The verdict in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump is a foregone conclusion. The former president will be acquitted in the proceeding that begins Tuesday.
In a test vote last month, Republicans signaled that, as outrageous as Trump’s conduct was by inciting last month’s riot at the Capitol, nowhere nearly enough of them have the backbone to stand up to the ultraconservative wing of their party and convict him of his treasonous behavior.
What’s the point, then, of going through the exercise, distracting the Senate from other work and potentially further dividing this country?
There are at least a couple of compelling reasons to go through the trial.
First is to firmly establish that presidents are held accountable for their entire time in office. They don’t get a free pass to wreak havoc in their final few weeks.
Trump’s lawyers and his defenders in the Senate will argue that it’s unconstitutional to try him for an impeachable offense now that he is a private citizen again. Besides precedent arguing against them — there have been a handful of cases where lower-level federal officials have gone through impeachment trials after leaving office — there is a practical consideration in going forward. It sends a message to future presidents that they are held to the same standard of conduct when they are departing office as they are when they are first entering it. Trump’s trial might deter others from emulating his refusal to cooperate with a peaceful transfer of power — a tradition that has been essential in holding this democracy together, even during tumultuous times.
Second, even if nothing would win over the 17 Republican votes in the Senate required for an impeachment conviction, the evidence to be presented during the trial might be enough to embolden a few to join Democrats in barring Trump from ever holding the presidency again or any other federal office.
An impeachment conviction offers the clearest path to such a ban, but it’s not necessarily the only one.
Two law school professors, Bruce Ackerman at Yale University and Gerard Magliocca at Indiana University, have said that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment could be invoked against Trump. That post-Civil War addition to the Constitution says that any public official who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the Constitution shall be disqualified from holding office again. To apply this prohibition to Trump would only require a simple majority in both houses of Congress, and it would take a two-thirds majority to overturn the decision in the future.
Federal lawmakers as well as the rest of the country are about to be reminded of why Trump deserves this punishment. The record will show that Trump orchestrated the Jan. 6 insurrection with weeks of false allegations about the election he lost; that in a final desperate attempt to hold onto power, he summoned his supporters to Washington to try to intimidate GOP lawmakers from certifying Joe Biden’s victory; and that on the day of the riot, he inflamed a partially armed mob and set it loose to commit the worst domestic attack on the Capitol in this nation’s history.
Trump, elected to defend the United States against all threats domestic and foreign, became a threat to it himself. If he were to somehow get elected four years from now, a prospect that he reportedly is entertaining, he would again put his own interests above that of this nation and potentially recreate the nightmare America just went through.
Congress has a constitutional duty to ensure there’s no chance of that happening.