The former argument conveniently ignores the very real issue of Trump’s culpability for a historic and ugly scene in American history. But the latter ignores plenty of history and the realities of modern-day presidential power.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of impeachment at this stage, the fact remains that Trump has enough time and power to do plenty in the final week-plus of his presidency — including plenty that could both be self-serving and rock American government.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offered perhaps the most Pollyannaish take on all of this Sunday, suggesting Trump will back down after last week.
“The president touched the hot stone on Wednesday and is unlikely to touch it again,” he assured.
If that rings a bell, it’s because it echoes what plenty of Republicans who voted against removing Trump said about a year ago, assuring Trump had been chastened by the impeachment process.
“I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in defending her vote against removal. She added: “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said that the process had taught Trump that “he needs to go through the proper channels.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, “I would think you would think twice before you did it again.”
When Alexander made that comment, he was quickly challenged by NBC News host Chuck Todd. “What example in the life of Donald Trump has [shown that] he [has] been chastened?” Todd asked. Alexander conceded: “I haven’t studied his life that close.”
Nor have these senators studied his tenure that close, it seems.
The fact remains that Trump can do a lot in his final days in office.
Most notable among them is inciting further unrest. Trump has repeatedly and frequently toyed with promoting violence among his supporters, often obliquely but very suggestively. None of it seems to have dissuaded him and his allies from promoting the idea that the election was stolen and encouraging supporters to descend upon the Capitol on Wednesday. Trump also endorsed a speech earlier Wednesday from his lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in which Giuliani had promoted the idea of a “trial by combat.”
Trump has seen his favored mode of communication and rallying the base cut off, thanks to Twitter’s decision to suspend his account. But the presidency was known as the “bully pulpit” long before the advent of social media. Trump has shown little desire to use other means to make his voice heard, virtually disappearing from public view over the past two months, but attention is available to him at the drop of the hat.
And notably, the White House this weekend announced an event in Alamo, Tex., to promote the building of the border wall. Alamo is not the location of the actual Alamo, the site of a historic and defiant though ultimately unsuccessful stand in which all those involved died, but it is named after it. And it’s difficult to believe a decision to hold an event there was made without at least considering those optics. Those around Trump have long dismissed the worst suspicions about his provocations, but this event certainly has the potential to provoke.
That’s also the case with President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, where Trump’s supporters could decide to make what would truly be a last stand shortly before Trump’s replacement — whose elevation Trump has repeatedly said must not be accepted and whose victory Trump still hasn’t conceded — completely closes the books on his presidency.
Another possibility that can’t be dismissed is Trump using his official presidential prerogatives to do something truly drastic to try to retain his hold on presidential power. Some allies, including Trump-pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have floated the idea of Trump declaring Martial Law.
On the eve of Wednesday’s scenes, The Washington Post reported that Pentagon leaders took this possibility seriously and sent word that the National Guard wouldn’t be armed or be equipped to carry out the kind of more drastic measures used to quell demonstrations this summer during racial justice protests.
Trump could also do something to insulate his supporters and even himself from liability for the scenes of this week and recent months, via his pardon authority.
Trump’s ability to pardon himself and his family members is disputed, but leaving him in office would allow him to attempt something that hasn’t been done before. And given he has shown little compunction about politically oriented pardons, including just a few weeks ago, leaving him in office would seem to invite more.
Trump can only pardon federal crimes. That’s worth noting when it comes to his personal fortunes, given he’s under scrutiny by state and local officials in New York. But when it comes to what happened at the Capitol last week, his pardon power is broad, given that crimes in the District of Columbia and at the Capitol are under federal jurisdiction.
It seems unthinkable that Trump would pardon those involved, particularly since it resulted in the death of a Capitol police officer. But Trump has also pitched the effort to resist the election results as being about something much bigger: averting disaster and maintaining our republic. He had also reportedly expressed regret about denouncing those who took part in the attempted insurrection and committing to a peaceful transition of power. Given those stakes — if he truly believes those are the stakes — what can possibly be ruled out?
And that’s basically the point for Republicans. Throughout Trump’s presidency, they have strained to see the best in his intentions. He gave them plenty of reason to look elsewhere, most notably Supreme Court justices. But they have also repeatedly seen their best wishes about him thrown back in their faces, as best exemplified by what they said after his first impeachment compared with what happened last week.
It’s quite possible that leaving him in office will go just fine. There are just nine days left, and he’s been relatively reluctant to emerge publicly beyond his (now-defunct) Twitter feed since Election Day. Perhaps he truly worries about his legacy being tied to trying to overthrow a duly-elected American president and (more likely) the extremely drastic means it would now require to do so.
But given the precedent, Republicans are placing a very big bet that it won’t come to that.
And in case it’s not evident how much they’re hoping it won’t, look at Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). He told The Post’s Joshua Dawsey on Monday that he’s urging Trump to spend his final days in office building up his own legacy — apparently rather than doing … something else.
Lindsey Graham spent four hours at the White House on Friday, trying to encourage the president to participate in events this week that focus on his policy agenda, he says. "It's one day at a time," he says. "We need to get through the next nine days and transition power."— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) January 11, 2021
“It’s one day at a time,” Graham said. “We need to get through the next nine days and transition power.”
That’s not the kind of thing you say when you truly have faith that the next nine days will pass without incident.