A number of Republican senators, most notably Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have attempted to provide their GOP colleagues with a procedural basis for not responding to substantive questions: Should President Donald J. Trump be convicted for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection? Should he be barred from ever again holding public office?
Last week, Cotton stated: “The Senate lacks constitutional authority to conduct impeachment proceedings against a former president. The Founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office — not an inquest against private citizens.”
At the very opening of the impeachment trial, Paul employed the same argument in his effort to delay and possibly terminate the proceedings.
Forty-five GOP senators voted in support of Paul’s objection. Utah’s Mike Lee was among them. Mitt Romney was one of five Republican senators to vote against the move to stop the impeachment trial.
In a recent open letter published by Politico, 170 legal scholars defended the constitutionality of the Senate trial. These scholars argued that, as the Constitution’s impeachment power is twofold — the power to remove from office and the power to prohibit holding any future office — it is applicable to former officials who, even though they are no longer in office, could, if not convicted, run for reelection.
The definitive resolution of this issue is best left to professionals. Nevertheless, non-professionals should acknowledge the full enormity of the situation.
The American Constitution’s overarching purposes are the preservation of our democratic republic and the advancement of democratic principles and ideals. This twofold objective is promoted by the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. Impeachment and conviction are the most powerful checks legislators can impose on those who have severely violated the public trust.
Have we ever before had a president accused of publicly inciting a mob of loyalists to mount assaults on our nation’s Capitol and on legislators who were fulfilling their constitutional duties? If Trump does not deserve to be impeached, convicted and barred from holding public office in the future, who ever will? If incitement of insurrection is not a violation of the public trust, whatever might be?
Any interpretation of the Constitution must acknowledge a basic fact: The Constitution is not a suicide pact. To allow Trump to again become a presidential candidate may not spell immediate suicide for our democratic republic. Many voters, however, believe allowing a third Trump presidential candidacy would be akin to playing Russian Roulette with five bullets loaded in the cylinder of a six-bullet pistol.
Conviction in the Senate is the only instrument whereby our nation can withdraw from Trumpist Roulette. If 45 members of the Senate are in denial concerning the evidence against Trump and if they refuse to pass reasoned judgment concerning his guilt or innocence, they invite other would-be autocrats to violate democratic norms.
On Jan. 26, 45 Republican senators signaled their desire to avoid their constitutional responsibility. Many among these 45 Republican senators have further demonstrated their lack of commitment to their oaths of office, to democratic ideals, to republican virtues and to principles as basic as “character counts” and “no person is above the law.”
Are far too many American voters as little committed to the rule of law and to democratic ideals as are the unprincipled politicians they elect and re-elect?
Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus, philosophy department, Seattle University and resides in Salt Lake City.