A political scientist explains how Democrats can use Trump's impeachment trial as 'leverage'

A political scientist explains how Democrats can use Trump's impeachment trial as 'leverage'
President Donald J. Trump arrives in the House chamber and is greeted by members of Congress prior to delivering his State of the Union address Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

At 12 noon Eastern time on Wednesday, Joe Biden officially — and finally — became president of the United States.

Even the best and most normal of times, to be president of the United States is to have immense power and almost overwhelming responsibilities. These are not normal times.

There was no large crowds to celebrate Biden's inauguration and witness his tense, urgent inaugural address. The traditional pomp and circumstance of the occasion was greatly subdued, replaced by an air of solemn purpose and an almost overwhelming feeling of relief that our four-year nightmare had perhaps reached its end.

Two weeks ago, the United States — which believes itself to be the world's "greatest democracy" — survived an incoherent but terrifying coup attempt by Donald Trump's followers. That horrible moment marked a crescendo for the Age of Trump and its authoritarian, neofascist war on the country's democratic institutions, norms, values and culture.

Biden took the oath of office with tens of thousands of National Guard members and other security and law enforcement forces standing guard to prevent further attacks. It was surreal: The forces of American empire, many of their vehicles still painted tan from service in the Middle East, were deployed to defend the homeland from attacks by the country's own citizens. The architecture of Washington, D.C., is largely styled after that of ancient Rome, yet in the aftermath of the Trumpist coup attempt, the capital now looks more like Baghdad during the U.S. occupation.

The United States remains in the grip of a lethal pandemic that public health experts predict may kill at least 500,000 people. For the vast majority of citizens, the country's economy continues to teeter on the edge of collapse. The U.S. is no longer viewed as the "indispensable nation," leader of the free world.

President Biden has spoken eloquently of "unity," recognizing that is an elusive if noble goal. He wants the American people to believe that they are again "one people from many" and that Trump's reign is not a permanent scar on the country.

There will be many challenges to that agenda, including the likelihood that Donald Trump is not prepared to fade away and is incapable of making a graceful exit from American public life. He has no such dignity. By all indications Trump hopes to be seen as a shadow president, leading a permanent insurrection against the new president and the Democratic Party.

Trump's insurrection will almost certainly provoke violence by those who speak and act in his name. Those fires will not be smothered in the days or months or even years to come. Trump's coup attempt was not a blazing inferno, but it ignited smoldering embers that will be difficult or impossible to quench.

Trump and his followers are motivated by revenge and a belief that they are the "real Americans" and "true patriots." They believe, or at least claim to believe, that Biden and the Democrats "stole" the 2020 presidential election.

Healing cannot come without accountability. Ultimately, to move forward as a nation America must confront the crimes and other great offenses committed under the Trump administration.

What did the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol reveal about the fragility of our country's leadership and norms? Is a return to or reinvention of "normal politics" even possible after the Trump's presidency? Is the Republican Party still capable of some redemption, or of behaving responsibly and in service to democracy and the common good? How should Biden and the Democrats approach the impending prospect of Trump's second impeachment trial proceed?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Norman J. Ornstein. He is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the bestselling books "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported" and "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism."

Ornstein has been a guest on numerous cable and broadcast news outlets, including CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and "PBS NewsHour." His essays and other writing have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Foreign Affairs and other leading publications, and he is a columnist and contributing editor for The Atlantic.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What were you thinking as you watched Donald Trump's mob overrun the U.S. Capitol?

I was literally sick to my stomach. One, I've spent my entire career around Congress. It's a tough love, but I've had a love affair with Congress since I was a kid. There were decades when I would drive down to the Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue and see that dome. To see the Capitol come under attack was wrenching.

I also thought about the attacks on 9/11. The terrorists were targeting the Capitol building. The plane heading for the Capitol building would have been loaded with fuel. If the terrorists hit the Capitol building, there would have been molten cast iron and chunks of concrete and all kinds of other debris raining down. If 225 or 250 members of the House are dead or missing somewhere in the rubble, we do not have a quorum. There is no Congress. Because it takes months to hold special elections, the United States could be without a Congress for three months or longer. The country would effectively be under martial law.

What are the rules for this? How do we get out of it? I quickly realized that we do not have those rules. I then wrote a column on such a scenario and then ultimately created a continuity-of-government commission. We spent years working up recommendations for what to do in the event of a catastrophe — most of which went nowhere. We never thought you could have a threat from Americans storming the Capitol to decapitate the government and potentially blow up the Capitol with explosives. That would be worse than the threat from a foreign source.

Some people in Trump's mob had guns. Bombs were planted nearby. Some of them had zip-tie handcuffs, likely to take hostages. If the floor of the House and Senate had not been cleared in time by the Capitol Police, there could have been a bloodbath. From what is now known, it seems possible there was a plan to cause so much mayhem that Donald Trump could then declare martial law and remain as president. What is your read of the events?

My guess is that there were different groups of people among the mob. There was one group of people whose goal — and I hope we will eventually find out what direct role Trump and his cronies played in all this — was to seize the certificates of the electors and make it impossible for Congress to certify the election of Joe Biden.

A second goal held by many other members of the mob — and Donald Trump may well have been a part of this planning as well — was to decapitate Congress and have Trump be able to declare martial law. It is quite possible there were at least some of those people involved who wanted to get rid of just enough House members and senators to make sure there was a Republican majority when the Electoral College votes were counted. And of course, we now know that there were people in Trump's mob who wanted to grab Vice President Mike Pence and hang him.

We also know somebody gave information to some of these thugs about the offices, including the unmarked offices of members of the leadership.

There is at least circumstantial evidence that some members of Congress were involved in the planning of this coup attack. This includes some of the Republicans in the House. We know that [Alabama congressman] Mo Brooks appeared to incite them. I am also sure that some of the people who went into the Capitol building had been brainwashed by the QAnon conspiracy theory. They didn't really have a plan other than in their own distorted minds being "patriots." But there were plenty of other members of the mob who had planned in advance and had zip ties and weapons, and who were there to kill.

We also know that at least some in the Capitol Police, if they didn't actively conspire with Trump's mob, were at least more than willing to help them. There were also significant numbers of people in the mob who were flashing their badges as off-duty cops and off-duty military. There is also the larger problem of how white supremacists have infiltrated many police departments.

The fact that the Secret Service has decided that they're a little uneasy about Biden's security signals something pretty unsettling. Trump deserved to be impeached. He incited insurrection. What Trump did does not meet the formal definition of treason, which is aiding and abetting a foreign enemy with whom you are at war. But by any reasonable person's standard, what he did was treasonous and reckless.

Trump has been impeached and there is the possibility of a trial at a later date. This means there is more leverage in terms of getting information about what really happened on that Wednesday, and what his role fully was.

How do we respond to those in the news media and elsewhere who keep saying Trump's coup plot and assault on the U.S. Capitol was "unimaginable"? Even before he became president in 2016, Donald Trump repeatedly said he would not respect any election outcome where he lost. Trump and his allies were publicly planning the coup for months. Why the denial of obvious facts?

Many people in the United States are not just living in a world of alternate facts. They are in an alternate universe. It is fairly easy to inculcate people with a worldview and a set of lies that overwhelm them and then begin to define who they are. There is QAnon. There are a large number of Republicans in Congress who did nothing to put any checks or limits on Donald Trump. Some Republicans are true believers in Trumpism. Others are just afraid of him and his followers.

For some time now I have been trying to draw a distinction between a political party and a cult. The Republican Party is now a cult. It was becoming a cult before Donald Trump. But now the Republicans have become a more pernicious cult because of him.

There is another element to the denial, and to Trump's power. That's the press corps, and not just the crazy right-wing press such as the Rush Limbaughs or the Laura Ingrahams and Sean Hannitys and Lou Dobbses, but also mainstream shows such as "Meet the Press" and the CNN panels that have given us such right-wing figures as Corey Lewandowski, Kayleigh McEnany, Rick Santorum, Jeffrey Lord and all these others. We have a press corps that desperately tried to normalize Donald Trump, no matter how abnormal he behaved. They did this out of a fear of offending the right wing and being accused of having a "liberal bias." They were also motivated in their behavior by a belief that they had to report both sides of the story.

This meant the press corps did not make value judgments. Instead of calling out Trump's lies and those of other right-wingers they instead chose to ask, "Well, why is he telling a lie?" If the press does that, if it does not hold the powerful accountable, then bad behavior is normalized by a country's leaders. The country is not going to understand the nature of the threat and peril. That threat can then culminate in the violent overthrow of a government.

The extremism of the Republican Party and the conservative moment are not something new. Trumpism is not an aberration or outlier: it is a function of path-dependency on the American right. How would you tell that story?

One could go back as far as Father Coughlin [a Catholic priest and far-right radio demagogue] in the 1930s. The strain was already there. It obviously has worsened. One part of this journey was how the Republican Party decided to co-opt all the racists who had been Southern Democrats. The advent of social media made a large difference too. Building a political community is now much easier with cable news, the internet, talk radio and other forms of media.

Newt Gingrich also plays a role here in how he found a way to exploit the weaknesses of the American news media, where he would deliberately trigger political tribalism and then take advantage of it. The overall goal of Gingrich was to attack so-called "political elites" through right-wing "populism."

These factors created an opportunity for Donald Trump, who was a human accelerant for a political and society-wide fire that was smoldering for years and decades.

How does America now return to what political scientists and others refer to as "normal politics"?

Normal politics is not dead, but it is on life support at this point. I am very pessimistic about the near term in this country. Trump's coup attempt and mob action was not a wake-up call to most Republicans in Congress. One hundred and forty-five members of the House still voted to object to certifying Biden's clear victory in the Electoral College. That does not bode well for normal politics. The next generation of Republican leaders are even more delusional than some of the members of Congress who are there right now.

What I would say is this: The usual pattern that Republicans follow in a midterm when there's a Democratic president is to act in unison as a parliamentary-style minority party, vote against everything, block whatever they can and delegitimize whatever they can't, work to delegitimize the president and to get his party demoralized. The result is that lots of good things that could potentially help the country do not happen.

The Republicans then blame the Democrats. In 2022, if the Republicans win back the House and win the Senate and do even better in state legislative chambers, then nothing is going to change. The only thing that will matter as we head to 2024 is who can most effectively run as, "I'm a better, smarter version of Donald Trump."

If the Republicans lose in 2022, then perhaps there could be the beginnings of what is still a very conservative group, a block of Mitt Romney-type Republicans, who actually believe in institutions, the rule of law and to some degree in science and the importance of respecting your political adversaries. Those are the values that make for a normal political party. The Republican Party would not change overnight in that scenario. But if that type of split were to take place, then the 2024 presidential contest and other elections will be a different one for the Republicans.

In a desperate effort to return to some type of normalcy, the mainstream American news media is already promoting the narrative that there are all these "honorable" and "reasonable" Republicans out there, such as Romney. By implication, the Trumpists are an outlier. As an empirical matter that is not true. What of all these so-called "reasonable" Republicans who aided and abetted and supported everything that Donald Trump did in terms of policy?

It's another effort to normalize abnormal behavior, which is a good part of the problem, to be sure. On the other hand, at this point I want to give a tiny bit of slack to those Republicans in the U.S. Senate who might conceivably become independents right now and even caucus with the Democrats. You are correct in that every one of these Republicans, including those who publicly have criticized Trump more than once, voted for virtually all of his nominees.

There are Trump nominees who lied, who were corrupt and incompetent. There were judges who had no talent or ability or experience who were picked for these positions and confirmed for lifetime appointments. Ridiculous nominees, so far outside the mainstream that it was absurd to even put them before Congress — and those "respectable" and "moderate" Republicans all voted for them.

We do not want to let such Republicans off the hook. But we must also leave open the possibility that there are some Republicans within the party, who can, if and when the appropriate moment comes, begin to move it back toward some legitimacy. If not, the United States is in a deep crisis, because our country's style of democracy cannot operate without at least two somewhat responsible political parties.

The Democrats impeached Donald Trump for the crime of encouraging insurrection. What should be the strategy going forward in terms of the U.S. Senate trial and conviction?

The impeachment should not be going to trial right now. With Trump's impeachment, there is somewhat more leverage to warn anybody involved with the coup attempt that if they destroy or sidetrack evidence relevant to the trial of a president it is a felony, and the harshest penalties will be applied. Delaying the trial also means there will more time to gather evidence. I also want to use the trial as leverage to deny Donald Trump the perks of the ex-presidency such as travel, a pension, security and other benefits. Ultimately, I am very comfortable with an approach that says impeach now, try later.

What advice would you give President Biden about investigations? He has previously signaled that he does not want to investigate the Trump regime. But following a coup attempt it seems that the administration must now do so.

My suggestion is not to have a big commission. I want Attorney General Merrick Garland to designate pristine career prosecutors, people who have never contributed to any campaigns. Perhaps even those prosecutors who have been working diligently in the Southern District of New York and in the public integrity section. Task them with looking into all of the allegations or proof of wrongdoing by anybody associated with the Trump administration, and let the chips fall where they may. This must be done with a promise that neither the attorney General nor the president or any other political figure will interfere with their activities or their judgments.

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