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Demand Accountability for the Capitol Attack

The culture of impunity was a main cause of the Capitol riot. Don't let it continue for the riot's perpetrators, or those who egged them on.

The riotous attack on the Capitol last week was a terrible assault on our constitutional system of government. If it is not punished severely, it is likely that there will be further attempts to sabotage and wreck the republic in the coming years. There are few acts that demand political and legal accountability more than inciting a mob to storm the Capitol, and there is no denying that inciting the mob is what the president did. It remains to be seen if both houses of Congress can muster the will to hold the president and his allies accountable for what they did on January 6 and in the months leading up to that day. Failure to draw a line against such an egregious violation of the Constitution will invite more of the same behavior from other presidents in the future.

Washington has long had a political culture of impunity that permits the abuses and crimes of the powerful to go unpunished, and the lack of accountability for our many foreign policy failures is well-known. As a general rule, politicians are rarely held accountable for what they do, and presidents are even less likely to face consequences for their outrages. That habit of indulging elite failures and crimes has come back to bite the country with the president’s attack on Congress. Many of the president’s allies are already demanding that we forget about what just happened and “move forward.” That culture of impunity is one reason why the public’s trust in our political institutions is so low. Nothing will be fixed by letting the president off the hook now. On the contrary, there has to be accountability for the attack if we hope to revive and reform our democratic institutions.

The call to “look forward, not backward” has been the ready-made excuse that politicians have used to duck their responsibilities for decades. It is how the architects of the torture regime in the Bush years got away with their crimes, and it is how Trump and his allies are hoping to get away with theirs. Now we are hearing it again just days after the president goaded a crowd to seize control of our national legislature, and then the crowd threatened the lives of elected representatives.

Some of the same demagogues in Congress that stoked the fires with post-election lies about a supposedly stolen election are now suddenly shocked to be labeled as propagandists and arsonists. Sen. Ted Cruz feigned shock when the President-elect accused him of promoting a “Big Lie” about the election, but this was exactly what he had done. Cruz now says that we “must come together and put this anger and division behind us” when he has been one the chief authors of that anger and division. They plead for “unity” and “healing” in the hopes that people will forget their role in a coup attempt in which at least five people died. Some have even appealed to Biden to discourage impeachment proceedings out of “fidelity to the Constitution.” No one should listen to these people or take them seriously.

Fortunately, the public is demanding accountability right away. According to at least two surveys released in the last few days, most Americans fault the president for the Capitol attack. According to one poll, 56% want Trump removed from office before Biden’s inauguration. Even if this weren’t what most Americans support, it is what defending the Constitution and the rule of law requires.

If Congress will not remove a president from office after such an overt display of contempt for and hostility to the Constitution, there is no meaningful check on presidential abuse of power left. If this doesn’t constitute impeachable conduct, what would? Hoping that the vice president and Cabinet will swoop in like a deus ex machina by invoking the 25th Amendment is vain, especially when the officials in question are such abject presidential loyalists. Congress has the legitimate constitutional remedy for the president’s abuses and crimes, and it needs to use it. The longer that Congress delays in exercising its proper authority, the greater the chance that the president could abuse his authority in other ways by ordering unnecessary military action or pardoning more of his associates and supporters for their role in the attack.

Impeachment and removal are the appropriate responses to political crimes of this magnitude. Attacking another branch of government in an effort to disrupt the transfer of power is an obvious example of a political crime that qualifies as an impeachable act. It is important that Trump be made to answer for this not only to protect the country against him, but also to guard against future presidential excesses. Failing to punish attacks on the Constitution by the president amounts to another betrayal of the Constitution, because all members of Congress have sworn to defend it against all enemies. The president declared himself an enemy of the Constitution when he incited an attack on Congress. If Congress doesn’t fight back, it will be derelict in its duty.

One of the more absurd arguments against enforcing constitutional accountability is that it would be “divisive.” When a crime is committed and the culprit is identified, the only ones that find indictment and prosecution of the crime to be harmful are the criminals and their accomplices. Another objection is that removing Trump would somehow “strengthen” him, but that makes even less sense than calling it divisive. A second impeachment would be an unprecedented repudiation and humiliation, and removal would ensure that he could never hold federal office again. Removing the president would also show that the country flatly rejected his destructive attempt to overturn the election result. Failing to do so would leave the door open to a repeat attempt in the future. The best way to unite the country in the long term is to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution and to reject these attempts to subvert our republic.

Holding the president accountable for his outrageous abuses is not a panacea, but it does impose some real costs on him and his allies. It isn’t going to fix the rottenness in the Republican Party by itself, but it will force Republican members to go on record and take a public position on the president’s misconduct. If Senate Republicans wish to be perceived as something other than the president’s enablers and apologists, they have another opportunity to toss him out of office.

The president was already impeached once for abusing power and obstructing justice, but because his party shielded him in the Senate he was allowed to escape the consequences of his earlier wrongdoing. We have been paying the price for that error for the last year. Having failed to keep the president in check when they had the chance, the Senate has a special obligation to remove him from office after his thugs stormed the Senate chamber in an attempt to derail the transfer of power to a new administration.

The U.S. was humiliated last week in the eyes of the world by a lawless president. One of our main institutions came under attack with his explicit support, and the mob was chanting for the death of the vice president on his behalf. The president disgraced his office and proved beyond any doubt that he is unfit for that office or any other office of public trust.

The attack failed in its goal of sabotaging the transfer of power, but the attempt cannot go unanswered. We must also bear in mind the human cost of this disaster: five people are dead who would otherwise still be alive today, and dozens more have been injured. Many of those involved in the attack have already been charged for their illegal acts, and now it is time that the president face the consequences of what he has done.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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