For Trump and the nation, a final test of accountability

No president has ever been impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours twice. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Barely 11 months after US President Donald Trump was acquitted in a momentous Senate trial, the nation now confronts the possibility of yet another impeachment battle in the twilight of his presidency, a final showdown that will test the boundaries of politics, accountability and the Constitution.

No president has ever been impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours twice. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was weighing bringing a new article of impeachment to the House floor as early as Monday (Jan 11) charging Mr Trump with "incitement of insurrection" for encouraging the mob that ransacked the Capitol to disrupt the solemn process finishing his own election defeat.

If Ms Pelosi proceeds, the House could approve the article in days, this time with the support of even some disaffected Republicans, sending it to the Senate for a new trial unlike any of the previous three in American history.

While it seemed unlikely that 17 Senate Republicans would join Democrats for the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction, the anger at Mr Trump was so palpable that party leaders said privately it was not out of the question.

The fresh bid to remove Mr Trump from office and strip him of his power without waiting until his term expires Jan 20 capped a traumatic week that rattled Washington more than any since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, as National Guard troops stood watch over the Capitol and downtown businesses remained boarded up.

Emotions were raw. The White House was in meltdown. The military was on edge. The Cabinet was in revolt. The Republican Party was in civil war. And the president was in hiding, stripped of his social media bullhorn, ostracised by his allies and at odds with almost everyone including his loyal vice-president.

The storming of the Capitol by Mr Trump's supporters that left five people dead, among them a police officer, transformed the politics of the city in ways that were still hard to measure.

A new impeachment would be more than a do-over of the drive that failed last year because this time the crime was not a phone call to a foreign leader captured on the dry pages of a transcript but the siege of American democracy played out live on television for all to see.

"Insurrectionists incited by Mr Trump attacked our nation's Capitol to stop Congress from accepting the Electoral College results," said Representative Ted Lieu of California, who began drafting the article of impeachment with Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island while sheltering during the Capitol takeover and was later joined by Mr Jamie Raskin of Maryland. "People died. We cannot just issue sternly worded press releases as a response. Unless Trump resigns, Congress must impeach to hold him accountable."

Yet the timing of such an effort, with just 11 days until Mr Trump is to leave office, scrambled the equation. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, indicated that under Senate rules a trial could not begin until Jan 19, the day before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, meaning the process would not advance quickly enough to avert any feared dangerous moves in Mr Trump's last days in power.

That raised the prospect of conducting a trial after Mr Trump vacates the White House, overshadowing the opening days of Mr Biden's administration at a time when he would like to turn the page and confront crises like the coronavirus pandemic, which has grown even deadlier while attention has focused on Washington's political wars. A nationally televised trial could dominate discussion and would prevent other business in the Senate.

"If the House does send articles of impeachment over, they really get the Biden administration off to a bad start," Senator Roy Blunt said in an interview Saturday. "Whether that's the first 10 days or the first 20 days of the Biden administration, it's certainly not how you'd want to start your presidency off."

Some of Mr Trump's critics argued that it would be important to hold a trial even if he is already out of power in order to bar him from ever seeking office again, a penalty envisioned by the Constitution - and perhaps more important, to render a verdict condemning his actions for the sake of history.

"We've never had to consider even the possibility of impeaching a president twice, or in the final days of his presidency," said Mr Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional scholar at the University of North Carolina who testified in Mr Trump's first impeachment and favours another trial. "But we've never had a president before who's encouraging sedition as Trump has done in his last few days in office."

Mr Trump has few defenders among Republican officeholders for exhorting the crowd before it marched on the Capitol and even some in the conservative news media turned on him, most notably The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which called his actions "impeachable" and urged him to resign.

Senator Patrick Toomey told Fox News on Saturday that "the president committed impeachable offences," joining at least three other Senate Republicans who have called on Mr Trump to resign, expressed openness to impeachment or voted for conviction last year.

But in the face of impeachment threats, some Republicans began taking up the fight against his opponents again. They may not like Mr Trump or believe it is politically viable to be seen as excusing his behaviour but many are still energised by battling his enemies on the left.

On Sean Hannity's Fox News programme Friday night, Senator Lindsey Graham, who was accosted by Mr Trump supporters at an airport for opposing the president's efforts to overturn the election, was suddenly back to castigating Mr Trump's rivals and talking about Mr Hunter Biden.

Mr Graham focused on Mr Trump's video message Thursday calling for healing and reconciliation, a video the president privately expressed regret for making. "Instead of trying to match what President Trump has done, the radical Democrats are talking about another impeachment that will destroy the country even further," Mr Graham said.

Still, Mr Trump might have a challenge finding lawyers to defend him in any trial. Mr Jay Sekulow, who was a leader of the defence team in the impeachment trial last year, called the idea of a second impeachment a "gigantic mistake" by Democrats during a radio show, but has not participated in Mr Trump's legal efforts to overturn Mr Biden's election and did not respond to a message asking if he would represent the president again.

Mr Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel who teamed up with Mr Sekulow, has been so upset about the Capitol attack that he has considered resigning.

One of the few members of his defence team who said he would stick with the president was Professor Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School emeritus professor who had a secondary role last time. In an email Saturday, he said he would defend Mr Trump on free expression grounds.

"Trump's speech, whatever one may think of it on the merits, is clearly protected by the First Amendment," he said. "To impeach him for a constitutionally protected speech would violate both the First Amendment and the constitutional criteria for impeachment and would do enduring damage to the Constitution."

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