Impeachment vote: GOP grapples with how to address Capitol violence

Meg Kinnard/AP/File
House of Representatives candidate Nancy Mace, a Republican, poses on Nov. 4, 2020 with supporters outside a Waffle House where the Republican once worked in Ladson, South Carolina. Ms. Mace defeated Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, in South Carolina's 1st District.

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How do you stifle a violent strain that has derived encouragement from the president of the United States? That was the dilemma facing GOP lawmakers as the House of Representatives met today to debate and vote on a resolution to impeach President Donald Trump for incitement of an insurrection targeting the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6.

Democrats fault Republicans for allowing this violent strain to gain momentum over the past four years, and have called on them to hold President Trump accountable. Ten House Republicans, including their No. 3 – Rep. Liz Cheney – came out in support of impeachment. But many others, while describing Mr. Trump as in a class of his own when it comes to dangerously divisive rhetoric, describe the storming of the Capitol as symptomatic of a much broader national malaise that has also erupted in violence on the left in recent months. They warn that a hasty impeachment without due process risks inflaming the country just days before the Biden inauguration.

“It throws gasoline on the fire,” says Rep. Nancy Mace, a new GOP congresswoman from South Carolina who worked on the 2016 Trump campaign and has been one of the most forceful and unequivocal Republican voices denouncing him since last week’s siege.

Why We Wrote This

Many Republican lawmakers came out strongly against the violent siege on Jan. 6, but most saw impeachment of President Trump as inflaming rather than stifling the passions behind the violence.

Rep. Nancy Mace, a suburban mom from South Carolina, worked on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, championed his accomplishments over the past four years, and with his endorsement won her inaugural run for Congress this fall.

But just three days after swearing to uphold the Constitution, she swore off Mr. Trump. There is no room for Mr. Trump in the Republican Party after Jan. 6, she said, calling his actions “indefensible.”

Many House Republicans have publicly criticized the president’s role in encouraging supporters to march on the Capitol, where some stormed into Congress as lawmakers were debating whether to object to the Electoral College results showing Joe Biden as the victor.

Why We Wrote This

Many Republican lawmakers came out strongly against the violent siege on Jan. 6, but most saw impeachment of President Trump as inflaming rather than stifling the passions behind the violence.

However, amid intensifying political pressure, concerns about more violence around the inauguration next week, and entrenched partisanship, Republicans remain divided over how best to stifle the violent strain that has emerged on the right.

“I’m holding [Mr. Trump] accountable. The media is holding him accountable. I think history is going to hold him accountable, too,” Representative Mace said outside the House chamber Tuesday night. “But the problem is, he’s only in office for one more week. .... I think [impeachment] throws gasoline on the fire.”

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, walks through the U.S. Capitol as Democrats debate one article of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump, in Washington, Jan. 13, 2021.

Today, Democrats moved forward with a resolution to impeach Mr. Trump for incitement of an insurrection, including willfully making statements that “encouraged – and foreseeably resulted in – lawless action at the Capitol, such as: ‘if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.’” 

Ten Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, joined Democrats in a 232-197 House vote in favor of impeachment. She said President Trump “lit the flame of this attack” and failed to immediately and forcefully intervene to stop it, calling it the greatest betrayal of any U.S. president to his oath to the Constitution. 

The New York Times reported Tuesday night that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also favored impeachment as the most expedient way to exorcise Mr. Trump from the party, raising Democratic hopes of a groundswell of Republican support.

But on Wednesday, Senator McConnell declined to use an emergency provision to bring the Senate back before its scheduled Jan. 19 reconvening, pushing any possibility of an impeachment trial into President-elect Joe Biden’s term, when Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer will take over as majority leader. And over the course of the day, it became clear that Democrats’ hopes of up to two dozen GOP votes in the House were overblown. 

The small number of Republicans openly supporting impeachment likely reflected a variety of factors, from the political cost – both from fellow lawmakers as well as from Mr. Trump’s base – to security concerns. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio has already called for replacing Representative Cheney as chair of the GOP House caucus and Republican House members said privately that they worried voting for impeachment could physically endanger them and their families.

Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger, told MSNBC his Republican colleagues are “paralyzed by fear,” adding that last night “a couple of them broke down in tears ... saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.” Even before the most recent violence, death threats against members of Congress were on the rise, targeting Democrats as well.  

The FBI has warned of armed protests in Washington, as well as in all 50 state capitals ahead of and on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. 

A much broader malaise

Democrats have criticized Republicans for allowing this violent strain to gain momentum over the past four years, describing them as too eager to tap into Mr. Trump’s popularity for the sake of their own ambitions – or at least unwilling to jeopardize their political fortunes by crossing him. 

But many Republicans describe the violence that erupted on Jan. 6 as symptomatic of a much broader malaise in America, in which distrust in government has soared on both sides of the political spectrum, fueled by increasingly partisan rhetoric and deadlock that prevent Congress from effectively serving the people.

“I think the summer of violence, as well as what happened on Jan. 6, are really symptoms of a much bigger problem and we’ve got to address it,” says Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican who spearheaded a letter to President-elect Biden calling an 11th-hour impeachment “as unnecessary as it is inflammatory” and calling on him to urge Speaker Nancy Pelosi to refrain from pursuing it. “I think we have to recognize that the rhetoric that’s used from politicians, myself included, gets people fired up and we’ve got to do our best to be more understanding of each other’s bases and supporters and make sure we’re focused on policy and not personality.”

While describing Mr. Trump as in a class of his own when it comes to dangerously divisive rhetoric, many House Republicans have called out Democrats for tolerating violence on the left around racial injustice protests in recent months, as many businesses were looted or burned, causing damage that could exceed the $1.4 billion cost (in 2020 dollars) of the 1992 Rodney King riots. 

Democrats decry such “both-sides-ism,” saying that the cause of racial justice is hardly analogous to disrupting the peaceful transfer of power.

GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who along with Representative Mace signed a letter opposing the Electoral College objections of his GOP colleagues last week as well as the letter to Mr. Biden, says Congress has misdiagnosed the threat, erroneously labeling a wide swath of regular Americans as “domestic terrorists.”

“Instead of trying to fix the underlying problem of Jan. 6 – which is, people don’t trust our government – we’re hunkering down here and calling in reinforcements,” says Representative Massie outside the House chamber, as hundreds of National Guard members patrolled a newly erected security fence outside the Capitol. “And I think it could escalate. Somebody needs to de-escalate.”

Many of Mr. Trump’s supporters appear to be genuinely convinced that the election was stolen from the president amid a rapid scale-up of mail-in voting, despite numerous Trump-appointed judges and GOP election officials debunking the president’s claims and declaring that they saw no evidence of widespread election fraud. A portion of these supporters see themselves as engaged in a valiant revolution against a tyrannical partnership between Mr. Biden, the left, and Big Tech. They have drawn parallels between their actions and the American Revolution of 1776 against the British crown.

Mr. Trump urged his supporters to march on the Capitol as Congress was meeting in a joint session overseen by Vice President Mike Pence to count the Electoral College votes. By some accounts, some of them were prepared to die for the cause. Ashli Babbitt, an unarmed U.S. Air Force veteran, was fatally shot while trying to climb through a broken pane to the Speaker’s Lobby, just outside the House chamber. Others took in the scene from a distance.

“I think people who just care about their country were sent here on an impossible mission, on a suicide mission,” says Representative Massie. “There was no way for them to overturn the election, but they were led into thinking that if they came here, there was a way to overturn the election.”

“Snap” impeachment

Few Republicans are defending Mr. Trump’s rhetoric or actions on Jan. 6. But some questioned whether they constitute impeachable offenses, and many expressed concern that a snap impeachment would set a dangerous precedent for the future. 

“Honestly, while I think he bears considerable responsibility, the president deserves his day in court, too,” says Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican member of the House Rules Committee. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen an impeachment where the president doesn’t have any representation at all.”

Many Republicans had favored a censure vote rather than impeachment, which had the potential to get far more GOP support. 

Representative Cole, who during this morning’s proceedings expressed support and respect for his Democratic counterpart, Chairman James McGovern of Massachusetts, says the way forward involves rebuilding a more constructive political culture.  

“I think all of us have to take a much more responsible tone,” he says. “The president’s been a big part of that, but I think it goes well beyond him.”

“You know what I would do?” asks Representative Buck, standing outside an entrance to the House chamber and pointing inside. “I would lock everybody in that chamber and I wouldn’t let anybody out until we figured out how do we want to start talking to each other.” 

“There was a time when members lived in D.C., their kids played sports together, and they attended sporting events, and their spouses socialized together,” he adds. “Now ... we all run back to our districts and we get bombarded with a particular message ... and we come back here energized to do things that are really more partisan than they were at another point in time in our history. 

“And I think there are a lot of things we can do, if we sat down and looked at it,” he says. “Throwing impeachment on the floor is not one of those things. This is not a healing move.”

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