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Editorial: Trump needs to be punished. Impeach him again

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a lectern.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the House will move to impeach President Trump if Vice President Mike Pence doesn’t invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

The move to impeach President Trump for his incendiary role in last week’s deadly siege of the Capitol — an attempt to stop Congress from confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory — comes only a few days before Trump’s term mercifully comes to an end.

The timing is awkward, but the calendar is no reason for the House to hold back. It must find that Trump committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” in exhorting frenzied followers on their way to Capitol Hill to “fight like hell” to overturn the election results.

House Democrats intend to pass a resolution Tuesday calling on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. If Pence doesn’t act within 24 hours of its passage, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that the House will move to impeach the president, as early as Wednesday.

We are on record as doubting that the 25th Amendment, which is designed to deal with an incapacitated president, can be deployed against Trump. In any case, Pence doesn’t seem inclined to activate the amendment, which in any event would require cooperation from members of the Cabinet, where several positions are filled by acting appointees.

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Impeachment is another matter. It would be a wholly appropriate response to Trump’s outrageous speech on Wednesday, in which he told protesters brought to Washington by his false claims of election fraud to “fight much harder” and “show strength.” (He also told them that “we will stop the steal.”)

An article of impeachment introduced by Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) alleges that Trump “willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged—and foreseeably resulted in—lawless action at the Capitol.” It persuasively accuses the president of “incitement of insurrection.”

The article also rightly links Trump’s speech to his larger effort to overturn the election results, including the notorious telephone call in which he urged Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn the election results in that state.

Some have suggested that Congress can’t impeach Trump for incitement because his speech might be protected by the 1st Amendment in light of a Supreme Court decision in a criminal case establishing an exacting standard for punishing incitement.

But Congress is free to define “high crimes and misdemeanors” as it sees fit. Impeachment is a political process. Only three presidents have been impeached; Trump would be the first with the ignominy of being twice impeached.

Moreover, Trump wasn’t an ordinary citizen when he launched into his rant. He was a president who, as the proposed article of impeachment points out, “threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch of Government.”

Others argue against impeachment because Trump is about to leave office. If the House votes to impeach Trump on Wednesday, as expected, the Senate almost certainly wouldn’t complete the trial before he leaves the White House.

A Senate impeachment trial, critics argue, could delay confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet appointees and urgent legislation needed on the economy, the pandemic, government ethics, voting rights, climate change and other matters, unless the House delayed transmitting the article of impeachment or, as Biden suggested Monday, the Senate divided its time between an impeachment trial and other matters. (There is also a debate among legal scholars about whether a former president could be subjected to a Senate impeachment trial and a vote to exclude him from holding federal office in the future.)

We take these concerns seriously, but they are outweighed by the imperative of holding Trump responsible. Nor is a congressional censure of the president — an idea reportedly being considered by some House Republicans — an acceptable alternative. No matter how it might be worded, a censure resolution wouldn’t have the gravity of impeachment.

Trump deserved to be impeached in 2019 after he pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden in an attempt to secure his own reelection, and his acquittal by the Senate in early 2020 was a scandal. Trump’s attempt to hold on to power after he lost the election is an even greater affront to the constitutional government, and this time the result was deadly. He must be impeached and — if possible — convicted, in the hopes that his travesties never happen again.


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