These are the desperate hours.
We are down to a little more than 160 hours before an unhinged and unrepentant Donald Trump leaves office. Until we reach the safety of noon on Jan. 20, every time that the hour hand moves a notch around the clock is a source of comfort.
Congressional rhetoric over the next day or two may suggest otherwise, but the unalterable reality is that Trump will serve out his term, even as it ends in infamy.
Despite the efforts of House Democrats to appeal to Mike Pence, the 25th Amendment is unworkable with a president like Trump.
Designed for situations like Woodrow Wilson’s crippling stroke (1919) and Dwight Eisenhower’s near-fatal heart attack (1955), the 25th Amendment depends on the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet displaying independence. The mechanism breaks down if Pence and the surviving members of the Cabinet remain silenced by their fear of Trump’s vengeance.
The House is poised Wednesday to impeach Trump for a second time, but this is far more a symbolic declaration than a practical way of shortening his final week in office. Even if the Senate were not limited to pro forma sessions until Jan. 19, an impeachment trial is not geared to yield an instant verdict.
Equally important, there is limited evidence that 17 GOP senators — the minimum required for a two-thirds vote for conviction — would join the 50 Democrats to remove Trump. Though The New York Times reported Tuesday afternoon that Mitch McConnell has displayed some sympathy for Trump’s impeachment.
Up to now, each time the House has passed an impeachment resolution, the Senate trial has broken down on partisan grounds. Dating back to Andrew Johnson in 1868, the stalwart Mitt Romney is the only senator in history who has ever voted to convict a president of his own party.
The Trump years have destroyed the smug “the system worked” certainties that had long surrounded the downfall of Richard Nixon in 1974. In that case, the impeachment vote at the House Judiciary Committee was bipartisan, and Nixon resigned when it became certain that he would be convicted by the Senate.
Trump, of course, lacks Nixon’s self-awareness and (I never thought I would type these words) his sense of honor. So we count the hours in the desperate hope that there is no confrontation with Iran or China.
Looking for redemption
Capitol Hill is filled with Trump’s enablers — cynical Republican legislators who failed to see the risk in indulging the president’s crazed fantasies about a stolen election. Now, I suspect, many of them are obsessing over how to restore their reputations.
Some of these private reassessments have been prompted by the crassest reason imaginable — the growing corporate move to cut off PAC support for the 147 senators and House members who voted to challenge the electoral vote count. It is telling that Rick Scott, who heads the fundraising arm of the Senate Republicans, voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.
Some reputations are beyond salvation. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz should accept the reality that they will never be president, never be respected by their Senate colleagues and never be able to escape the stench of their prominent roles in denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election.
Maybe two decades of quiet work as hospital orderlies in critical care wards might be the only way that Hawley and Cruz can begin to erase the stain of Jan. 6.
Kevin McCarthy is in an analogous position. In any future campaign for GOP House leader or for speaker, it should be stressed everywhere that McCarthy voted to overturn a legitimate election and that his probable rival Liz Cheney took the honorable path in quickly acknowledging Biden’s victory and announced that she would vote for Trump’s second impeachment.
But at stake is much more than just a few political careers. The only true penance for the Trump 147 — the dead-enders in Congress who backed the electoral challenges -— is to loudly and publicly admit that they were wrong and that they were weak.
A crucial juncture
At a moment when the specter of renewed violence hangs over the inauguration, nothing is more important for American democracy than the near-universal acceptance that Biden won a free and fair election by a healthy margin.
Yes, there are maybe a dozen or two dozen congressional Republicans — caught up in the fever swamps of QAnon craziness — who have convinced themselves that the more than 60 court decisions rejecting Trump’s electoral claims are merely evidence of an epic worldwide conspiracy.
But the bulk of Trump’s congressional enablers now know that they should never have gone along with the efforts of a tin-pot authoritarian president to overturn an electoral defeat. They are the ones who in the coming days should go on the floor of the House and the Senate to deliver the most important speeches of their careers.
These addresses should be rooted in genuine contrition rather than sound like hostage videos delivered with gritted teeth. What is required is much more than to mechanically say, “Yes, Biden won. Now it is time to move on.”
I know that the guiding principle in politics these days is to double down rather than to admit error. But, with democracy hanging in the balance, this is a moment to abandon standard political gamesmanship.
What are needed are lengthy statements of conscience from these errant Republicans explaining in detail why Biden was the electoral winner and how they personally yielded to political pressures to indulge the fantasy that these results were ever in dispute.
Maybe the Trump virus is too rooted in the fabric of the Republican Party for anything to work other than a permanent rupture between genuine conservatives and born-again authoritarians. But that would be the death knell for the two-party system that has given America stability until Trump’s election.
Yes, there are other remedies out there from a postinauguration Trump trial in the Senate to possible expulsion of members of Congress who encouraged violence.
But nothing is more important than bipartisan cheers for Joe Biden next week as he becomes the 46th president of this badly wounded nation.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.