Ever since Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, Americans have wondered to what depths he would sink in his efforts to overturn the results and cling to power.
On Wednesday, they got their answer: The president of the United States incited a mob of supporters and sicced them on the Capitol, just as Congress was about to count the states’ electoral votes and affirm Joe Biden’s victory. In the ensuing chaos, the hallowed chambers were desecrated, the ceremonial process was disrupted, one woman was fatally shot and three others died.
By egging on this deadly insurrection and hailing the rioters (“We love you, you’re very special.”), the president forfeited his moral authority to hold the nation’s highest office, even for 13 more days. More urgent, he reinforced profound questions, and raised new ones, about his judgment and ability to fulfill his most minimal responsibilities to the country he is supposed to lead and protect. Trump’s continuance in office poses unacceptable risks to America.
Orderly transfer of power
Foreign adversaries sense disarray and weakness. People close to Trump say his mental state is fragile. Even though he committed early Thursday to an orderly transfer of power, who knows what pardons he might grant, what orders he might issue as commander in chief and what other desperate measures he might take before Jan. 20?
Resignation would be the preferable means for Trump to depart; Richard Nixon quit when Republican elders told him the jig was up amid the Watergate scandal. But there is no reason to believe that Trump will leave voluntarily, even in response to entreaties from top aides and GOP lawmakers.
Shameful Republican support
This month, time is short, and Trump retains considerable support among congressional Republicans. Shamefully, even after Wednesday’s insurrection, 139 representatives and eight senators backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the will of the voters in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
That leaves the 25th Amendment, which sets out procedures for replacing an unfit president.
Invoking the 25th, a step urged Thursday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others, is neither easy nor ideal. It requires the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to certify that the president is unable to discharge his duties. If that happened, Trump would immediately be stripped of his powers and Vice President Mike Pence would become the acting president. Trump would likely challenge the move, and some significant portion of the 74 million who voted for him would cry “coup!” This could pour fuel on an already volatile situation.
Nevertheless, the question is one of relative risks, and leaving an unpunished Trump in office is the greater threat. Trump appears mentally incapacitated — living in a fantasy world of voting fraud, unable to accept being labeled a loser, checking out of his job even as thousands of Americans are dying every day from the raging coronavirus.
Mike Pence must choose
Pence, after spending years in obsequious obedience to Trump, displayed his fealty to the rule of law on Wednesday when he presided over the counting of electoral votes in the Senate. Forced to choose, he infuriated the president by putting the Constitution ahead of Trump’s delusional plot to overturn the election.
Pence would represent a temporary guardrail for democracy — a needed return to sanity and decency in the White House until Joe Biden assumes office at noon ET on Jan. 20. Now is the time for the vice president and members of the Cabinet to prove they are patriots.