Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the Senate should convict former President Donald Trump. You can read a counterpoint here, where Scott Gerber, a law professor at Ohio Northern University, argues that the Senate should not convict the former president.
Former President Donald Trump is a figure out of a Shakespearean tragedy like Macbeth or King Lear. He did some tremendously excellent things like: 1) cutting taxes; 2) appointing superb judges; 3) starting the Space Force; 4) rebuilding our military; 5) improving the foreign policy situation greatly in the Middle East and 6) keeping us out of new wars.
The things Trump did were generally excellent, but the words that came out of his mouth were sometimes horrid. The presidency is, as Teddy Roosevelt said, a “Bully Pulpit”, and so, unfortunately for Trump, he must be judged by what he said as well as by what he did. I am not at all “a Never Trumper,” but the former president said some things that no American president should ever say or think.
It is not acceptable for the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces to call dead U.S. soldiers buried in Europe “suckers” and “losers” while refusing to visit their graves. It is not acceptable for the president of the United States to say that white supremacists are on an equal footing with civil rights groups. It is not acceptable for the president of a country where 12% of the population is partly of African origin to call all African nations “shit-hole countries.” It was not acceptable, as I wrote in August 2020 in an op-ed, for the president to muse about changing the date of the Nov. 3 election, or to refuse to commit to leaving the White House peacefully on Jan. 20 if he lost the election. And, it is not acceptable for the president of the United States to claim for two months and seventeen days that he won a presidential election that sixty federal and state judges, many of them appointed by Trump, say he lost.
It is also not acceptable for the President to call on a group mostly of good people, but also of some wicked white supremacists, to descend on Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. The only thing that should have happened that day was the ceremonial counting, in the Congress of the United States, of the States’ Electoral College votes, by Trump’s own impeccably loyal Vice President Mike Pence.
Instead, the speech that President Trump gave to the crowd at the Ellipse led to a riot on Capitol Hill that led to five Americans dying, and crowds of people shouting “Hang Mike Pence!” It forced U.S. Senators and Representatives to go into hiding, some of them fearing, justifiably, for their lives, and it led to the destruction of federal property on the Senate and House floor.
For the first time in 231 years of American democratic history, we did not have a peaceful transition of power after a presidential election. (Even in 1861, blood did not spill before the inauguration.) This is an inexcusable stain on our nations’ history. It does not matter whether Trump intended to cause a riot on Capital Hill or whether his words violated a criminal law. What matters is that Trump set on fire what turned into a mob of people chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and terrifying Members of Congress. He besmirched our national reputation.
The United States of America is the world’s oldest democracy and by a large margin. U.S. democracy dates back to 1789, under the Constitution, and, to 1776, when the thirteen original states all formed democratic governments after the Declaration of Independence. France is the world’s second oldest democracy dating back to 1870, and the United Kingdom became the world’s third oldest democracy in 1911 when the House of Lords’ veto over legislation was eliminated.
Canada and Australia became democracies free of the British Empire in 1931. Germany, Italy, Japan and India all became democracies only after 1945 and World War II. In part because of our example, and because of President Ronald Reagan’s hard work in winning the Cold War, democracy has spread since 1980 to Eastern Europe, to Latin America, to South Africa, to South Korea, to the Philippines and to Indonesia.
The United States is truly a “Shining City on a Hill,” as President Reagan always called it. We are a “Beacon of Liberty” to the whole world because for 231 years, we always had peaceful transfers of power based on state certified election results with the sole exception of the Civil War. On Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump besmirched our 231-year-old reputation to such a degree that his behavior must be called out as unconstitutional and wrong.
Whether or not Trump’s words were a violation of the criminal law, they fall squarely within the Framers’ definition of “a High Crime and Misdemeanor.” Impeachable offenses are crimes of state, which damage the Constitution. And that is what Donald Trump did with the “Bully Pulpit” of the Presidency.
One way to censure Trump was for the House of Representatives to call his behavior a “High Crime and Misdemeanor,” making Trump the only president to be impeached twice, in American history. Another way to censure Trump is for the Senate to try him as it has now voted 55 to 45 even though he has left office. Impeachment and the humiliation of a Senate trial can undo the damage to the nation’s reputation that has been done.
I do not want to see Donald Trump go to jail or be criminally prosecuted, fined or imprisoned. I published a 70 page co-authored law review article in the Notre Dame Law Review explaining why the Robert Muller investigation was unconstitutional, and I still think it was. I think the criminalization of politics kills democracies, which is yet another reason Trump should be allowed to retire in peace.
I am also an ardent Republican who maxed out campaign contributions to Senate Republicans running in: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina and both races in Georgia. I am not a Republican in name only.
But, I do want to stop foul language from further poisoning our politics. And, I want us to reassert, as a nation that we are still “a Shining City on a Hill” committed to the non-violent transfer of power, which actually occurred at noon on Jan. 20. Presidents should do what Donald Trump actually did on Jan. 20, which was to peacefully transfer power, and they should never say the things Trump said on Jan. 6.
Steve Calabresi is a Northwestern Law Professor and former Reagan Administration political appointee.