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Impeach Him, but We’re Past the Point Where Impeachment Fixes This

Slate logo Slate 1/13/2021 Dahlia Lithwick
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a crowd: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on January 12, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images © Provided by Slate U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on January 12, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

We are six days out from President Donald Trump either purposefully or inadvertently inspiring a mob of insurrectionists to invade the seat of government. We have watched video upon video of the violent attacks and deaths. And now, in response, the country is mired in yet another heated debate of the sort that happens wherever frogs in pots of boiling water choose to gather: What is to be done? Which ill-fitting, backward-looking constitutional response is the least terrible? Should we try to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from office that way, or should we begin another impeachment process? It appears that House Democrats are attempting to do the former, and then the latter. A few Republicans push for a third option, censure, while other Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell himself, are realizing supporting impeachment might be good for their party, or at least, their wallets.

Some formal, institutional, legal response to Trump’s incitement is certainly necessary. The gruesome details of Trump’s response to Wednesday’s events are almost as horrifying as the attack itself. In the wake of what happened, there are now two sometimes-acting Executives, which means that as a result there is no actual acting Executive. Donald Trump thinks he’s president, Mike Pence will jolly him along in that delusion, and the Joint Chiefs will, one supposes, answer to themselves. All this points to how truly dangerous this moment is. More violence is planned, and Trump is unfit to respond. He is still seemingly unable to comprehend that a smooth transition is imperative. We watch him every day as though he is an unexploded grenade, hoping we might luck out for one more week.

Under any other circumstances, a man behaving this way would be treated as an ambulatory mental health crisis and could be responded to as such: No Grandpa, you can’t have the car keys anymore. In that circumstance, it doesn’t matter if he disagrees, because when there are lives at stake, the car keys are simply removed from grandpa’s hand. But while we finally have figured out how to take away Trump’s ability to tweet, we have not yet found a reliable way to prevent him from having access to the nuclear codes, or from continuing to egg on his acolytes from the seat of the presidency.

It is the fact that Donald Trump is still the president of the United States that makes this so difficult and so dangerous. Just as his wealth and narcissism shielded him from any consequences before assuming office, the office itself protects him now. There are, to be sure, legal remedies for dangerous out-of-control actors who endanger themselves and others in the domestic sphere—among them civil commitment, mental health assessments and restraining orders. But those don’t work for a president if he has a supine cabinet, and we’ve had years to learn that the remedies that should exist when someone has become manifestly unfit for office won’t work on this president, because, to an almost extraordinary extent he is enabled by a party that has also lost its mind.

Donald Trump has been a danger to himself and others since election day 2016, but enablers all around have worked to obscure and erase the signs of his unfitness for so long that it’s almost hard to track if he’s become more dangerous in recent days or if we underestimated the damage all along.  Republicans peeling away from him at this eleventh hour do so either for fear of personal legal liability, or because they can’t cover up for him anymore. Checks and balances with a sell-by date. Which is precisely how we got into this current, volatile situation in which the president is profoundly impaired and decompensating under the pressure.

Yale’s Bandy Lee, the forensic psychiatrist who has never stopped trying to warn us about Trump, put it this way in an interview in Politico before Christmas:

The probability of something very bad happening is very high, unacceptably high, and the fact that we don’t have guardrails in place, the fact that we are allowing a mentally incapacitated president to continue in the job, in such an important job, for a single day longer, is a truly unacceptable reality … We’re talking about his access to the most powerful military on the planet and his access to technology that’s capable of destroying human civilization many times over.

Last Wednesday we witnessed what can happen when, despite widespread claims of readiness, and detailed knowledge of what was coming, nobody was adequately prepared for something catastrophic to happen. What was happening was unfolding in plain sight: Tens of thousands of armed insurrectionists have been led to believe the 2020 election was stolen, their lies having been amplified by leaders who know they are lying. And now, even as we gather hope that impeachment might in fact happen, we must remember that there is no constitutional mechanism to remedy the fact that a non-trivial number of Americans believe that the only way to liberate America from certain doom is through more acts of terror, because that is what they have been told by their dog-whistling politicians, including their commander in chief. Also, they have guns and grenades.

I am by no means arguing that impeachment, or the 25th amendment, or even censure are not worth pursuing. Everything available is well worth pursuing. Every legal, statutory, constitutional, familial, and political mechanism available to remove a lethally dangerous person who lives in an alternate reality from the illusion that he holds power should be on the table. But the years-long public and institutional failure to take Trump’s self-evident madness seriously has caused a rolling national mental health crisis that cannot be ignored, whatever happens in the days to come. Insurrectionists are now inside the Congress, the Senate and in the statehouses, just as they are outside of them rioting.

The legal system is a particularly cumbersome instrument in domestic violence, spousal abuse, and mass terror situations. Getting to that point usually means there has been failure in multiple other realms. The constitutional system is vastly more cumbersome even than the legal system. By all means we should use every tool in the arsenal to address what happened last Wednesday and what is to come. But that we have gotten to this point means there has been enormous failure. This is no longer merely a crisis of broad constitutional checks and balances, but rather, a domestic political meltdown of vast proportions. Impeachment, while a good start, addresses only part of the problem. The removal of Trump, if it happens, is only a small step toward a cure we should have put in place years ago.

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