If there is one thing Republicans in Congress ought to consider as they weigh the merits of impeaching Donald Trump, it is the story of the president’s relationship with Mike Pence.
In December 2015, then-Gov. Pence tweeted, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.” In April 2016, Tim Alberta reported that Pence “loathes Trump, according to longtime friends.” In July of the same year, Republican strategist Dan Senor tweeted, “It’s disorienting to have had commiserated w/someone re: Trump — about how he was unacceptable, & then to see that someone become Trump’s VP.”
You know what came next. Pence turned himself into the most unfailingly servile sidekick in vice-presidential history. He delivered the evangelical vote to Trump. He stood by the president at every low point, from the Access Hollywood tape to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Helsinki to the Ukraine call. He indulged Trump’s fantasies about a stolen election.
He betrayed his principles. He abased himself. Then Trump insisted that he steal the election. When Pence refused — he had no legal choice — Trump stirred the mob to go after him.
The Pence-Trump story is also the GOP-Trump story. It is a play in four acts: brief resistance, abject submission, complete complicity and now bitter regret.
Regarding regret: It isn’t just that Trump managed to lose the House, the presidency and the Senate for the party. Or that most if not all of Trump’s policy victories (as conservatives see them) will soon be erased by the new administration. Or that Trump transformed the GOP brand from one of law and order, of federalism and originalism, into one of incitement and riot, of cult of personality and usurpation of power.
It is that Trump turned against the Republican Party, a predictable move that somehow took the party by surprise. If the party doesn’t now turn against him, it will be tainted and crippled for years to come.
The moral case is clear. Trump has the blood of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick on his hands. Legal analysts can debate whether Trump’s speech met the Brandenburg test for incitement to violence, but it is irrelevant to an impeachment. Everyone except his most sophistical apologists agrees that Trump whipped up the mob.
If conservatives want to have a moral leg to stand on as they condemn a siege of a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, or a police station in Minneapolis, they have an obligation to impeach him now.
The institutional case is clear. The president attacked the states, in their right to set their own election procedures. He attacked the courts, state as well as federal, in their right to settle the election challenges brought before them. He attacked Congress, in its right to conduct orderly business free of fear. He attacked the vice president, in his obligation to fulfill his duties under the 12th Amendment. He attacked the American people, in their right to choose the electors who choose the president.
I’ve spent much of my life listening to conservatives extol the Madisonian system of checks and balances, not to mention the rule of law. If these conservatives want to have any claim to be the champions of republican government — as opposed to the “mobocratic spirit” that Lincoln warned against — they have an obligation to impeach Trump now.
The philosophical case is clear. Sen. Mitch McConnell was eloquent and right: “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost.”
Conservatives who like to see themselves as guardians of Christian ethics might remind themselves of a familiar admonition: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” If Republicans don’t want to see a future Democratic president attempt what Trump just did, they have an obligation to follow the Golden Rule and impeach him now.
And the political case is clear. Republicans in Congress spent four years prostrate to the lower mind. What, other than the judges who helped affirm the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, do they have to show for it? The president, whom they fear, despises them merely for failing to steal the election for him. They are verbally assaulted at airports by the same angry losers whose paranoid fantasies they did so much to stoke. And Republicans will continue to live in political fear of Trump if Congress doesn’t bar him from holding office ever again.
Now they have a chance to make a break — not clean, but at least constructive — with the proven loser in the White House. Not many Republicans deserve this shot at redemption, but they still ought to take it. The GOP came back after Watergate only after its party leaders — Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush, Barry Goldwater — broke unequivocally with Richard Nixon.
You will hear Republicans like the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, talk about the need for healing. Fine. But this sort of healing first requires cauterizing the wound. It is called impeachment. Republicans must not shrink from it.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.