The deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob that we should properly call domestic terrorists irrevocably changes the politics of the day in the same way that the attack by foreign terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, changed our politics then.
At the time, President George W. Bush laid down a stern but clear warning to other nations that clarified the stakes for any who might have been confused: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
That same Bush dictum should apply here to this outburst of domestic terrorism. Some Republicans are already finding that an unwelcome standard because the person most responsible for inciting that seditious riot was none other than one of their own, the president of the United States. We’re seeing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California warn against impeachment and instead call for “unity.” Unity is a thing to be desired, of course, but we cannot have unity with those who violently tried to interfere with government doing its duty — or those who encouraged them. It has long been a cardinal principle of American policy: The United States does not negotiate with terrorists. Why should that policy change now?
Rather than find themselves discomfited, Republicans should embrace this moment and be the ones leading the charge to immediately remove Donald Trump from office by whatever constitutional means necessary.
First, there’s the matter of principle. Republicans are fond of styling themselves the law-and-order party, the party that preaches individual responsibility. Here we saw an utter breakdown of law and order, and it’s quite clear which individual bears responsibility. Thought experiment: Suppose the election had gone the other way, which it easily could have. Suppose the losing Democratic candidate had urged Black Lives Matter activists to converge on Washington and then urged them to march on the Capitol and “show strength.” Suppose then some of those activists weren’t content with merely protesting on The Mall but instead stormed the Capitol itself, dragging out police officers and beating them as we’ve now seen happen here? Who would have been culpable then? We have no doubt Republicans would have pointed to Democratic enablers — and rightly so. When it comes to dealing with unpleasant foreign powers — say, Iran — Republicans often accuse Democrats of practicing appeasement. Republicans need not abandon any of their principles to act against Trump; they only need to remember them. This is, as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “a time for choosing.” Choose wisely.
Second, there are more lowly political considerations. Republicans need to redeem themselves in the eyes of history. At the moment, history will remember them as the party that nominated and then enabled a president who wound up sending a mob to the Capitol that killed a police officer — a mob that included some who threatened to kill his own vice president and the Speaker of the House. It is only by sheer luck that we did not witness a mass slaughter. Unless Republicans really believe in that kind of mob rule, they must immediately disassociate themselves with the mob leader. Republicans in 1974 naturally defended their party’s president during the Watergate scandal — for a time. In the end, even they could not countenance Richmond Nixon’s criminality, which is why today we don’t remember Watergate as a party scandal but a personal scandal. Indeed, some of the names we remember best from those days are Republicans who had the courage to break with a Republican president. In the last days of Watergate, a delegation of Republican leaders went to the White House and told Nixon it was time to go. No one expects Trump to heed such a call, but where is the comparable delegation going to Vice President Mike Pence to stiffen his spine about invoking the 25th Amendment? Republicans should want to avoid the political fate of those Northern Democrats during the 1860s who wanted to make peace with the Confederacy. They were ridiculed as “copperheads” at the time — and for decades after Democrats had to contend with allegations that they were “the party of rebellion.” That is the fate that awaits Republicans unless they act against Trump.
This challenge is most acute for those Republicans who engaged in the quixotic challenges to electoral votes from certain states that Joe Biden carried, a roster which includes all four Republican members from Virginia — Ben Cline, Bob Good, Morgan Griffith and Rob Wittman. Let’s take the most charitable view possible, one espoused at the time by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — that the challenges weren’t really intended to overturn the election but merely to call attention to how many states changed their election rules in the pandemic election of 2020. The problem is that the actions of the these lawmakers had the effect of emboldening the terrorists who stormed the Capitol. These Republicans, of all people, should want to find a way to wash off that stain.
Invoking the 25th Amendment is the surest way to do that, simply because it’s the quickest. Politically speaking, an Acting President Pence would allow Republicans to claim credit for ridding the republic of a would-be autocrat who now has blood on his hands. Pence could spend his days doing things that a normal president would do under the circumstances — offer public words of comfort to the family of the slain Capitol Police officer, drape medals around the necks of their colleagues to bravely stood against the traitorous mob, and do so with a distinctly Republican voice. Of course, it’s quite likely that many Republicans don’t fear any political consequences. Indeed, some may fear the consequences of taking any action against Trump and arousing the ire of “the party’s base” that has come to see Trump in cult-like terms. If that’s the case, then those Republicans should engage in some serious self-reflection about whether that is a base worth having. Many Republican members of Congress won’t like that, but they’ll like the judgment of history even less.