The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s impeachments don’t even reflect his worst offense

Twenty thousand chairs, each representing 10 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, are lined up on the Ellipse for the first National Covid-19 Remembrance, on Oct. 4, 2020, in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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President Trump will leave office next week having accomplished a previously unthinkable feat: two impeachments in a single term.

What’s even more remarkable, though, is that neither of Trump’s impeachments will have even touched on his most horrific crime against the country, the consequences of which are still compounding every day.

In a sense, Trump’s two impeachments, the one behind him and the one passed by the House on Wednesday, within 15 months of each other, serve to nicely encapsulate the damage he’s done as president —systematically decimating our credibility abroad, sowing division and chaos at home.

The first impeachment stemmed from his interfering with foreign aid to Ukraine in an attempt to hurt the Democratic candidate who would ultimately defeat him. It was — at least in my view — too narrow an indictment to warrant his removal from office, and the public never got terribly exercised about it.

The second charges Trump with a much clearer and more serious offense: inciting armed insurrection against the legislative branch.

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That borders on treason, and it makes the cases against Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — and Richard M. Nixon, who avoided impeachment only by resigning — look like traffic violations by comparison.

If Trump manages to again avoid conviction, it will only be because Republican senators are vying to be remembered as the least courageous group of lawmakers in American history.

But in terms of sheer impact, even this egregious offense — which took place in the halls of Congress, far from where Americans live — has managed to distract us from the mounting toll of Trump’s most cynical and ghoulish offense.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The virus that struck suddenly last spring would have challenged any president. But the most obvious responses necessary to defend the nation — the most basic measures that every expert recommended — were clear and cost-free.

Be honest with people. Ask them to take the simplest precautions. Tell states to treat the crisis seriously.

Had Trump done any of that for more than a day — had he simply exhorted his followers to wear masks and socially distance for a while, had he backed common-sense restrictions on public gatherings for just a few months — the nation would be in a very different place.

Instead, Trump decided in that moment that the virus could be used to gin up the one thing he needed in order to win reelection: a culture war. Ever the divider, he saw its potential as a giant wedge between urban and rural, between growing communities and those nursing grudges against modernity. Between his people and everyone else.

So Trump did something unconscionable. He denied the virus and mocked the masks. He encouraged every dim-bulbed, Trump-wannabe politician in statehouses around the country to defy the immovable laws of science.

He passed himself off as the chief defender of local economies — even though those economies were bound to be far more devastated in the end. He held himself out as a symbol of how easily one could recover from the virus — even though he benefited from a level of care and a drug regimen that were available to a select few.

Inevitably, the virus made its way to all the places Trump had rallied and mesmerized, ravaging all the little towns where supporting the president meant refusing to take even the most basic precautions.

For a while last month, the deep red Dakotas had become the world’s leader in per-capita deaths from covid-19. Not the country’s leader — the world’s.

Trump will leave office next week with more than 380,000 Americans dead from the virus. That’s about six times the number of American casualties in Vietnam.

We’ll never know how many of those relatives and friends would have died had Trump even tried to do the right thing. Probably it would have been more than the 60,000 deaths he himself predicted at his most sober, realistic moment.

But likely hundreds of thousands of dead Americans would still be alive, and millions of others wouldn’t be facing economic ruin.

This is not an impeachable offense. The Constitution affords Congress the right to act against “high crimes and misdemeanors.” There’s no law against being a bad president. It’s not a high crime to be a bad person.

But when future generations size up Trump’s impeachments, they will have to contend with the irony that as ignoble as his actions were, they shrink in comparison to the things he refused to do when duty and compassion compelled him to act.

Congress couldn’t hold Trump accountable for that. You can bet that history will.

Distrust in the Trump administration has turned into distrust of science, adding to an already powerful anti-vaccine movement. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP-Getty/The Washington Post)

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