I am of the firm belief that when considering the best response to anything in politics, one must weigh both one’s principles and the practical outcome of any course of action. So too with responding to the events of January 6th. Donald Trump did play a direct role in inciting the storming of the Capitol building, but impeachment and conviction were not the appropriate response. A far better response would have been to formally censure the former President because it would have been more likely to succeed and would have allowed Congress to spend more time working on the pandemic, while still bringing a forceful condemnation of Mr. Trump’s actions.
To say Mr. Trump is solely responsible for the events of January 6th is simplistic. It is true that Mr. Trump was the largest promoter of the outright falsehoods about election theft that led his supporters to storm the Capitol. It is true that many of his supporters went to the Capitol under the belief that they were going with his blessing (“I thought I was following my president. I thought I was following what we were called to do,” said Ms. Jenna Ryan, who has been charged with illegally entering the Capitol building). It is true that he failed to explicitly condemn the violence on January 6th. That day could have been much worse — Mr. Trump did release a video politely asking the rioters to go home, and he did explicitly call for violence — but Mr. Trump had built a culture of victimhood among his supporters that led them to take his command to “fight like hell” at the Capitol literally.
Mr. Trump has promulgated a culture of victimhood, be it through complaints about biased election officials (per the aforementioned video, “We had an election that was stolen from us … they took it away from all of us”), bias from social media companies, or from actions of the previous administration (for example, when signing the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump remarked: “At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore”). On top of that, he spread falsehoods about Republicans’ ability to overturn the 2020 election, claiming that then-Vice President Pence could overturn the election results. Mr. Trump groomed his supporters to take his assertion that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” in the most literal sense. Thus, his instruction to fight — in conjunction with his years of promoting victimhood and falsehoods about the Congressional process on Jan 6 — constitutes an incitement of insurrection.
The majority of the responsibility for the storming of the Capitol falls on those who physically perpetrated it. However, as an elected official, Mr. Trump has a responsibility to exercise good judgment and to understand the effect his words have on his supporters. He has failed to live up to this responsibility.
All of this considered, I still hold that impeachment was not the best response to Mr. Trump’s actions, because it occupied Congress’s valuable time during a national crisis and was unlikely to result in conviction from the beginning. Considering how improbable it was that the Senate would convict Mr. Trump (far fewer than 17 Republican senators indicated that they would consider supporting impeachment), the effort was hardly worth the time members of Congress invested in it. Unemployment benefits run out in March, and only 7 of 23 of President Biden’s cabinet nominees have been confirmed, even as of this writing. Focusing on coronavirus relief and the incoming administration should be higher on Congress’s priority list, because both have real, tangible effects to benefit the American people — something a doomed impeachment trial for an already-out-of-office President lacks.
Rather than attempting to convict Mr. Trump in an impeachment trial, a more prudent response would have been to censure him. This would have been far more likely to pass and to get bipartisan support. Senate Republicans would likely have had a much easier time voting in favor of a censure than voting to convict Mr. Trump. The most notable difference between a censure and a conviction would have been that a censure does not bar him from federal office. This, I contend, is a good thing. In our democracy the will of the voters is not to be ignored; whether or not to vote for Mr. Trump after being censured is a decision for voters to make.
Most importantly, a censure would have marked a formal condemnation of Mr. Trump’s involvement in the storming of the Capitol. As of the Senate’s decision to acquit, there has been no such condemnation. If we accept that Mr. Trump bears significant responsibility for the event, then this is a failure of Congress and one that is particularly poignant given the ease with which the two houses could have passed a censure resolution.
Mr. Trump’s actions in relation to the storming of the Capitol were unprecedented and heinous, and they deserve an unprecedented formal condemnation from Congress. Impeachment, however, was not the appropriate response to this situation. It was not politically viable from the start, and it was a waste of Congress’s precious time during a national crisis. It would have been more prudent for Congress to censure Mr. Trump and move on.