No One is Above the Law: What are our Options?

Although I was not surprised, like most people I was dismayed by the events that took place in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. A group of Pro-Trump supporters marched to the Capitol Building, and then stormed into the building. They were trying to impede the Congress from counting and ratifying the votes of the Electoral College that certified Biden’s election victory. Although not common in the United States, this was, in fact, an insurrection, a self “coup d’état”, an attempt to steal the election from the voters who chose Biden on November 3, 2020. President Trump had earlier spoken to the protesters and repeated the lie that he had won the election. He then urged his followers to march to the Capitol and fight for his “election day victory”. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives were in session to count the Electoral College votes. Although some of the protestors were peaceful, when they reached the Capitol building, the protest turned violent, and stormed and vandalized the building. The police force was overwhelmed.  At first, the members of Congress huddled in place, but were later moved to safe “bunkers” in the basement. During the riot, Trump tweeted a stinging criticism of Vice President Pence for not overturning the results (which he legally could not do). Immediately, shouts arose within the mob inside the Capitol, “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” After several hours, the police finally recovered control, although five people have died as a result of the violence.  Later that evening, Congress resumed its session and certified Biden’s victory.

Most people have condemned the actions of Trump´s supporters as criminal due to trespassing and vandalism, and more seriously, five people died. Democrats and many Republicans have accused the president with inciting insurrection. At least two Cabinet members (Secretary of Education Betsy Devos and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao) and many other high-ranking officials have resigned in protest. Prominent Republicans who have supported Trump in the past (like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and William Barr) have admitted that the president has gone too far this time. Some of his most trusted friends question his psychological health, saying that he has been unusually depressed after his election defeat. Although the transfer of power to Biden will take place on January 20, the majority of U.S. citizens want Trump to leave earlier than that. Fearing that Trump will do even more damage over the next ten days, Twitter and Facebook have permanently blocked the president’s accounts. If no one is above the law, how do you hold people accountable for their actions, yet at the same time, bring healing to our country? There are several available options, but each one has its advantages and disadvantages. What should be done?

  1. Trump could resign as soon as possible. Upon his resignation, Vice President Mike Pence would become President until January 20. This is the easiest choice, by far, and would minimize additional polarization of the U.S. people. By itself, a resignation would not punish Trump for his crimes. Pence could offer him a presidential pardon (like Ford gave Nixon), which would cover all federal offenses. Nevertheless, Trump could still face New York state charges of tax evasion or other alleged crimes, but his incitement to insurrection would probably go unpunished. Trump has announced that he would not resign under any circumstances (he might be pressured to change his mind if a more negative option like impeachment becomes a reality).
  2. Vice President Pence and a majority of the Cabinet could invoke Article 25 which states that a president can be removed from office if he is unfit (physically or psychologically) to carry out his duties. Up until now, Pence has not shown any willingness to implement this option.
  3. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has promised that if Pence does not invoke Article 25, she will bring an article of impeachment to the House early this week on the grounds of inciting insurrection. She would put this on a “fast track”, and it could be put to a vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. It would easily pass. It would then go to the Senate where it would need a super majority for it to be approved, which is not so certain. Even so, the Senate’s decision would not be reached until after Biden’s inauguration. If the Senate confirmed the impeachment, Trump would be prohibited from running for president or any other federal office in the future. Nevertheless, Biden does not favor this option. He does not want to begin his presidency with an angry partisan fight.
  4. The Congress could “censure” Trump for his actions. This would probably pass in both the Senate and in the House with substantial Republican support. Nevertheless, this is too weak of a punishment. It is like a slap on the wrist for a serious crime that resulted in five deaths and could have brought down the U.S. democracy

As can be seen, each option has its downside. How should we hold people accountable for their crimes and bring healing to our polarized country at the same time? If neither #1 nor #2 are implemented in the next few days, I would favor a fast-track impeachment in the House, but not immediately brought to the Senate. This would give time for some healing to take place and for Biden to get his Cabinet approved and begin to implement If this high crime goes unpunished, other presidents might become emboldened to commit this or other treasonous crimes in the future. Everyone should be held accountable for his or her crimes. No one is above the law.

A parallel issue is why the police were so ineffective in stopping this insurrection. The Capitol police should have been quickly reinforced with the National Guard or the FBI police force, but for some reason, those offers of help were rejected. Why? A thorough investigation must be done in order to find out who failed in their responsibilities and whether Trump or others were involved. Given that the inauguration will take place on January 20, it is quite possible that more actions of violence will take place in the capital or in other places in the United States during the next few days.

Another issue that must be addressed is institutional racism. Peaceful Black Lives Matter protests took place in DC and in other cities this summer and were met with strong police resistance. But when white supremacy protestors invaded and looted the Capitol Building on Wednesday, police inaction allowed the looting to go unchecked. The road to racial equality is long and hard, but let’s continue moving forward and not give up hope.

Lessons Learned from the Impeachment Trial

The Impeachment process is over. Although the dust has not settled, we need to ask: What have we learned?

 Lesson #1

We have a divided Congress This was clearly seen in the votes on impeachment. Back in December in the House of Representatives, 230 members voted in favor of Article 1 of impeachment (Abuse of Power) while 197 voted against (a few abstained). That is a 54/46% split in approval of impeachment. In the Senate in January, it was the mirror opposite.  48 senators voted in favor of Article 1, with 52 against.

Lesson #2

It was a strange impeachment trial. In all fifteen previous trials in the Senate (of sitting presidents or others), key witnesses had given relevant testimony. Not in this case. Government officials, like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, could have provided information that would either have shown the president to be innocent or guilty of the abuse charges. According to several reliable polls, 75% of the U.S. population wanted witnesses to testify. (In these divided times, this was overwhelming agreement.) Nevertheless, only two Republican senators voted to have witnesses. The remaining Republican senators seemed to be afraid of upsetting the president and in receiving his wrath. Senator Lamar Alexander´s response was typical. He thought the House representatives had proven their case that the president´s actions were ¨improper¨ but he did not believe those actions reached the bar of ¨high crimes and misdemeanors¨. I am disappointed in Alexander and others like him. He believed the president to be guilty but would not allow Bolton and Mulvaney to present their understanding of what really happened to the American public.

Lesson #3

Senator Susan Collins said she hoped that the president would have learned from his mistakes and would act more properly in the future. (Bill Clinton had, at least, apologized to the nation for his wrong actions). Such was not the case. Trump did not apologize. To the contrary, he has maintained that he did nothing wrong. He feels more emboldened to act as if he were ¨above the law¨. For example, his tweets have applied pressure to Attorney General Barr to reduce the sentencing recommendations on his old friend, Roger Stone, who lied to Congress. Barr proclaimed that Trump´s tweets have made it ¨impossible for me to do my job¨.  (Many feel that this was just political theater so that Barr could claim independence from Trump even though he does the president´s bidding on every single issue). The lesson we should learn is that no one is above the law.

Lesson #4

Meanwhile, the Democrats are in the midst of a messy primary tussle. The process in Iowa was a complete debacle. In New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders won a close race against Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Bernie´s challenge: How does he persuade the American public that his Democratic Socialism is the good variety (like Social Security or as practiced in much of Europe)? Joe Biden has slipped and needs a victory in South Carolina to go forward.  Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is hovering over the field hoping for several wins on super Tuesday.

Hang on to your hats. The next few weeks will be a political roller coaster ride.