Wednesday's violence in Washington, D.C. has left Americans across the country shocked, saddened and outraged. As Congress met to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory – a usually uneventful procedure that was being prolonged by baseless objections from several Congressional Republicans – angry mobs supporting President Donald Trump approached and then stormed the Capitol in a violent coup attempt designed to prevent Biden’s victory from being certified. This insurrection forced a complete evacuation of the building and sparked violence that left at least four people dead.
This was not a spontaneous event. Trump had called on this crowd to march on the Capitol as the Electoral College votes were being counted, even as he also pressured his allies like Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results. Capitol Police allowed the invaders to have free access to the building and its offices, and some officers were even friendly with the vandals – a stark contrast with the way that Black Lives Matter protestors have been treated. Even after the violence erupted, Trump had a tepid and delayed response: a one-minute video in which he called on the rioters to go home but spent most of the message feeding into the conspiracy theories about a stolen election that fueled the violence in the first place.
“We love you; you’re very special,” Trump said to his rabid supporters in his video.
With Trump behaving in such a dangerous fashion, a number of options have been floated concerning what to do with the president during the last two weeks of his term.
Here are five ways Congress should proceed between now and January 20.
Vice President Pence and the Cabinet temporarily remove Trump by invoking the 25th Amendment
Many politicians and pundits have argued that Trump has become delusional and represents a danger to the country. Nearly 100 Democratic legislators have called for Trump to be removed from office. Several, such as Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, have suggested that the 25th Amendment be invoked to remove Trump from power.
Rather than taking the easy resign route, @VP Pence and the Trump cabinet should invoke the 25th amendment to save our country from this dangerous president.
— Senator Mazie Hirono (@maziehirono) January 7, 2021
Officially added to the U.S. Constitution in 1967 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the 25th Amendment has several provisions relating to presidential succession. The amendment has been used a handful of times by presidents who have voluntarily transferred power to their vice presidents for a short period of time. Former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, prior to undergoing medical procedures that would leave them incapacitated, both temporarily transferred power to their vice presidents.
Section four of the 25th Amendment, however, allows for the non-voluntary transfer of power from the president to the vice president. This provision has never been used but is intended for circumstances where the president becomes unable to perform their duties, either because of an injury, ailment, mental crisis, or other compromising situation. In such a case, the vice president and a majority of the members of the president’s cabinet must submit a written declaration to the leaders of both houses of Congress declaring that “the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Once that document is submitted, the vice president immediately becomes acting president.
Given that Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants, it’s previously been unlikely that the majority of his cabinet would support such a move. However, Trump has already been at odds with Pence since the latter announced he would not abuse his office by trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Furthermore, Wednesday's unprecedented violence led to several cabinet members discussing the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, according to inside sources.
Congress counter any attempts by Trump to be reinstated
The 25th Amendment is a temporary measure.
The president has the right to challenge the declaration that he cannot fulfill his duties, which – if the vice president and cabinet answer with a second declaration – would send the matter to Congress. A two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate is then required to keep the vice president in power as acting president for an indefinite period of time. Before Wednesday's events, few, if any, Republicans in Congress would have dared to cross Trump by supporting such a declaration; remember that when Trump was impeached, Senator Mitt Romney was the only Republican to vote against him. However, after Wednesday's insurrection, many of Trump’s former allies have been distancing themselves from the president.
On Thursday, Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois became the first Republican legislator to join the calls to remove Trump via the 25th Amendment.
It’s with a heavy heart I am calling for the sake of our Democracy that the 25th Amendment be invoked. My statement: pic.twitter.com/yVyQrYcjuD
— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) January 7, 2021
Even if more Congressional Republicans do not back this effort, the 25th Amendment gives Congress a 21-day window to decide the matter of the president’s inability to perform his duties. This means that Congress could simply let the last two weeks of Trump’s term expire with Pence acting as president.
Congress impeaches Trump again
The other option for removing Trump before the end of his term is to impeach him for a second time. This is obviously a longer and more involved process that would not immediately remove him from office. However, a growing number of legislators have called for Trump to be impeached again. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez was one of the first to publicly call for such a move.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 7, 2021
Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats, including Representative Ilhan Omar, have already started to circulate new charges against the president.
Articles of Impeachment for introduction, so proud of everyone co-leading this effort with us.
We need to move quickly to remove this President from office. pic.twitter.com/vbZtA7g6fc
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 7, 2021
Passing new articles of impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives and then convicting Trump in the Senate would be a more time-consuming process, and some Republicans would have to back the measure in the Senate to remove Trump from office. Even with these drawbacks, however, impeachment would be a clearer declaration that the president had committed harmful and illegal acts – “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," in the words of the Constitution.
The Senate bar Trump from running for president again
The U.S. Constitution allows for Congress to "disqualify" officials who have been removed by impeachment, banning those individuals from holding federal office in the future. If Trump is removed from office via impeachment, the Senate could also vote to bar him from ever again holding public office, which would prevent Trump from launching a 2024 campaign that could again inspire the type of violence seen on Wednesday.
Of course, such a ban could also enflame Trump supporters, but it would serve the longer-term goal of neutralizing Trump politically; without the prospect of re-electing Trump, his public support may fade away. In the wake of Wednesday’s violence, several Republican leaders have been discussing the possibility of removing Trump, something that few within the GOP had the guts to attempts just a few days ago.
Trump's aides and the private sector attempt to limit Trump's influence for the next two weeks
A final option, one which may happen by default if there is not enough support for removal via the 25th Amendment or impeachment, would be to simply contain Trump during his final two weeks to prevent him from causing more damage. Here, private actors play a large role. After Trump’s video response to Wednesday's attack was deemed as likely to incite further violence, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — which have suffered criticisms for years for allowing Trump to post false and incendiary messages — removed his posts and temporarily banned the president from their platforms. These social media bans placed on Trump’s social media accounts have already hindered his most effective method of stirring up his supporters.
Trump eventually released a statement that, while still repeating his false claims to have won the 2020 election, promises “an orderly transition on January 20” when Biden takes over as president. Nevertheless, Trump has rarely been one to honor his word or accept defeat gracefully, and thus the danger remains that he could again mobilize his supporters to try to disrupt the transfer of power or put in place even more policies designed to sabotage the incoming Biden team. One way in which Trump’s allies could limit his ability to destroy things on his way out would be to simply quit. Several White House staff members resigned on Wednesday night, and several other top aides and even cabinet secretaries have been contemplating resignation, which could slow down any attempts by Trump to push through last-minute policy changes. Such last-minute resignations may do little to rehabilitate the public images of politicians who have stuck with Trump so far, but they may at least limit the degree to which Trump’s aides are complicit with his efforts to maintain power at all costs or take the country down on his way out.
However, merely attempting to contain Trump in office is a very dangerous strategy. Throughout his presidency, many of his supporters and critics have assumed that he had reached the limits of his outrageous and destructive behavior, only to act surprised when he crossed new lines; such was the case when he followed his impeachment-worthy call to the President of Ukraine with an even more illegal attempt to pressure the Secretary of State of Georgia to overturn that state’s election results.
Soon to be Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged the continuing danger of a Trump presidency in a set of tweets released Thursday afternoon.
What happened at the U.S. Capitol yesterday was an insurrection against the United States, incited by President Trump.
This president must not hold office one day longer.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) January 7, 2021
The quickest and most effective way—it can be done today—to remove this president from office would be for the Vice President to immediately invoke the 25th amendment.
If the Vice President and the Cabinet refuse to stand up, Congress must reconvene to impeach President Trump.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) January 7, 2021
Trump has demonstrated time and time again that there are no lines he is unwilling to cross. For the sake of the country, even for these last two weeks of his term, Trump should not just be contained but removed.