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Republicans claim that in the trial set to begin Tuesday, it is folly for the U.S. Senate to convict ex-president Donald Trump for inciting rioters, some of whom were armed and intended to kill elected officials, to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes. He’s out of office already, they say, rendering the matter moot and constitutionally suspect.
They’re wrong about the Constitution, but more importantly, they entirely miss the larger point of the impeachment power, which is not merely to discipline or remove a current office-holder but to send a clear signal of what executive behavior is illegitimate in a liberal democracy.
When the people of the 50 states vote to turn out a sitting president, and the votes are counted and recounted by state officials, and challenges alleging fraud are dismissed in the courts, it is fundamentally anti-democratic and destabilizing and dangerous for the incumbent to use his power to spread baseless lies, strong-arm officials to try to overturn tallies and then encourage a revolt against the will of the people.
If Trump is let off the hook simply because these egregious offenses happened to occur close to the end of his term — which by definition is the only time any attempt to override election results could ever occur — the republic has essentially no protection against the worst anti-democratic mischief.
In Federalist 65, Alexander Hamilton described the impeachment power this way: “The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, his use of an angry mob to try to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, injured society itself. Fail to state so clearly, and invite worse from future unravelers of our republic.