Questions, options in wake of insurrection

Impeachment better option than 25th Amendment

LIKE MOST AMERICANS, I sat in front of my television last week transfixed by what was happening in Washington, DC.  I frantically switched from CNN to MSNBC to Fox News to our local news stations, smartphone abuzz and iPad tuned to NPR.  I sat and watched for hours and was overjoyed and relieved that Congress was able to reconvene later in the evening to complete its constitutionally mandated duty to certify the votes of the Electoral College.  I was also proud listening to the speeches of members of the US Senate, hearing the raw emotion in their voices as they talked about resuming their work with passion and honor.

How such a thing could happen in the United States of America, especially in our nation’s capitol, is unfathomable to me.  I guess that I may be a conspiracy theorist at heart, because one of my first thoughts involved the amount of classified information that is available in the Capitol building.  Members of the intelligence and armed services committees have access to classified materials, and it is not out of the question that foreign actors could have instigated the breach as a cover for espionage activities.  And we have since learned that a laptop computer is missing from Speaker Pelosi’s office.

Upon reflection, there are a number of questions that do arise and which need to be answered. It is up to both houses of Congress to use their oversight authority to get to the bottom of how this lapse in security occurred.

  • Starting several days before the demonstration/rebellion, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, DC, publicly expressed her concerns about the number of possibly armed people expected in the city on January 6 to protest and possibly disrupt the work of Congress in certifying the votes of the Electoral College. She talked about activating the DC National Guard, which is controlled by the secretary of defense, which raises some interesting questions about using the military to enforce civilian law.  If Bowser had these concerns, the Capitol Police should have had them as well.
  • Did the alphabet soup of federal law enforcement agencies in Washington share information and intelligence with the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Departments?
  • The Sergeant at Arms of the US House of Representatives is a retired Secret Service agent.  We all know that the Secret Service is the best in the world at protecting people.  Were there orders to stand down?  Was information deliberately not shared with him?
  • We all saw the iconic image of the locked boxes containing the certificates of votes by the Electoral College.  If it were not for some alert and courageous staffers in the House and Senate who managed to secure those votes before the chamber was breached, those certificates might have been damaged or destroyed.
  • Were there other actors at work, inciting the insurgents, to achieve some foreign policy or intelligence-gathering goal?
  • Was this demonstration an insurrection designed to illustrate the fragility of American democracy?
  • Should President Trump be removed from office?

 This past Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment, making Trump the first president in US history to be impeached twice.  However, the US Senate is in recess until January 19 and the leader of the temporary Republican majority (the state of Georgia has not certified its election results yet, and the two winners –Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – have not been sworn in yet) has indicated that he would not reconvene before then.

It’s possible to invoke the provisions of the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office, but Vice President Mike Pence has stated that invoking the 25thAmendment is not a consideration. What is required under the 25th Amendment is that the vice president and a majority of members of the cabinet – there are 15 cabinet secretaries, so a majority would be eight members – sign a declaration that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

The declaration is delivered to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives, and power transfers to the vice president unless the president signs a declaration that no such inability exists. If the vice president and the cabinet repeat their initial declaration again, the matter then goes to Congress, which has 48 hours to decide the issue.  It takes a two-thirds vote of both branches to oust the president and put the vice president in charge.

As you can see, it is actually more difficult to remove a president who doesn’t want to leave under the 25th Amendment because it requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate. By contrast, impeachment requires a simple majority in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict and remove him from office.

Given the short amount of time between now and President Biden’s inauguration, the goal of impeachment is not to remove Trump from office but to keep him from running for office in the future.  As the Constitution says, “judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”

Meet the Author

Paul DeBole

Assistant professor of political science, Lasell University
If you look closely at the Constitution, the president has very few powers that are unchecked by the legislative and judicial branches.  The only power unchecked is his pardon power.  Everything else requires some type of Congressional approval. The American people should also take comfort in the fact that our strong and enduring Constitution, drafted by some forward-thinking founders, avoided vesting too much power in one person for just this reason.

Paul DeBole is an assistant professor of political science at Lasell University in Newton.