Trump ‘accountable?’ Easier said than done
In the current controversy over President Trump’s challenge to the Electoral College vote and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, we hear a lot about accountability. But what does this mean in the context of U.S. political institutions that divide authority among three branches of government, and how can Congress hold the president accountable?
Many observers, foreign and domestic, often are confused about the lines of authority in American government. In parliamentary systems, the direction is clearer. The elected legislature chooses the political executive, led by the prime minister and the legislature and parliament can remove the executive, either informally through internal party checks or formally through a majority vote of no confidence. The reasons for the removal of the government may be legal, including corruption, incompetence or simply policy differences. If a successful vote of no confidence occurs, the government steps down, to be replaced, perhaps after a caretaker government, through a general election or legislative (intra- or inter-party) negotiations.
In contrast, lines of authority and representation in the U.S. are more complex, with shared responsibility in many realms, often summarized as separation of powers and checks and balances. Perennial arguments occur over institutional limits to authority and the relationship of different actors, which has reached a crisis point as the Trump administration winds down. Trust in the president is now at such a low point that maintaining his authority for another 10 days is considered dangerous. Some of his closest Cabinet members have seized the opportunity to vote with their feet, discovering principles and reversing years of fealty to the president.
With the coming Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency (unified government), legislators can be more assertive in attempting to rein in Trump. The Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been skillful in this effort, acting quickly after the insurrection on Jan. 6. Rejecting the Republicans’ weak offer of a censure, Pelosi has given the president three options: 1) resign; 2) be subject to the 25th Amendment on presidential disability and step aside, leaving temporary leadership to Vice President Pence; 3) undergo a second impeachment process by the House, which could lead to the president’s conviction by the Senate, even after he leaves office on Jan. 20. This way of holding the U.S. head of government (and state) accountable is more complicated and politically fraught than in parliamentary systems.
Since the president is unlikely to exercise the first option and the vice president is unwilling to pursue the second, the House is now considering the third. But the impeachment process will take time to complete and it will not solve the immediate problem of how to rein in Trump until President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The process itself lays down clear markers, but Trump has ignored warnings before, as he did after his first impeachment. Further to check the president and block his authority as commander in chief, Pelosi made public her consultation with Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about monitoring any attempts by the president to engage in last-minute military adventures. Fear that Trump would abuse his authority as commander in chief was also a concern expressed in an editorial by 10 former defense secretaries.
Debate continues over the best way to keep the president in check, and in the meantime, he has been banished from the most popular social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Some observers, including Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security, consider Trump to be the preeminent short-term national security threat to the U.S.
But what about the longer term? If Trump causes this much alarm over what he might do in the immediate future, how much more harm could he do if he ran for president again in 2024 and won, either in a two-way or three-way race? Impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate is the only way to prevent Trump from running again, with the provision that punishment includes disqualification from holding public office, which requires a separate vote by the Senate. Trump — the private citizen — will continue to have a powerful base in the Republican Party and he has strong support in Congress, including from the House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who in the wee hours of Jan. 7, voted along with 138 other Republican House members not to certify Biden’s election. Eight Senators, led by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also registered at least one objection to counting Biden’s electoral votes. As of this writing, the GOP strategy appears to be to run out the clock and thereby avoid a difficult and politically embarrassing debate about Trump’s actions and his culpability.
No matter how much Republican members of Congress might complain about Trump’s permanent disqualification from running for office again, some of them would welcome it, quietly.
In coming years, the Trump problem primarily might still be theirs, but the Democrats would carry most of the responsibility for forcing Trump out of office. Political considerations aside, if Congress wants to diminish the threat to U.S. national security and hold Trump accountable for his actions, disqualification through impeachment and conviction is the only reasonable option.
James F. Hollifield is professor of political science, an academic director of the Tower Center at SMU in Dallas and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Donley T. Studlar is professor of political science emeritus at West Virginia University and an adjunct professor of community and behavioral heath at East Tennessee State University.