Azar was asked twice whether he felt Trump was able to discharge the duties of the presidency — the threshold for Cabinet members invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a president. Azar offered a general denunciation of the rhetoric that led to the scenes (without attaching it to Trump) and declined to talk about the 25th Amendment, citing a blanket policy against disclosing internal discussions.
Most telling, though, was what he also declined to say: that Trump is indeed capable of discharging the duties of his office. The question was posed twice, and one of Trump’s own Cabinet secretaries wouldn’t say that he was.
.@GStephanopoulos: Do you believe what the president did last week showed that he is able to discharge the duties of his office or not?— Good Morning America (@GMA) January 12, 2021
@SecAzar: The rhetoric last week was unacceptable. I’m not going to get into or discuss the 25th Amendment here. https://t.co/b6gXmsVgRW pic.twitter.com/UVYEQFPWYL
Trump has made allies such as Azar squirm plenty of times. Most times, they’ll decline to directly criticize the president. But just as important is how often they’ll decline to actually defend him. Saying a president can discharge the duties of his office is a very low bar, but Azar wasn’t even willing to say Trump clears it.
The noncommittal answer is a case-in-point for how gingerly Trump’s allies are confronting the situation since Wednesday’s siege. While they downplayed the severity of Trump’s actions both when it came to obstructing the Russia investigation and the Ukraine scandal that led to his impeachment, they’ve spent precious little time assuring that the president’s conduct in this case wasn’t awful.
Trump assured Tuesday that “people thought that what I said was totally appropriate,” but almost no Republicans are actually saying that.
Rather than saying impeachment isn’t warranted and engaging on the substance of it, in fact, they’ve instead pivoted to saying it would prevent the country from unifying (despite having failed to offer similar cautions about Trump trying to overturn an American election in the first place). While denouncing the rhetoric that preceded the siege, they’ve generally spoken about it in broad terms, declining to litigate how much blame Trump’s rhetoric, specifically, deserves or whether he’s actually guilty of incitement.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) was among the earliest proponents of the it’s-time-to-unify-instead argument, tweeting that those calling for impeachment “are themselves engaging in intemperate and inflammatory language and calling for action that is equally irresponsible and could well incite further violence.”
Those calling for impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment in response to President Trump’s rhetoric this week are themselves engaging in intemperate and inflammatory language and calling for action that is equally irresponsible and could well incite further violence.— Rep. Kevin Brady (@RepKevinBrady) January 10, 2021
Brady was castigated by the left for the tweet. But it includes a pretty notable implication: Trump himself was also engaging in such irresponsible rhetoric that might have incited violence. Brady, though, didn’t dwell upon that point.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reportedly told GOP colleagues Monday in a phone call that Trump bears some blame for what happened last week, but he has not said that publicly. And before the call, he sent a missive laying out several options — a censure resolution, a bipartisan commission, changes to election laws, and legislation to “promote voter confidence” in elections — without addressing Trump’s actions specifically.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has echoed the idea that there was irresponsible rhetoric but that impeachment and other punishments would be counterproductive. He said President-elect Joe “Biden has a historic opportunity to unify America behind the sentiment that our political divisions have gone too far.”
In a four-minute video posted to his Twitter account, Rubio stressed the need for accountability and figuring out how this happened.
“Now, how do we explain this? How could this happen here in America?” Rubio said. He blamed media bias, alleged social media censorship, and how state officials administered elections for fomenting a disbelief in the electoral process. He cited unnamed politicians who he said had lied to those disbelievers about potential remedies such as having Vice President Pence insert himself in the process. But he did nothing to address Trump’s role — either in defense of it or to rebuke it.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton when he was in the House, has also said impeachment would be counterproductive while declining to defend Trump. When asked last week about other methods for potentially removing Trump, he said of the 25th Amendment: “I do not believe that’s appropriate at this point,” but added later: “Now, if something else happens, all options would be on the table.”
The implication, as with Brady’s tweet, is that Trump did do something wrong in the first place and just that it shouldn’t be repeated. Whether that’s impeachable, there would seem to be a discussion worth having about just how wrong it was. Rubio says we need to get to the bottom of how this happened and has gently alluded to the kind of misinformation Trump has shared, but he instead focuses more specific blame on other entities such as the media.
With some notable exceptions, Republicans have steadfastly declined to litigate Trump’s role in any significant measure — either to criticize it or, as notably, to support it. And the thing is, impeachment is a divisive process. But that division must always be measured against the alleged bad deed involved and the need for accountability.
Rather than address that balancing act, though, Republicans are pretending one side of the scale isn’t worth weighing.