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If Biden doesn’t resign — which he won’t — where does GOP rhetoric go from here?

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) holds an ‘Impeach Biden’ sign before former president Donald Trump participates in a rally in Cullman, Ala., on Aug. 21. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

From a technical standpoint, the first time that Donald Trump faced an impeachment effort came in May 2017. Then, Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) demanded that the House of Representatives charge Trump with obstruction of justice related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The immediate predicate for Green’s call was the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey early that month. But over the course of the year, the impeachment articles expanded to include a broad range of actions by the then-president, constituting a set of “high misdemeanors.”

That December, the House voted on Green’s aggregated charges. It was tabled by a 364-to-58 vote. More than twice as many Democrats voted against the measure as voted for it. But it was doomed anyway; Republicans had control of the chamber, and they weren’t likely to acquiesce to an impeachment effort, no matter how robust. When Green tried again in 2018, the outcome was the same.

Trump eventually was impeached in 2019, after Democrats retook the House and after Trump leveraged federal resources in an effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into Joe Biden’s son before the 2020 election. Hoping to dismiss the impeachment as political, Republicans pointed to efforts like Green’s — and, frequently, to a Washington Post article from the day of Trump’s inauguration about external efforts to launch an impeachment probe — as evidence that Democrats were simply out to get Trump.

The impeachment effort, many claimed, was just a continuation of the Russia investigation itself, an attempt to undo what the electoral college made possible: a Trump presidency.

The two-thirds requirement in the Senate for convicting Trump meant that there was little chance he would actually be removed from office, and he wasn’t. But there was a warning that accompanied the Republican response to the impeachment: Do it to us, and we’ll do it to you.

Even before Biden’s inauguration, even before Trump’s second impeachment after the events of Jan. 6, there were rumblings about impeaching Biden. A Facebook group dedicated to the idea was created three days after the election. A week prior, Fox personality Lisa Kennedy Montgomery warned that the bar for impeachment was so low that Biden might be impeached for allegations then being made by a former business partner of his son’s. (Those allegations fizzled.) In a column published in mid-December, conservative columnist Victor David Hanson argued that the president-elect should be wary.

“Should the Republicans hold the Senate and take the House in 2022, they could do what the Democrats did in 2020,” Hanson wrote. “But if they were to impeach Biden as a possible beneficiary of his family’s foreign influence-peddling, a Republican-controlled Senate might not so easily acquit him.”

Republicans lambasted President Biden over his handling of the Afghanistan crisis on Aug. 27, with some calling for his impeachment and removal from office. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

The idea was clearly interwoven into the response to the election. The Arizona Republic interviewed the owners of a store selling Trump merchandise on the day Biden’s election was confirmed. They had already made plans to convert the store to a resistance outlet, changing the focus of the slogans on their merchandise.

“Impeach Biden and all that,” one owner said. “You know, kind of turn the tables.”

It's hard to measure the extent to which views like this pervade the consciousness of a group, but it seems obvious that impeachment was seen by many as a sort of baseline.

This was the same conundrum that the Democrats faced after Jan. 6, in fact: They had already impeached Trump once, so now what? At the time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) picked up another theme that had often been flitting around near the fringe of the discourse: The Cabinet could remove Trump from office under the auspices of the 25th Amendment. To be clear, this wasn’t only sitting at the fringe; multiple reports suggested that administration officials had considered launching an effort to oust Trump using this mechanism. But Pelosi made it concrete, warning of impeachment if the Cabinet didn’t take that step. Again, Trump’s allies declined to acquiesce to the Democrats’ desire.

We’ve all experienced something like this in different contexts. I have two little kids, so I have more than once pledged some punishment should they misbehave only to see that benchmark quickly ignored. So now what? I think I have in the past insisted to my kids that they will never watch another movie if they misbehave, a threat that seems rather infeasible. But, luckily, I can be pretty confident the 4-year-old won’t remember the idleness of that threat.

Biden’s arrival, though, posed a different challenge for the condemnation wars. It wasn’t just that the baseline was impeachment. It’s that there was an ecosystem designed to reward the loudest and most exotic efforts to condemn Biden: the right-wing media universe. It’s as though every time I outdid myself with new punishment for the kids, I got $50 in my bank account. There is an incentive.

So by March 5, less than 50 days after Biden took office, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had filed an article of impeachment targeting Biden. Greene, though, was positioned much differently than Green — there’s something about that last name — given that she had a national platform derived from her fervent support for Trump and her background dabbling in conspiracy theories. This wasn’t a backbencher hoping to get a platform by announcing his action on Twitter. It was a backbencher who already had a platform moving forward with a near inevitability.

When the crisis in Afghanistan emerged, offering her party a useful focal point for attacking the Democratic president, Greene was already in the position in which Pelosi found herself in January. She had called for impeachment, so now what? The answer was more impeachment. Greene went ahead and filed three more articles, hyping the effort to every nearby microphone.

On Thursday, the situation in Kabul grew far more dire. A suicide bomber detonated an explosive in a crowd near a gate at the airport, killing more than a dozen U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians. Republicans wanted to express their frustration at Biden — but how? After months of deriding impeachment as tepid and political and in the wake of Greene’s various efforts, calling for impeachment wasn’t likely to attract much attention and that, for many, was one of the desired outcomes of weighing in at all.

Instead, there were numerous calls for Biden to resign. Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), who unexpectedly voted to impeach Trump in January, made such a demand in a statement. (Clearly, Rice is in part hoping to counter his anti-Trump heresy with a more dramatic demand of the Democratic president.) Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) — both familiar to Fox News viewers — have as well.

There are at least three factors at play here.

As above, one is simply that a demand for resignation is more dramatic than a call for impeachment. This happens a lot, in fact, at every level of government: Some politician, often a challenger to an incumbent, points to some act or decision as so dire that there is no option but to demand the official resign. The performative sobriety is central to the demand, of course. If you just casually say, hey, this guy should resign, it doesn’t have quite the same rumble on landing. That the demand was a product of sober reflection and represents an unavoidable, final demand? Well, that’s something! I regret to inform you, son, that after much reflection, I have decided that you will never be allowed to watch a movie again.

Another factor is the sense of immediacy. This was part of Pelosi’s rationale in January, arguing that Trump’s role in fomenting the riot at the Capitol demanded that he be ousted without hesitation. That implies its own sense of severity: We can’t wait for the process to unfold.

Then there’s the way in which the calls for resignation tie into another long-standing bit of anti-Biden rhetoric: that he is unfit for office. Well before the election, Fox News, conservative media and Republican officials were casting Biden as incapable of handling the rigors of the presidency, based largely on various verbal stumbles. The call for resignation, then, is not only about escalation, it’s also about again trying to cast doubt on Biden’s ability to be president overall. We gave you a shot, but now you’ve proved our point. That sort of thing.

It’s important to point out that lots of factors are involved in this moment. The criticism of and frustration at Biden is obviously often — usually — fully sincere. But it does overlap in many cases with a perceived opportunity to be the person taking the toughest line against the hated president. Hawley, for example, was the first senator to declare his intent to oppose the certification of Biden’s electoral-vote victory, a declaration that aged poorly. It’s not unfair to wonder if his call for resignation also includes a play for a few headlines.

On Thursday evening, reporters received a statement from another attention-focused legislator, freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.).

“Congressman Madison Cawthorn,” its headline read, “Formally Requests Cabinet Officials Invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.” A nonstarter of a demand — but one that differs from the rest of his party, offered with a sober and artificial formality. A very good example of the point.

The problem Republicans may soon face is the one Greene is dealing with in the moment: Now what? Where do you go from here? If a terrorist attack in Afghanistan warrants resignation or removal by impeachment or the Cabinet, what might some more significant situation demand? There’s no obvious way to descend from this position, barring an actual resignation, which won’t happen, or Republican views of Biden softening, which also won’t happen. So is this just the temperature at which we’ll operate forever, a political boil that never spills over?

On Friday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered another path forward. He was asked if he agreed that Biden should resign or be impeached.

“Look, I’m extremely frustrated with this president,” McCarthy replied. He reiterated elements of his initial talking points about Biden having lost the confidence of the public.

“There will be a day of reckoning,” he continued. “Right now, in the next five days, everyone’s responsibility should only be focused on getting the Americans out. That is what we should focus on. When that day passes, we can take up anything to hold accountable” the administration for what it has done.

Pelosi-esque, in its way, keeping his powder dry until the moment showed itself and/or his party was back in power. But it also offers a rationale for turning down the heat however slightly: We’ll get to that.

It also gives the party overall a way to escalate its rhetoric in the future, should it wish to do so.

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