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A Heinous Day in American History

The contradictions of the Trump years boiled over in fatal crescendo at the Capitol on Wednesday.
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Joe Biden has been elected the president of the United States, the Congress has certified the Electoral College results, and President Trump, while rejecting the validity of the process, accepted that this will come to pass early Thursday morning.

Through his social media aide and longtime consigliere Daniel Scavino, Trump, whose long-favored account on Twitter was suspended on Wednesday, issued a statement. “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th,” the president said. “I have always said we would continue our fight to ensure that only legal votes were counted. While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again!”

That’s the easy part, at least relatively. 

The hard part now will be for a country, and indeed for a conservative movement and Republican Party that largely backed President Trump, to put the pieces back together and move forward with American life. Rioters, the type that have been increasingly indulged in the United States since last summer, broke into the Capitol midday Wednesday, desecrating a temple of the most significant democracy in human history. The images of star-spangled anarchists in warpaint, camouflage and even Viking hats, could be called opera-bouffe, except all humor stopped with the apparent deaths of at least four people, according to authorities.

There are a few, immediate implications to a horrid sequence of recent events.

First, the impeachment or sidelining of the president of the United States, who has only thirteen days left in his term, is very much a live issue. House members, doubtless emotional from the day’s events, called for a second impeachment of President Trump on Wednesday. They have been joined by prominent neocon writers such as Bret Stephens in the New York Times, and David Frum in The Atlantic

In a presidency that has often defined by hysteria, frustration with President Trump appears to have reached an authentic, clear and bipartisan boiling point, as a result of his recent conduct: that is, errantly and incoherently questioning the recent election results, and with his ragtag political entourage, encouraging supporters, some who tragically later became violent, to move toward the Capitol on Wednesday. The Democrats control the House, the Republicans just relinquished two Senate seats, and Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican who has voted to remove  Trump from before, chided Trump as a “selfish man” who “incited” an “insurrection” on the floor of the Senate. Trump is politically encircled.

Second, the invocation of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is no longer the stuff purely of liberal fanfiction: that is, the sidelining of President Trump on the basis of incapacitation, and the naming of Mike Pence the acting president, by a vote of the Cabinet. I can confirm that such preliminary discussions have occurred in the Executive Branch. 

Legal murkiness reigns. Of particular interest is an order given by Vice President Pence to Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Wednesday, to dispatch the National Guard. Pence is not “vice” Commander-in-Chief; the legalities here are ambiguous, but he does not appear to have any such authority. The most relevant precedent is when Vice President Dick Cheney gave a shootdown order of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001; many historians record that he did not consult President George W. Bush. 

That there is reporting that President Trump initially opposed the Guard deployment, then removed himself from the decision-making process, lends fodder to conjecture that Pence is already effectively operating in an acting, presidential capacity, in anticipation of a Cabinet vote. We don’t know. 

Third, and related, the president is threatened with mass resignations. The former White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, resigned from his post as special envoy to Northern Ireland on Thursday, saying, “I can’t stay here.” The first lady’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, who previously served as White House press secretary, has also departed government. I can confirm that Robert C. O’Brien, the national security advisor, and his top lieutenant, Matt Pottinger, a China expert who sounded early alarm bells in 2020 over the Coronavirus, are also weighing resignations. 

O’Brien, one of the most senior officials in the government, but who lacks Cabinet status, signaled his support for Vice President Pence on Wednesday, before the Electoral College certification was complete. “I have spoken with members of the Senate.  They want to return to America’s Senate chamber and conduct the people’s business. This desire is in the finest tradition of our Republic. God bless the Congress,” O’Brien said on Twitter.

Zooming out, there are profound lessons here on how not to run a government, and how not to raise concerns about voter fraud after an election. 

It was emblematic that one of the first officials to call for Trump’s ouster on Wednesday, was a State Department official with the Iran portfolio. Gabriel Noronha said that Trump “needs to go.” Noronha has served in Mike Pompeo’s State Department, which has pursued a hard line on Iran with fanaticism. Trump, who campaigned on extricating the U.S. from needless conflict, has gone along with the course without objection. From the staffers who execute said course, day in and day out, it earned Trump nothing.

And the events on Wednesday were also a loss for the cadre of Republican senators and would-be presidents who vaingloriously challenged the election results until the eleventh hour. “No, I don’t think so. I think there’s no votes for that, I mean, at all,” Sen. Josh Hawley told the New York Post on Wednesday before the tumult. Hawley nonetheless led the charge on opposing the certification. Hawley is going to get beat up, badly, in the coming days, as he was pictured supporting the protestors ahead of Wednesday’s bloodshed. At the very least, this has been a lesson to all about picking battles, before a literal one breaks out in the Capitol. 

And for what?



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