This is a moment in which political time seems compressed, with different events overlying one another. On Monday, Joe Biden, wearing a dark-gray polo shirt, spoke briefly to reporters after receiving his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The first question he was asked was whether he has confidence in his coronavirus team (“I do,” he said); the second was whether he is afraid of taking his oath of office outdoors (“No, I’m not”). The third was whether he is worried that the impeachment of Donald Trump might create delays in getting a new stimulus bill through Congress. Biden said that he had been speaking with senators about whether, if House members move forward with impeachment (“which they obviously are”), it might be possible “to bifurcate this”—that is, to have the Senate divide its days into two parts, using one half for an impeachment trial and the other to get Biden’s Cabinet nominees confirmed and his agenda approved. And why not? Everything else seems to be playing on a split screen now.
Similarly, Monday’s pro-forma session of the House lasted less than a quarter of an hour, and yet it involved two measures that reflect how serious, and still precarious, this moment is. One was the formal submission and acceptance of the resignation of the House sergeant at arms, Paul Irving. His counterpart on the Senate side, Michael Stenger, has also resigned, but the questions about the role that each man played in the failure to defend the Capitol have only begun. Timothy Blodgett, who had been Irving’s deputy, was immediately sworn in as his successor. The second measure was the introduction by the House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, of a resolution calling on the Vice-President, Mike Pence, to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment and begin the process of stripping Trump of the power of the Presidency, on the ground that he is incapable of carrying out his duties. Hoyer asked for unanimous consent; the chamber was almost empty, but Alex Mooney, Republican of West Virginia, was on hand to object. The result is that the full House will consider the resolution on Tuesday.
The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has told her members to be back for the vote on the Twenty-fifth Amendment resolution and for what is expected to follow. The plan is to pass the resolution on Tuesday evening, give Pence twenty-four hours to act on it, and, if he does not, proceed with a vote on impeachment. Pence has signalled that he does not plan to try to remove Trump; he and Trump met on Monday night, but their exchange reportedly had the character of a conversation, not a showdown. Trump, unrepentant, said on Tuesday, as he was leaving the White House for Texas, that efforts to hold him accountable constitute a “witch hunt.” Republicans, with some exceptions, still seem to be clinging to the idea that obliviousness and impunity are the only way to address the violent, direct attack on our democracy. As long as they take that position, the House, as Biden put it, is obviously moving forward with impeachment.
There is, at the moment, a single Article of Impeachment, on the charge of “incitement of insurrection.” The first time that Trump was impeached, just a little more than a year ago, there were two articles—“abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress”—and he was eventually acquitted on both charges in the Senate. (Conviction in a Senate trial requires sixty-seven votes; last February, Mitt Romney, of Utah, voted to convict on the first article—he was the only Republican to do so—though not on the second.) There could, undoubtedly, have been even more articles this time. Trump’s phone call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, pressuring him to “find” enough votes to deliver the state to the President, could be an article on its own, and there are reports of other calls from the White House to Georgia officials. For the moment, the Raffensperger incident is simply recounted in the incitement article, as an element in Trump’s larger scheme to “subvert and obstruct the certification of the results of the 2020 Presidential election.” The article also mentions the loss of life in the attack, and the vandalism of the Capitol. It continues, “In all this, President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government. He threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch of Government.”
That last phrase is a significant one. The message from Pelosi and others is that, even though Trump will soon be out of office, the occasion of a President orchestrating an attack on Congress is in a category of its own, and demands a response from Congress. (In an interview with Lesley Stahl, of “60 Minutes,” Pelosi suggested that the decision to go ahead with impeachment and various lawsuits involving Trump is in part a “separation of powers” issue—meaning that Congress has its own institutional concerns, beyond what the proceedings would mean for Biden’s agenda.)
Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, who voted to reject the Electoral College votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania, is among those Republicans now complaining that impeachment is divisive. (In a private, closed-door meeting of the House Republican caucus, McCarthy reportedly acknowledged that Trump has some responsibility for what happened on January 6th—a pathetic half-gesture that only raises the question of why McCarthy seems afraid to hold the President to account in public, and whether he is ready to renounce his own votes to overturn the Electoral College.) As Jamelle Bouie observed, in the Times, this sentiment is better understood as a threat to the country than as a desire for unity. The process will be as divisive or as unifying as the Republicans allow it to be. Seen from another angle, Pelosi is offering her Republican colleagues a chance to come together in a bipartisan way to make the point that the President should not instruct a crowd to march down Pennsylvania Avenue and “fight like hell”—a phrase quoted in the article of impeachment—against the certification of the legitimate winner of the election. Only a handful of House Republicans, notably Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois; Peter Meijer, of Michigan; and Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, seem likely to seize the opportunity—last week, after all, a majority of Republican House members voted to effectively disenfranchise the voters of Arizona and Pennsylvania. (Over the weekend, Meijer wrote of speaking to a colleague who said that he was objecting to the Electoral College tally only because he feared for the safety of his family.) But these are unpredictable days.
One way or another, it seems improbable that any trial in the Senate would begin before Trump leaves office. Even so, it would hardly be moot. In addition to removal from office, an available penalty after conviction is disqualification from holding federal office in the future; Trump could be barred from running in 2024. Again, a conviction would require a two-thirds majority of the Senate, which the Democrats don’t have. But the contours of the trial, and what might be revealed in the course of it, are not yet clear. There is much that we don’t know about what happened last week in Washington, and that we still need to know.