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An Escape Route from the Impeachment Mess

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U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) shows the article of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump after signing it in an engrossment ceremony, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 13, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

What’s the real point of this after-the-buzzer impeachment play?

The normal justification for putting a president on trial and removing him from office is to defend the nation from a dangerous miscreant with potent power. But Trump’s presidency has already concluded in a toxic dumpster fire of acrimony and incompetence, and for the moment he’s doing a convincing imitation of a comfortably retired oldster in Palm Beach, so the “protection purpose” won’t fly.

The most commonly cited alternative explanation invokes the need to send future presidents a clear message that the nation won’t accept a repeat of Trump’s irresponsible, unhinged handling of his decisive electoral defeat.

But if that’s the chief motivation, there are far easier, less polarizing means to achieve the goal.

A Congressional resolution of censure (now promoted, apparently by Republican Senator Susan Collins, her Democratic colleague Tim Kaine, and a smattering of other moderates) could condemn Trump for summoning his faithful to the Capitol and encouraging their efforts to overturn a lawful election. It might also feature a solemn affirmation of the importance of our noble tradition of peaceful transfer of power. The former president may claim that we remain deeply divided, but we must all agree on the necessity for a defeated incumbent to accept the will of the people after exhausting all legal efforts to challenge the result.

But there’s another goal for the determined Democrats who insist on pushing forward with their near-hopeless effort to win conviction on a single article of impeachment. The conclusion of that article provides for Trump’s “removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”

In other words, impeachment advocates seek to keep Trump from making another angry run for the White House in 2024, and to prevent him from roiling our politics between now and then. For Republicans, ending the prospect of a third Trump campaign takes on particular importance: though he would probably lose another drive for the nomination (he’d be 78 at that time), his capacity to tear apart the GOP remains a clear and present danger. If even one third of his 74,000,000 voters continue to honor him, he’d remain a prominent competitor in the primaries, or face an obvious temptation to follow other ex-presidents (Van Buren, Fillmore, Theodore Roosevelt) in launching his own third-party crusade. Just imagine Trump running on a new “America First” or “Patriot Party” ticket while attacking Democrats and Republicans alike with equal fervor. In such a situation, with two candidates splitting conservative votes, the Republican Party couldn’t win and might not survive.

The problem is that any formal attempt to block a new Trump juggernaut through Congressional action might actually make such a quixotic campaign even more likely. Trump could launch a defiant campaign with no notable platform beyond “Let Trump Run!” – demanding that Congress “Release the Kraken” and drop the arrogant effort by Washington’s “Deep State” to keep Americans from re-hiring their “favorite president.”

Rather than trying to erase Trump from the political future, why not encourage him, even at this late hour, to leave the field with some shards of honor and dignity still intact?

A resolution of censure – decrying Trump for his undeniable effort to interfere with a Constitutional and ceremonial procedure to officially tally the already certified electoral votes – could win support from all Democrats and most Republicans. Even some of those who honor Trump’s achievements in the White House and remain stoutly opposed to impeachment, could possibly accept a censure compromise. In any event, such a resolution could pass with only 60 votes, or perhaps even a simple majority, rather than the 67 required for an impeachment conviction.

If such a compromise managed to cut the ordeal short, Trump might consider actually startling the world by reacting with graciousness, acknowledging that he had taken the Congressional message to heart. A nationally televised speech to close the episode and redeem his standing in the history books could do three things:

  • Assure people that the former president now accepts Biden’s election as valid and legitimate, having tried all Constitutional avenues to challenge the result.
  • He should repeat his condemnations of extremist violence, and urge his loyal supporters to abandon any future plans for protests on his behalf. That would make it clear that any further disturbances would be the fault of unsanctioned extremist gangs, not part of a destabilizing conspiracy hatched by the ex-president and his associates.
  • Finally, Trump should reassure the nation that he has no intention of starting a new party or abandoning the tens of millions of Republicans who remained overwhelmingly loyal to his leadership. He could reaffirm his commitment to the GOP, and his intention to support its renewed success as a vehicle for his vaunted “America First” principles.

Is it likely that Trump could rise above his reputation for childish self-absorption with any such reassuring, high-road message?

Of course not. The most likely outcome of the most recent edition of our annual Trump impeachment is Democrats block any conceivable compromise and reject a dismissal of the doomed impeachment article as a cowardly surrender of principle. The result would be a final vote that might attract five to seven Republicans, thereby falling far short of the 67 votes needed for conviction and avoiding any ban on future office. Under these circumstances, Trump would treat the entire affair as yet another vindication and exoneration, allowing him to go on teasing his media foes with a possible return to power in 2024.  If nothing else, that strategy would allow his continued dominance of the center stage he so ardently loves, and means to occupy for as long as he can. .

No, it’s not likely that Trump would ever heed the advice he famously delivered to the Proud Boys in the presidential debates:  to “stand back and stand by.”

But a thought-experiment is worth pursuing in this regard. What if, on the deepest level, he truly seeks to frustrate and confound his most implacable enemies, to elevate his historical standing, to morph into the role of elder statesman while working to heal the land he says he loves? If that’s the ultimate goal for this misbegotten impeachment battle, then a modest compromise and a retreat from confrontation constitute the only course of action that makes any sense at all.

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