Congressional Democrats’ rush toward impeachment has put Joe Biden in a difficult position before he’s even taken the oath of office. Does he follow the desires of his fellow Democratic Party leaders to punish Donald Trump for stirring up an angry mob that ran amok at the U.S. Capitol? Or does Biden heed his own oft-repeated campaign promise to weigh the desires of those Americans who voted against him as well as the historic numbers who voted for him?
The nation is struggling to pick up the pieces and come to terms with last week’s insurrection at the Capitol building by Trump-supporting extremists. At least five people, including one police officer, died. Hundreds more were threatened and terrorized. Another Capitol Police officer on duty that day died by suicide over the weekend, his family announced Monday.
Democrats are putting the blame squarely on President Trump’s shoulders – but not only Democrats. White House and administration staffers have resigned in droves, including three members of Trump’s Cabinet. Many prominent Republicans -- including several onetime supporters -- have denounced Trump for instigating the Capitol attack. But the rank-and-file are not yet convinced. A new Frank Luntz poll released Monday found that only 25% of Trump voters agree he is mostly responsible for the assault on the Capitol, while 62% said he was only “somewhat” or “only a little” to blame.
So, the question for the incoming president is pretty basic: In such a hyper-partisan political environment, is compromise even possible?
After the cataclysmic events of Jan. 6, lawmakers and pundits have frequently invoked the words of Ben Franklin -- that the Founding Fathers rejected a monarchy in favor of “a republic, if you can keep it” -- along with President Lincoln’s prophetic declaration that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Two months after winning the presidency, Biden’s post-election words intended to lower the temperature in Washington and across the country already seem dated as he declines to clearly state whether he backs his party’s pursuit of the 25th Amendment or a second impeachment.
“Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now,” Biden said Nov. 7 in his first speech after he was declared the victor. “This is the time to heal.”
But Biden didn’t count on a horrific attack on the Capitol, nor on Trump’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge his defeat, which are testing that commitment to unity as he is being pressed by other party leaders bent on revenge. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are rejecting calls from a bipartisan group of House members to stop the drive to impeach Trump on his way out the door. They want to put all Republicans on record as to whether they will protect Trump from being removed from office even though he will be out anyway in eight days.
With roughly a week left before Biden is inaugurated, House Democrats are set to impeach Trump for a second time this week. The only question is whether they will send the impeachment articles over to the Senate right away or wait for Biden to complete his first 100 days and have most, if not all, of his Cabinet confirmed.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has suggested Democrats wait for that period to allow Biden to assemble his administration and begin work on his agenda, while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has said he wants to send the articles to the Senate immediately.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” a veteran Democratic operative told RealClearPolitics. Pelosi has admitted that her interest in impeachment is to prevent Trump from running again in 2024 — so the impeachment push has become a way for Democrats to permanently cancel Trump and any chance for a political resurgence.
Plenty of voices, so far going unheeded, are pressing for a less polarizing beginning to Biden’s presidency. Members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, along with a several centrist senators, are pushing for a congressional censure of Trump instead, arguing that a last-ditch impeachment effort will backfire on Biden and Democrats by inciting more violence while turning Trump into a martyr. Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican, has circulated a letter imploring Biden to reject what he’s calling “snap” impeachment, which would go to a vote without the deliberations of a traditional hearing.
Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley has argued that such a step would only “inflame political divisions in our country,” and he urged that Trump’s future should be left to “history and the voters to decide -- not canceled by congressional fiat.” Turley, who also argued against the first impeachment, denounced Trump’s Jan. 6 speech to his supporters as “reckless and wrong” even before they stormed the capitol. He also praised Vice President Mike Pence for defying Trump in rejecting his claim that electoral votes could be “sent back” to the states.
“Yet, none of this is license for Congress to rampage through the Constitution with the same abandon as last week’s rioters did in the Capitol,” Turley wrote Monday.
Nonetheless, Pelosi is moving forward with a demand that Pence invoke the 25th Amendment to declare Trump unfit and remove him from office. Such a move would require Pence to convene the Cabinet, a majority of whose members would then need to declare Trump unable to perform as president. With the three Cabinet members already gone, it seems a futile ultimatum, especially after Pence and Trump met Monday and agreed to work together for the final week of the presidency.
Pence’s rejection of this Democratic demand means House Democrats will move forward with a vote on a single article of impeachment as soon as Wednesday.
As his presidency is set to begin, Biden seems torn by these developments. He could try to change the tone in Washington by leaning on his party’s leaders to forgo another divisive impeachment fight against Trump. But so far he hasn’t. On Monday, he signaled a willingness to entertain a “bifurcated” first 100 days, sharing progress on his initiatives with a Senate impeachment trial.
“Can we go half day on dealing with impeachment and half day getting my people nominated and confirmed?” he pondered Monday when pressed on the matter after receiving his second dose of the coronavirus vaccine. “I haven’t gotten an answer from the parliamentarian yet,” he said.
Others quickly filled in the leadership vacuum to remind Biden that the Senate operated in the same dual-track way during the early 2020 unsuccessful impeachment trial.
Laurence Tribe, a fiery anti-Trump Harvard law professor, said the Senate, “if halfway responsible,” will hold a short impeachment trial as soon as possible. Tribe authored a book on the case for impeaching Trump along with Joshua Matz, who served as the counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s impeachment proceedings in late 2019.
“An impeachment trial needn’t get in the way of a forward-looking agenda for the Senate,” Tribe tweeted Monday night. “It’s increasingly looking like that’s the way forward: bifurcated days, half impeachment trial, half other business.”
So much for unity and turning the page on Donald J. Trump.