ahead, remember that the vote to impeach him was bipartisan. Ten Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) – the GOP’s No. 3 leader in the House and a reliable Trump defender throughout his presidency, finally broke away from Trump’s spell. On January 12, Rep. Cheney declared:
“On January 6, 2021 a violent mob attacked the United States Capitol to obstruct the process of our democracy and stop the counting of presidential electoral votes. This insurrection caused injury, death and destruction in the most sacred space in our Republic.
“Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.
“I will vote to impeach the President.”
The prosecution rests.