Opinion

Take the 25th

Trump must be ousted. It's better if his own party does it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued an ultimatum to Vice President Mike Pence on Monday: Initiate a 25th Amendment process to relieve President Trump of power, or the House will vote to impeach. Pence seems unlikely to act, so the House will move forward with its new impeachment resolution in short order, and Trump could be impeached for a second time by mid-week. Then, we'll learn how far senators like Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) are willing to go in their opposition to the president's lies and abuses of power.

Impeachment is better than nothing — indeed, it has at least two advantages, which I'll discuss below, that a 25th Amendment removal cannot boast. But if I could choose between these two options for the consequences Trump will bear for his responsibility in the events at the Capitol last week, the 25th Amendment would be my pick. Unfortunately, the virtue of the choice is exactly why it's unlikely to come to pass.

My reasoning here is quite simple: Impeachment will be a Democratic-led affair; a 25th Amendment process would be the work of a Republican Cabinet.

For Trump loyalists committed enough to storm the Capitol or support those who did, that distinction will be irrelevant. One of the stories of the Georgia Senate runoffs was angry Trumpists declaring they wouldn't vote for the Republican candidates as a means of punishing the GOP for failing, in their view, to do right by Trump.

But for the millions of Americans whose loyalty to the Republican Party is more durable than their loyalty to Trump personally — those who were Republicans before he ever rode down the golden escalator and will remain Republicans long after he is gone from politics — the means of Trump's loss of power probably does matter.

These are people whose support for Trump is predicated on his partisan identity, people who would have voted for any of the Republican candidates of 2016 had they won the primary. These voters are also almost certainly negative partisans, which is to say some significant portion of their identity as Republicans is about opposition to Democrats. It also means that while Trump is the leader of the not-Democrats, they're in his camp. They likely aren't happy about the Capitol riot, but if Democrats orchestrate an end-game impeachment, that partisan instinct will raise their Republican hackles. The mindset, to paraphrase a quote somewhat dubiously attributed to FDR, will be, "Sure, he's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

That's why it makes a difference if the means of removal comes from "us" or "them," and impeachment comes from "them." But if Pence and the Trump administration Cabinet — all Trump's own appointees, fellow Republicans who have worked with him personally to advance his policy goals — are the ones who say Trump has to go, my suspicion is that many of the Republican voters I'm describing will be able to accept that call.

They might not accept it immediately. But as time goes on, and a post-presidency Trump says crazier and crazier stuff without the constraints of Twitter rules or White House legal advisers, a Republican-initiated 25th Amendment process will start to look pretty smart in retrospect. And this is cynical, but: It would also offer GOP candidates in the next few elections two paths for campaigning. For those in deep red districts where Trump remains popular, Republican politicians can continue to rage against the Washington establishment, citing Pence's takeover as proof that they must be elected to reform even their own party. For those in purpler areas, the process will be available as proof that the GOP has grown wiser and more accountable, that it knows how to clean house and learn from its own mistakes.

That self-interest angle should appeal to Pence himself, if he (along with Cabinet members who have not already resigned) wants a future in politics. The right campaign team could put a good spin on a record of being both a longstanding member of the Trump administration and an instrument of its demise. Unfortunately, this requires thinking beyond the immediate emotional reaction of the party base, a capacity lacking in this administration. (Pelosi's ultimatum, coming as it did from a Democratic leader, may have actually made Pence's accession less likely.)

So what if impeachment moves forward (as is now overwhelmingly anticipated)? Here we can return to those two advantages. The first is that, though unquestionably tainted by partisanship, impeachment would be a legislative rebuke of an executive run wild. This is always welcome, though I wish I dared to hope that impeaching Trump could form the basis of a renewed balance of power in Washington. (It won't.)

The second advantage is that the Constitution doesn't only give the Senate power to try impeachment cases and remove the impeached party from office. It also lets senators disqualify those they convict from "hold[ing] and enjoy[ing] any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States."

This late in Trump's term, with his final day in office just over a week away, removal is mostly a formality. Disqualification, on the other hand, would quash the possibility of a 2024 campaign. Trump's disqualification inevitably would be viewed as a sort of martyrdom among his loyalists, and the probable partisan split of the Senate's vote would push many Republicans into "he's our son of a bitch" mode. Still, disqualification could make it easier for the party to move on from Trump. It would give spineless Republican hacks an unassailable excuse for going a new direction.

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