Congress seems split, mostly but not entirely on partisan lines, between two alternatives: removing Donald Trump immediately or getting the nation across the January 20 finish line on a wing and a prayer. The problem is that the wing and prayer are also predicated on bad precedents.
The most ominous of these was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call to General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about, in her words, “preventing an unhinged president from using the nuclear codes.” That kind of interference from Congress in the military chain of command is a dicey precedent. These are, of course, dicey times. But the Constitution also provides a remedy in the form of impeachment.
The 25th Amendment may be available, but only at the risk of another perilous precedent: The Cabinet and Congress gauging whether the President is “unhinged.” Post-stroke, Woodrow Wilson was “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” “Unhinged,” which suggests not that Trump is unable to perform his duties but rather that he is unable to do so responsibly, is less objectively definable and more susceptible to grave abuse. Reverse the parties and consider the possibilities before proceeding. Try, for example, the Speaker of the House calling the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2003 on the grounds that George W. Bush’s imminent invasion of Iraq was “unhinged.” Or the 25th Amendment being invoked in 2009 because Barack Obama was too inexperienced to handle a crisis “responsibly.” To be sure, neither is comparable to Trump. Few are. That is not the point. The point is how the precedents could be used even in situations in which they should not apply.
If the President is too unhinged to be trusted with nuclear weapons for 11 days, he is too unhinged to be trusted with them for 11 minutes. Waiting for Vice President Pence to act on the 25th Amendment abdicates legislative responsibility. Waiting for Trump to resign, as Pelosi has demanded, belies the sense of urgency evident in her call to Milley. The House should proceed immediately, both because of the imminent danger Trump presents and, equally important, because of the danger of accumulating bad precedents while buffering him until Inauguration Day.
We are already on the third day after the insurrection. That is too long. Clean articles of impeachment—not the kitchen sink, just a simple statement that the President violated his oath on January 6, 2021—would force Congress to go on record as to whether he actually kept it. An impeachment with a pending trial might serve as an adequate 11-day restraint. Historically, a second impeachment would be a permanent stain. For the nation, it would be painful. It would be divisive. And it would beat the alternatives.
Congress has been unwilling to assert itself against presidents usurping its powers. If it is unable to do so when the President incites a physical assault against the legislature and, according to reports, relishes it and resists allowing the National Guard to defuse it, matters are worse than we had thought—or at least than we had hoped.