The emergence of an audio recording of President Trump pressuring the Georgia secretary of state to overturn the results of the election is a harrowing moment in the history of our democracy. And though the number of his days in office is dwindling, the only appropriate response is to impeach Mr. Trump. Again.
Whether he acknowledges it or not, President Trump is leaving the White House on Jan. 20 — but right now, there is nothing stopping him from running in 2024. That is a terrifying prospect, because the way he has conducted himself over the past two months, wielding the power of the presidency to try to steal another term in office, has threatened one of our republic’s most essential traditions: the peaceful transfer of power.
Fortunately, our founders anticipated we would face a moment like this, which is one reason Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution entrusts Congress with the power not only to remove a president but also to prevent him or her from ever holding elected office again. Mr. Trump’s conduct over the past two months has left our legislators with no choice but to use it. That impeachment inquiry would take time, far more than Mr. Trump has left in office. But it would be well worth it.
Since the election was called in favor of President-elect Joe Biden, Mr. Trump has been relentlessly fomenting doubts about its legitimacy — even as many federal and state courts, including ones whose judges were appointed by Mr. Trump himself, have ruled against his claims. He has reportedly inquired about the idea of enlisting the help of the military to keep him in power.
Most recently, on the phone with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, he said, “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” He added: “We won this state,” even though he didn’t. In a democracy, you don’t find votes. You count them. Most strikingly, Mr. Trump threatened the Georgia officials with criminal prosecution if they didn’t comply, saying leaving the vote counts intact would be a “big risk.”
This kind of threat may sound familiar, because an eerily similar abuse of power led to Mr. Trump’s impeachment just over a year ago. Senator Susan Collins of Maine explained her vote to acquit him by saying she thought he had learned “a pretty big lesson.” Clearly, Mr. Trump learned a different lesson — that he was above the law. It’s just as William Davie from North Carolina, discussing the position of the presidency at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, predicted: A president who viewed himself to be unimpeachable, he said in 1787, would “spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.”
It’s time for Congress, once and for all, to put an end to this.
No one wants to put the country through the turmoil of another impeachment. But we also can’t afford to look the other way — for several reasons.
For one, we must establish a precedent that a president who tries to cheat his way to re-election will be held accountable. Sure, this attempt may not have succeeded, but a failed coup should itself be alarming enough. And who is to say there won’t be a closer election in the future, with a more competent authoritarian candidate — whose party also has control of the House of Representatives? We need to make sure that Congress has ensured that candidates cannot strong-arm their way into re-election.
We also need to set a precedent that a lame duck president can still be held accountable. If an incumbent, say, threatened to nuke Iran unless the Electoral College sided with him, we would want to have a mechanism by which we could remove him from office. In our Constitution, impeachment is that mechanism, but it is worthless if we never use it.
And last, we cannot risk Mr. Trump’s becoming president again — or for that matter, even running again with a chance of winning. This isn’t a point about ideology; it’s a reflection of the fact that our system may not be able to withstand this lawless man returning to the highest office in the land. Emboldened by our failure to hold him accountable for abusing his power in his first term, who knows what he would do in a nonconsecutive second term? The damage to our institutions from his first four years in office will take generations to undo. Our democracy might not be able to handle another four.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, was able to protect Mr. Trump the last time — no doubt because he was afraid of what a truly rigorous trial might show. But he may no longer be able to do so. For one thing, Mr. Trump will soon lack the power of the presidency to dole out favors and punish his enemies. For another, the Senate composition will be different. Already, Democrats have flipped seats in Arizona and Colorado. Republicans who voted to acquit him, like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, have shown signs they are finally willing to stand up to him.
And Georgians will go to the polls to decide who will represent them in the Senate. Mr. Trump’s preferred senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, would no doubt try to block an inquiry into his misdeeds. But if these senators lose their seats, a full and robust inquiry in the Senate could be the result, with Chuck Schumer as majority leader.
In 2008, a young member of the Judiciary Committee said, “The business of high crimes and misdemeanors goes to the question of whether or not the person serving as president of the United States put their own interests, their personal interests, ahead of public service.” That congressman’s name was Mike Pence — and he was exactly right.
We need to convict President Trump and make sure he can never call the White House home again.
Neal Katyal (@neal_katyal), a law professor at Georgetown and a former acting solicitor general of the United States, and Sam Koppelman (@SammyKoppelman), a principal at Fenway Strategies, are the authors of “Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump.”
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