Essential Politics: Everything we know so far about impeachment and the Capitol attack
A week ago today, a mob of President Trump’s violent supporters broke into the Capitol.
They beat police officers. They ransacked lawmakers’ offices. They interrupted a joint session of Congress, hoping to stop lawmakers from accepting President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win. They entered the Senate chamber carrying flex cuffs. And when the halls of the Capitol were finally cleared, four people were dead, and a police officer died hours later from injuries sustained in the melee.
Then we were left to wonder: What happens now?
That’s also a complicated question. The consequences of catastrophe reveal themselves, often in unforeseen ways, over months and years.
My colleague David Lauter wrote to you Friday about the signs of President Trump’s waning authority. Some Republican figures and voters renounced the president, reflecting polls showing his job approval rating has slipped.
On Monday, John Myers covered the growing effort to impeach Trump a second time as tech giants began a historic purge, dumping the president and those who spread assorted conspiracy theories, en masse. Just Tuesday, top House Republicans signaled they would vote to impeach, with Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, joining Democrats’ hurried efforts to hold Trump accountable before he leaves office next Wednesday. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” wrote the lawmaker, the daughter of former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney.
I’m writing to you today as the House prepares to take up that impeachment vote, a measure expected to pass.
My colleagues have put together a series of stories and explainers on the fallout from the Capitol mob attack. They will help you understand how this event came to be and what’s around the corner. The situation is evolving, and it encompasses broad swaths of American life — politics and tech as well as security.
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What’s happening with the impeachment? House Democrats introduced an article of impeachment Monday from Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). It includes a single charge: “incitement of insurrection.” As Jennifer Haberkorn and David Lauter write, the article arrived co-signed by 213 Democrats. With the support of Republicans including Cheney, the measure is sure to have majority support. A vote could come as soon as today.
Is there precedent for this? No. Trump would be the first president to be impeached twice. And of presidents who have faced impeachment, the proceedings took place while they were in office. It is unlikely the Senate can hold his trial before Trump departs office. David Savage and Sarah Wire uncovered a single instance of an official who was impeached after departing government — in 1876, President Grant’s secretary of war, William Belknap, was impeached on bribery and corruption allegations but acquitted in a Senate trial.
What happened to the discussion about the 25th Amendment? The amendment allows Cabinet members to declare a president unfit for office and remove him, Mark Z. Barabak writes. But Cabinet members who opposed Trump’s actions have already resigned. The idea also has not gained broad support inside the Trump administration or elsewhere in the government. Tuesday, Pence declined to take that route. House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi said impeachment proceedings would move forward if Pence didn’t act.
Can they impeach him before the end of his term? Yes. As Savage and Wire write, impeachments have typically included hearings and debate in the interest of decorum. But that’s always been a choice, not a legal requirement.
Can they do it after he’s left office? Maybe. To be clear, there are two stages of impeachment proceedings: The House decides whether to charge a government official (to “impeach” them), and the Senate decides whether to act on those charges. The Senate is adjourned until just before the inauguration and prospects for an early return are slim. Thus, any trial would have to wait — perhaps until after President elect Joe Biden’s first 100 days, as some congressional leaders have suggested. Scholars disagree on whether the Senate has the authority to act after Jan. 20. But Savage and Wire note the Constitution gives Congress broad latitude in this realm.
Why impeach him if he’s no longer in power? It’s a powerful rebuke. A Senate conviction opens up an array of sanctions. Democrats, and some Republicans, are particularly focused on slapping Trump with a lifetime ban from holding office.
What are the chances of a Senate conviction? Not great, but a little better after Jan. 20 when Democrats assume the majority. Either way, enough Republicans have to be on board — a Senate conviction requires two-thirds majority approval.
Are there other options for lawmakers to respond? Yes, though none are quite as powerful as impeachment. Lawmakers could pass a formal censure, a strong condemnation that doesn’t come with legal consequences. They could informally convince Trump to resign — the path that led to President Nixon’s resignation, Janet Hook writes, but that’s also unlikely. There’s also the 14th Amendment, which allows Congress to disqualify someone who has engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” from holding state or federal office. Still, it wouldn’t be legally binding.
Can the courts do anything? Maybe, Savage writes. There are laws against “seditious conspiracy” and tampering with the “tabulation of ballots.” Although Justice Department policies and legal precedent grant presidents immunity to civilian charges while in office, Trump loses that protection in seven days.
Can he pardon himself? Unclear. The law doesn’t offer guidance either way. Trump has talked about it. But Savage reports that a self-pardon could backfire — it is, after all, an acknowledgement of guilt.
Big tech’s role
Is Trump still on social media? Not that we know of, at least not directly. Twitter banned Trump permanently from the platform, while Facebook issued an indefinite ban on Facebook and Instagram, write Sam Dean, Johana Bhuiyan and Suhauna Hussain. Others that have banned the president: Shopify, a platform on which he used to sell branded merchandise; Snapchat; and Stripe, which processes campaign donations. YouTube has removed videos and suspended his channel. Some Trump surrogates have remained on those platforms, but they also remain at risk of expulsion.
Who else is affected? Former national security advisor Michael Flynn and his lawyer (and Trump associate) Sidney Powell were banned from Twitter. So was Ron Watkins, a far-right figure whose platform 8kun has been linked to several violent right-wing attacks and is at the center of the baseless QAnon conspiracy — a set of false beliefs that hold up Trump as a messiah figure, Arit John writes.
Can platforms do that? Yes. As private companies, social media platforms have wide discretion about who gets to use their networks.
How will we know what Trump has to say? Trump still has access to a communications staff and the tools other presidents have used, like briefings and news conferences. Still, his Twitter account represented a more candid window into his thinking, Eli Stokols writes.
How has he responded? He’s not pleased. Other Twitter accounts in Trump’s control — including his official POTUS account and his campaign account — were suspended after Trump attempted to use them to get around the ban. He has doubled down on his rhetoric, Chris Megerian reports. In an appearance Tuesday, he called his speech before the mob attack “totally appropriate” and decried the impeachment charges as “a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics.”
What else are platforms doing? Major platforms have begun a purge of users, forums and content related to QAnon, “Stop the Steal” and other false conspiracy theories that uphold Trump at all costs and have been linked to violence and the white nationalist movement. As of Tuesday, Twitter said it had removed 70,000 accounts that promoted those theories.
Why is this important? In many ways, Trump was a social media president. He jumpstarted his rise in politics — and in far-right circles — by pushing the racist birther conspiracy theory about President Obama. For years, social media has been instrumental in planning and facilitating right-wing violence, including a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor in 2020, Dean, Bhuiyan and Hussain write.
The rallies that preceded the mob attack were widely promoted on social media, and attendees were pictured wearing gear that referenced QAnon, the false viral conspiracy of a “stolen election” and a variety of anti-Semitic and racist ideologies. Many shared their own photos and videos online.
What do we mean when we talk about the far right? We mean a loose collection of figures and groups with ultra-conservative views that are considered hate groups by extremism experts. Many have coalesced around President Trump. These ideologies may be overtly racist, anti-Semitic or misogynistic — or a blend of all such beliefs, Matt Pearce wrote earlier this year. Some are heavily armed. They thrive on conspiracy theories that demonize perceived political enemies, and often encourage violence and intimidation against them. And they organize largely online.
Will the bans reduce the spread of such hate? Maybe, but we won’t know for a long time. Brian Contreras wrote this week that the “Trumpnet” universe is actually poised to expand. Bigger platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were criticized for hosting far-right activity for years. When they cracked down, smaller platforms popped up to court radicalized users.
Speaking of the Trumpnet, what’s Parler? It was a Twitter rival that promised “free speech.” In recent months — and particularly in the last week — it emerged as the right wing’s preferred social media alternative. It was often filled with death threats, horrific rhetoric and talk of insurrection. Apple and Google pulled it from their app stores, and Amazon banned it from their web hosting service. The people behind the app have sued Amazon in a bid to get their app reinstated.
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What happened with Capitol Police? It’s not clear. New details are still emerging. Videos show crowds of rioters breaking past police barricades with ease in some places, and difficulty in others. U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said they had prepared for protests, not “mass riots,” Haberkorn writes. Angry lawmakers and citizens have pushed back, saying police handled a mostly white crowd differently than diverse Black Lives Matter protests last summer. In an interview with the Washington Post, Sund cast blame on other security officials, whom he said denied requests for National Guard aid. He will resign effective this week.
Have there been any arrests? Yes. Law enforcement have used photos taken inside the Capitol and social media posts to identify and charge at least 70 rioters in an ongoing investigation. The New York Times has a list of the most notable arrests, including the man pictured stealing Pelosi’s lectern, a man in a horned costume known as “Q Shaman” and another rioter seen carrying flex cuffs in a widely circulated photo. Law enforcement has received thousands of tips from citizens combing the internet for clues as to rioters’ identities. Capitol Police are investigating at least 17 of their officers. Three have been suspended.
Are there cybersecurity implications? Yes, writes Samantha Masunaga. The mob had access to lawmakers’ offices, leaving papers strewn about the halls. They also had access to computers, raising questions about what information, if any, they may have accessed. Congressional staff say at least two laptops were stolen.
Did the attack risk spreading coronavirus? Yes. Lawmakers say they were forced to remain in close quarters as they sheltered in safe rooms, and some Republicans refused to wear masks. Three House Democrats have tested positive for the coronavirus. The Capitol’s attending physician notified all House lawmakers of possible virus exposure.
Were there warnings? Yes. Posts that called for storming the Capitol circulated on mainstream and niche platforms for days. An FBI report that warned of an extremist attack was sent internally at the Norfolk, Va., field office a day before the attack. Right-wing groups have long fantasized about taking such dramatic action, writes Dorany Pineda, pointing to “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel that is extremely influential in violent far-right ideology and includes an attack on the Capitol.
How are far-right groups reacting? Members of violent far-right groups hailed the attack as the start of a “second revolution,” Molly Hennessy-Fiske reports. But these groups have also splintered in the last week, as some rioters express regret and law enforcement closes in.
Some far-right groups are calling for more attacks at not only the Capitol but also state houses and government buildings across the country, prompting an FBI warning. California’s own Capitol in Sacramento is on “high alert,” report Anita Chabria, Taryn Luna, Kevin Rector and Richard Winton.
Is Trump part of the security threat? Molly O'Toole and Noah Bierman report that current and former national security officials see him as a risk, noting the potential for further violence from his supporters or from foreign actors who want to take advantage of the instability. David S. Cloud, Hook and Stokols also write that Pelosi on Friday spoke to the nation’s top military leader about taking precautions to keep Trump from initiating a military action or nuclear strike.
What other questions do you have?
The Times is committed to covering this story as deeply as we can and providing accurate information as new details emerge.
What else would you like to know? What questions do you have about the Capitol attack and its fallout? We’ll do our best to answer them in future newsletters.
In the meantime, you can find the latest updates at latimes.com.
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