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Impeachment still matters now that Trump’s out of office, here’s why | COMMENTARY

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo with the White House in the background, President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo with the White House in the background, President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Failing to take disciplinary action against a president who violates his oath of office and engages in criminal behavior sends a message that those in power are above the law.

Did then President Donald Trump incite insurrection when he whipped up his crowd of supporters into a lather on Jan. 6 and then directed them toward the U.S. Capitol at the moment when election results were being officially recorded? Given what’s already become public record, down to the live television broadcast of his speech and the post-insurrection interviews of participants, the evidence is damning.

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On Jan. 13, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Trump for the second time in his presidency, and this week that charge moved to the Senate, where most Republican senators are balking at the idea of a trial; 45 of them — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — voted Tuesday to support an effort to dismiss the trial based on a question of its constitutionality. The arguments that Mr. Trump is no longer president and thus can’t be removed from office if convicted and that the nation yearns for unity — a clearly stated goal of the new Democratic administration — have provided reluctant GOP senators something of a fig leaf to hide behind.

Precedent, however, suggests a president can be convicted in an impeachment trial after leaving office. The impeachment in 1876 of Secretary of War William Belknap is the most often mentioned case. When faced with possible impeachment, Mr. Belknap submitted his resignation to President Ulysses S. Grant. Yet the House went ahead and impeached him, and the Senate tried him on the grounds that resignation did not exempt a federal official from impeachment. In the end, he was acquitted, with more than one senator expressing doubts about their jurisdiction. But the point was made: No one should be allowed to voluntarily leave office to avoid accountability. And the matter of impeachment timing is, at worst, unsettled.

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The unity question seems even more fallacious. For the nation to move forward requires some reckoning of past wrongdoing. Otherwise, it rings hollow — like a bully slamming a classmate to the floor and then announcing that, henceforth, bygones should be bygones. Is that an invitation to collegiality or yet another way to skirt responsibility? Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah may have put it best over the weekend when he observed that not only was impeachment likely constitutional and that incitement to insurrection was an impeachable offense but that justice demands a Senate trial. “If we’re going to have unity in our country,” the onetime party nominee for president observed, “I think it’s important to recognize the need for accountability, for truth and justice.”

Sadly, most GOP senators are unlikely to vote to convict. Mr. Trump’s hold on their party is too strong for them to ignore, regardless of the facts. You can already hear the excuses: that the Trump incitement was typical of political rally hyperbole, that the mob that stormed the Capitol is to blame for their behavior and no one else, that Americans have no appetite for impeachment, even on a shortened timetable (or perhaps especially on a shortened timetable) and will see this only as Washington politics as usual, not justice. Expecting a supermajority out of the Senate (the minimum to convict) would seem a pipe dream. And what will it get you? Perhaps no more than a guarantee that Mr. Trump will not hold office again — if the action withstands the inevitable court challenge.

But, it still comes down to justice and the rule of law. Can a U.S. president do what he likes during his lame duck period because, well, there just isn’t enough time or incentive for Congress to take action about it? Can he call the Georgia secretary of state and demand that election results be rewritten without consequence? Direct a crowd to storm the Capitol and threaten his own vice president? Not in a nation that professes to be about laws. Not today. Not ever. Even if the chances of conviction seem slim, it is the duty of the Senate to conduct this trial. Accountability means something. Impeachment should not be a hollow exercise.

That so many Republican senators have already closed their minds on a matter they aren’t scheduled to hear testimony about until the week of Feb. 8 is shameful.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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