First impressions matter. So do final impressions.
The final impression of the Trump presidency will always be views of rioters in the U.S. Capitol, trying to stop confirmation of President-Elect Joe Biden’s win, after being wound up by President Donald Trump earlier in the day. It will always remain a stain on the Trump legacy, one for which he has only himself to blame.
A number of those who participated in the riots now face criminal charges, as they should. Trump himself should not escape consequences for how his behavior contributed to events. His actions have irrevocably broken confidence in his judgement and ability to lead.
Members of Congress have called for his resignation, including Republican Sens. Pat Toomey and Lisa Murkowski. There have been calls for Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, beginning the process of removing Trump. Articles of impeachment seem almost certain to be introduced in the House today.
Trump could have taken a different approach to the final days of his presidency, enjoying a victory lap as the COVID vaccines become more widespread. The remarkably fast development of multiple effective vaccines is one of the genuine triumphs of the past several years, and one for which the administration can justifiably take considerable credit.
Instead, Trump retreated into claims of a stolen election. We don’t dismiss the suggestion that there were problematic votes cast. That happens in virtually every election. Our electoral processes are always in need of refinement and improvement. But the idea that those cases amounted to the kind of numbers needed to change the outcome of the presidential election was always false.
There were not tens of thousands of votes in multiple states cast illegally, crackpot conspiracies notwithstanding. If there was anyone who would have been willing to say so, it had to be former Attorney General William Barr. Instead, Barr concluded that investigators had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” At most, he concluded, there were isolated incidents that perhaps involve a couple thousand votes.
Trump’s insistence that he could not have lost the election fairly, as he clearly did, convinced a subset of his supporters. That set the stage for last week’s violence.
The fastest solution is if Vice-President Mike Pence and Trump’s cabinet declare him unfit. Trump could, under the Constitutional provisions, challenge that assessment. That would delay his formal removal, but would leave Pence in place as acting president until Congress formally announces a finding in regard to the declaration. And, given the short time frame involved, it’s not unlikely Congress could simply run out the clock on the Trump presidency without returning authority to him.
Impeachment does not, as we have seen, remove a president immediately. Only conviction following a Senate trial can. And that’s where we have concerns. While Senate leadership is clearly more independent of the White House today than it was when Trump was impeached a year ago, there remains a very narrow window to act. The possibility of a trial extending into the new president’s term is unprecedented, but so is the image of a president urging people to march on Congress to halt its count of Electoral College votes.
While Trump must face consequences for his actions, this remains bigger than any one person. We cannot lose sight of the fact five people are dead in the wake of the riots. Five families are mourning and forever changed. The sight of a lawless rabble undermining the very nation they claim to support will long stay with our nation, our allies and our enemies. The reverberations will echo in the courts for months, and will continue to do long-term damage to our nation’s standing abroad.
That is all now part of Trump’s legacy.
This isn’t a call we make lightly. It sets a bar for future actions by presidents and elected leaders. Incitement, giving a green light to any attacks on our nation and its institutions, must have consequences.
That understanding is also part of Trump’s legacy.