Opinion

The Democrats' false choice on impeachment

How Democrats can hold a Trump trial and deal with COVID-19

Democrats don't have to choose between the nation's figurative and literal health.

One of the major obstacles to a second impeachment of President Trump is the fear that a post-inauguration trial in the Senate over his incitement of the Capitol riot, which left five people dead, will hold up efforts to pass additional COVID-related relief and to fix the country's calamitous vaccine rollout. These concerns, however, are mostly unfounded. Instead of allowing procedural rules to stand in the way of a swift trial of the dangerous outgoing president, Democrats must simply vote to change those rules to allow themselves to address our multiple crises at once.

The encore impeachment of President Trump has already set off a variety of intraparty battles. One is whether to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate while Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell still controls the chamber. Despite his brief cameo as a responsible person just before the insurrection, when he dressed down colleagues planning to protest the certification of Electoral Votes, McConnell has said the Senate, which is recessed, would not take up impeachment prior to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Control of the Senate won't flip to the Democrats until the two incoming Georgia Democrats are sworn in, which might not happen until as late as Jan. 22.

This all poses a strategic dilemma for Democrats. Impeachment now, trial later? Do it all at once? Call the whole thing off? The Nation's Joan Walsh worries that "Impeachment could bottle up President Joe Biden's agenda," and recommends holding the articles of impeachment in the House until the Senate is ready. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) has suggested House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold onto to the articles throughout the mythical "first 100 days" of Biden's presidency. Strategists fret not just about the pandemic but also about finding the time to confirm the members of Biden's Cabinet.

The fiercest opponent of forwarding articles of impeachment while McConnell still runs the show is ex-Daily Kos writer Armando Llorens, who fears that McConnell will "hold a pro forma trial on the 21st and acquit Trump on the 22nd." Llorens recommends that Pelosi hold the articles until Ossoff and Warnock are sworn in and new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can refer the articles to an "impeachment committee," which can then carefully collect the needed evidence without interfering with urgent recovery and confirmation efforts. He proposes this bit of arcane procedure because the Senate's decades-old impeachment rules require a six-day a week trial, with no other business permitted once it gets underway.

This is where the fears of torpedoing the early days of the Biden administration come in. The new president will not be taking office under ordinary circumstances, but instead in the midst of a historic, interrelated public health and economic crisis. Biden and his team really only have one chance to get this right, and whether or not they are able to deliver on their relief and vaccine timelines, apart from the enormous human consequences of failure, may very well determine how competitive Democrats will be in the 2022 midterms.

The stakes could not be higher. Just as they did in 2008, the Republican Party has chugged all the mini-fridge booze, broken all the furniture, and destroyed the carpets in the national hotel room, leaving the whole ugly mess for Democrats to soberly clean up. The economy shed 140,000 jobs in December as the COVID recovery collided with a vicious new surge in the virus. Hunger and homelessness are surging just as the most brutal part of the winter slams the country.

The worst is yet to come. The U.S. topped 4,000 daily deaths and 300,000 cases for the first time over the past week, seven-day averages continue to rise, and hospitalizations are at a new and disturbing high. Yet President Trump stopped paying attention months ago, and his administration comprehensively failed to create a unified plan to distribute the miracle vaccine developed in record time by heroic scientists around the world. Despite promises that 20 million doses would be administered by the end of 2020, we are still only at about seven million nearly halfway through the first month of 2021. Tens of thousands will die needlessly as a result of the Trump administration's newest demonstration of incompetence.

This would be an enormously challenging situation for an incoming president to inherit even if it were not accompanied by a rolling crisis of democracy. On the merits, President Trump either has to go now, or he must be convicted by the Senate once he leaves office. His rhetoric led directly to the worst attack on the Capitol in over 200 year, leaving our elected officials defenseless and at the mercy of conspiracy-addled maniacs. It is not even entirely clear who is giving orders as the president right now, a situation that should be unacceptable even to the most hardened Republican.

If only it were that simple. Few have any confidence that enough Republicans will join Senate Democrats to meet the two-thirds threshold for conviction. But very few responsible observers believe the Democrats can heed the GOP's bad-faith calls for unity and healing and just let the whole thing go once Biden is inaugurated. As they did with the first impeachment trial just over a year ago, the party must take a stand for the integrity of democracy, even if their efforts may not succeed in banishing the president from office forever.

But party leaders also mustn't allow themselves to be hamstrung by Senate rules written long ago. Those rules are very much not in the Constitution, which unequivocally allows both chambers of Congress to set their own rules. They can be changed with a simple majority — for example, to allow an impeachment trial to be conducted at whatever pace the majority wishes. Let's say two half-days a week until it's over, leaving plenty of time and floor space to tackle the many other pressing issues facing Americans while also not letting go of the urgency of bringing to justice the turncoat in the Oval Office.

Handing the articles of impeachment off to a Senate committee, however well-intentioned as a solution to this procedural problem, will likely run headlong into the infamously short political memories of the American people. The trial must happen now, while the outrage is still fresh, especially since the president and his fellow insurrectionists are plotting further violence across the country. This simply cannot wait 100 days.

Democrats can make this rules change with a simple majority, just as Republicans did to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017, while still putting off the debate over the fate of the legislative filibuster for another day. The process is a bit arcane, but not terribly complicated. The challenge for Schumer would be convincing leading party moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to play this kind of constitutional hardball.

Sooner or later, Democrats are going to need to get comfortable with a bit of procedural escalation, unless they want to hand power right back to an increasingly unhinged and venomous GOP in two years.

Get on with it.

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