With the Senate turning toward impeachment, Democrats are united on convicting ex-President Donald Trump while Republicans are more divided. On Monday, The Federalist Political Editor John Davidson wrote an article saying conservatives should stop trying to justify the impeachment. Davidson is correct that the effort is unlikely to succeed.
But that does not mean that we should lump in this impeachment with the last one. Both were led by Democrats, but the offenses of which Trump is accused this time are more credible and more serious than before.
Some Democrats may be acting on partisan hatred, but that does not mean Republicans have to do the same. Conservatives who wish to honor and safeguard our laws and traditions should not instantly dismiss the events of the past few months, including Trump’s role in stirring up conspiracy theorists and rioters at the Capitol.
The First Impeachment Was Bogus
The events that led to Trump’s first impeachment feel like they happened a lifetime ago, but it was the culmination of a three-year effort of the Democratic Party to find something to justify impeaching him. They finally settled on a series of phone calls with Ukrainian officials in which, it was alleged, Trump tried to coerce them into providing dirt on his likely opponent in the 2020 election, Joe Biden.
Federalist Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway called the effort the “weakest impeachment case in U.S. history.” That remains true. The impeachment articles passed the House without a single Republican vote, and even a few Democrats dissented. It was a pointless charade in which the Democrats named the criminal and went looking for the crime. They settled on the Ukraine business and Hunter Biden’s no-work job, but if Trump had never disturbed Hunter’s scheme, they would have likely settled on some other alleged “abuse of power.”
All but one of the Republicans in the Senate rejected that first impeachment, and they were right to do so. It was lacking in substance, serving only as an expression of rage to placate their donors and online radicals, not the average American. Indeed, if we had been able to talk of anything besides COVID-19 in 2020, the first impeachment might have come back to haunt Trump’s opponents.
This One Is Not That Spurious
If all the Democrats wanted was to be rid of Trump, the November election would have been enough. They made their point at the voting booth yet still felt the need to reprise an old tune—this time with a few Republicans in the House joining them. Why? Because this is more than the same old partisan song. The second verse isn’t the same as the first: the cries are louder because the offense is worse.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Democrats and their allies in the media trolled the president by asking him if he would leave the White House peacefully if he lost. It seemed like a silly question at the time, but in the event, he was less than accepting of his electoral defeat.
It is reasonable to count all the votes, and doing that in 2020 was always going to take a while. And no one is saying the president should have conceded instantly — after all, the last Democrat to concede the presidency on election night was Michael Dukakis. There is nothing wrong with being cautious.
But when “count every vote” turns into “believe everything you read on the internet,” Trump’s behavior started to turn away from the norm in an alarming fashion.
“The words of a President have an enormous weight,” Calvin Coolidge said, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” We have needed that advice often since Coolidge’s day, but never more than in the months after Trump lost re-election. He chose to take comfort in conspiracy theories, pushing legal arguments with no evidence, had them argued by an incompetent legal team, and refused to admit when they failed. That is no crime, but it should be deeply troubling, especially to conservatives who believe in the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power.
A Moral Standard
If that had been all he did, Trump would still probably not deserve impeachment. Talk is cheap and tweets are even cheaper. All of us who spent four years not taking him literally could have continued to do so. It’s no worse than what Democrats do when they lose, right? Stacey Abrams never conceded, why should Trump?
But then came the riots. It was bad enough that the president’s misrepresentation of the election results had encouraged a mob to assemble in D.C. to protest the pro forma process of counting the electoral votes.
It was bad enough that members of Congress latched on to crackpot theories about the vice president having complete discretion to disregard votes certified by the states — something that, if it were true, would probably have kept Trump out of the White House in 2016. And it was bad enough that members of Congress were going to object to validly cast electoral votes, imitating the absurd charade that Democrats first acted out in 2004.
But worse than all of that, and more attributable to the president directly, was Trump’s decision on Jan. 6 to egg on the crowd.
Yes, Trump explicitly called for calm and did so more than once in that rambling, hour-long speech. But he also told the crowd that a fraud was being perpetrated just up the street in the Capitol. It was “the most corrupt election in the history, maybe of the world,” he said. “This is not just a matter of domestic politics, this is a matter of national security.” And “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
You could never prove the crime of incitement to riot with those words. It is not easy to lock someone up for that offense, and that is a good thing: too loose a definition for it would lead to too many people being jailed just for speaking their minds.
Trump should not be arrested or charged for this speech, nor should anyone. To say such things to an angry crowd may not constitute intentional incitement, but does show a depraved indifference to the rule of law and the fate of the republic.
If Barack Obama or Bill Clinton had behaved this way, conservatives would have howled in indignation and would have been right to do so. That is not a legal standard nor is it meant to be. Impeachment should not be partisan, but it has always been political. A senator’s duty here is to ask: was this right? Was it good? Is this the way a president should act?
Conservatives Should Not Emulate Leftists
People will say that this late impeachment shows disrespect to Trump’s voters, or disdain for the ideas that separate him from the old GOP establishment. Hardly.
What is disrespectful? When a president who has been elected and sustained in office by people who revere this country’s laws and traditions then spurns them and their ideals because he would rather live in a fantasy world where Lin Wood is a legal scholar and Rudy Giuliani can prove not only that multiple states violated election laws, but also that they did so in a way that could be identified and undone on a scale large enough to reverse the entire election.
Judge after judge has rejected suits to that effect — including many judges appointed by the president himself — but he still would not follow the overwhelming legal consensus and accept the results.
Davidson makes the point that “Vice President Kamala Harris raised funds to bail out BLM arsonists and looters in Minneapolis. Should Congress hold her responsible for widespread destruction in that city over the summer?” Yes!
People in high office used to know better than to encourage riots. Harris’s shift from locking up the parents of truant students to bailing out dangerous criminals was cynical and disturbing, suggesting she has no real principles and is willing to endanger this country and its citizens if it makes her popular with trendy radicals.
Plenty of politicians on the left have acted this way for a while now because no one has held them to account for their recklessness. Their transgressions and Trump’s are two sides of the same coin. The left may not care about the means to their end, but winning at all costs isn’t winning for a constitutional conservative.
The issues that brought Trump to office are still important. Jobs have still been shipped overseas. Cheap foreign goods made by Chinese slave labor are still being imported. Creeping woke ideology is still poisoning our discourse. The borders are still not secure. Regulation still strangles small businesses. Communities are still falling apart while the local institutions that once sustained them are pushed out by an inept, impersonal federal bureaucracy.
Trump’s actions only harmed the chance to fix these problems. His gross misconduct in the office of the presidency now taints all the good work he has done.
Democrats are mad at Trump, but then again, they’ve been mad since he came down the escalator. Some Republicans are now just as mad, and they should be. They have been betrayed. The voters have been betrayed. And the republic has been betrayed. Not for money, not even for power, but for Donald Trump’s ego.
‘Public Office Is a Public Trust’
We have come to expect very little from politicians in the way of public virtue. The other guys are immoral, so we must be immoral to match them. It is easy to be cynical. To be virtuous and to demand virtue from others is hard. It is a tiresome task and thankless, but it is one to which we must rededicate ourselves. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” John Adams said, “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Impeachment was always intended to extend beyond simple legality and into virtue. In “Federalist No. 65,” Alexander Hamilton explains:
[impeachment should apply to] those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.
Moreover, Hamilton and the other Founders understood that impeachment would be controversial and that people would choose sides based on their political allegiances, not necessarily on an objective analysis of the allegations. As Hamilton notes:
The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
Knowing this, they chose the Senate as the forum best equipped to judge such disputes, and it is hard to argue that a court or other tribunal would be better.
Echoing Hamilton’s sentiment from a century before, Grover Cleveland often said that “public office is a public trust.” We should continue to emphasize that aspect of public office today. The Constitution requires a deference for speech that makes intemperate harangues and conspiracy-mongering legal, but we must demand more from our presidents than minimal compliance with the law.
Trump has committed no crime, but his actions are a breach of the people’s trust Hamilton and the Founders believed was a sacred, special thing. Those conservatives who trusted him in the first place should be the most interested in righting the moral wrong.