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Biden’s call for unity needed, but it starts with holding Trump accountable for insurrection | COMMENTARY

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. speaks as the Senate debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote after a mob stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6. (Associated Press)
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. speaks as the Senate debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote after a mob stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6. (Associated Press) (AP)

Our new president, a Democrat, has called for unity and healing. But the former president, a Republican, has been impeached for inciting an insurrection that resulted in a mob attack on the Capitol; his trial in the Senate promises to be divisive and probably rancorous. Meanwhile, there are 147 Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn the new president’s election. Some of their Democratic colleagues have called on them to resign for voting as they did, thereby contributing to the insurrection.

I say good.

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But I also ask: How does this get us to the healing and unity that President Joe Biden championed in his inaugural address on Wednesday? I’m not seeing a recipe for a kumbaya cocktail here.

Don’t get me wrong. Donald Trump needed to be impeached again. (It’s his second time, giving him a distinction no other president can claim.) Soon after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivers articles of impeachment to the Senate, Trump should stand trial for the lies and provocative rhetoric that led to the sacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

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And I’m far from alone in thinking some members of Congress should be held responsible, too. Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas joined the effort to overturn the election and ended up as leading voices of it. That they helped fuel insurrection is not a hard case to make, and some of their Democratic colleagues, including Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, have called for them to resign. (Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, the 1st District Republican, also voted to overturn the election; he’s been hounded with resignation calls, too.)

The Senate, of course, is bound by the Constitution to conduct a trial. While 10 Republicans voted for impeachment in the House, Trump’s conviction in the Senate is far from certain.

“I’ve talked to a number of Republican senators,” Van Hollen told me. “They clearly recognize [Trump’s] conduct warrants a conviction but that doesn’t mean they’ll end up voting that way.”

So there’s likely to be a battle over Trump’s culpability in the attack on the Capitol — just as Biden seeks cooperation and compromise in the Senate.

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I asked Van Hollen about this.

“I don’t think there’s a contradiction between accountability and unity,” he said. “I think it’s important for the country to make a statement that it’s absolutely unacceptable for a president of the United States to incite violence for the purpose of overturning a democratic election. And that’s what Jan. 6 was all about. That was the day we were tabulating the votes of the Electoral College [to confirm Biden’s election], and this was a direct attempt to keep that from happening.

“It was the predictable result of a president who fed a big lie then pointed the mob at the Capitol.”

The Big Lie was Trump’s repeated claim that he had won reelection and that Democrats had conspired in battleground states to steal victory from him. And Trump infected millions of American minds with that lie.

It’s hard to imagine that the Trump effect will wear off any time soon. Biden is asking for unity, and his pleas are sincere and convincing, but he’s yelling across a wide divide.

I asked Van Hollen how we might get to some halfway civilized place again. There’s a whole generation of Americans who’ve grown up in a period of super partisanship, rancor, a rise in hate crimes and white supremacy, nasty presidential tweets and “alternative facts.” We went from the decency and the nobody-indicted Obama administration to the corruptions and lies of Trump, culminating in the sacking of the Capitol.

“We have to deal with it, we can’t pretend it’s not there,” Van Hollen says. “Two things are important. The tone of the conversation is important. We know that Trump, from his inauguration, struck a divisive tone while Joe Biden has a message of unity. I’m not naive enough to believe that changing the tone is enough to overcome the deep division and anger. But it’s a start.

“The second part is, other elected officials have to take responsibility for telling people the truth even when their followers might not want to hear it. The people who stormed the Capitol believe strongly that Donald Trump was cheated out of the election. And if you really believe that, obviously it’s incredibly upsetting. And why do they believe it? Because [Trump] said it over and over, and because he had a chorus of Republican elected officials who amplified that message even though they knew better.”

That gets us to Cruz and Hawley. They were the outspoken leaders of the push to reject electoral votes for Biden while pitching the fraud that his victory was in some way illegitimate.

“They should resign because they knowingly violated their oaths to the Constitution,” Van Hollen said. “They’re not going to do that, and therefore the Senate will have to use the mechanisms available to us to determine what the sanction or penalty should be.”

That means an ethics investigation.

“It’s a moment of accountability,” Van Hollen said.

He’s right about that. There needs to be accountability for what happened during the Trump years, especially since November’s election. There’s a thorn patch ahead, but after that, Republicans will have to decide whether they cling to Trump and Trumpism or move back to a place that doesn’t put democracy at risk.

The Capitol attack, Van Hollen said, underscores democracy’s resilience and its fragility.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we just saw record voter turnout [in November],” he said. “I think people will hold our democracy more dear, recognizing how fragile it is. Look, we’ve been at this for more than 200 years, but if anyone assumed that it was inevitable, that democracy would continue, we got a wake-up call. That is a big part of Biden’s call to unity. It means we have an obligation to nurture our democracy and make sure that, as we disagree, we don’t blow up the entire system.”

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