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Unity is impossible without accountability for the Capitol riot

To bridge the divide, Trump and his enablers must be held accountable

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President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, after returning from Texas on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The House voted to impeach Trump on Wednesday.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

Our nation’s senators now ponder how to vote in an impeachment trial. We all share their concern. Should we bother to convict a twice-impeached and already disgraced president less than a week away from leaving office, or should we just move on, try to heal our wounds, and give the new president a fresh start without the sideshow of a Senate trial?  

Would that the latter could be possible. Unfortunately, it isn’t. A palliative won’t do when only a purgative will help to cure the bilious politics ailing the country.  

Storm troopers’ assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 was more than a fracas spun out of control. It did more than take innocent lives, threaten elected representatives and damage a building. It shook the foundation of democracy and imperiled sacred freedoms. It was Americans attacking their own country; a malignant act of sedition wounding the soul of the nation and threatening to topple the constitutional order. 

This was not an injury that can be absorbed as a passing event that will harmlessly fade into history as a footnote to the year 2021.  

What is sedition? It is a criminal act. A fair definition is organized incitement of civil disorder against authority of the state, usually by speech that stirs up discontent, resistance or rebellion against the government. Sedition applies to anyone who incites, assists or gives aid or comfort to such disorder. It is punishable by 10 years in prison.

There is much parsing of Trump’s speech to the mob at the Ellipse before it marched up the hill to the Capitol, and of his remarks afterward. Parsing is for courts, not for legislative bodies. Conviction for impeachment is not a legal decision, but a political one. Trump’s toxic brew that day was sufficient for the Senate to convict, sitting as a political body, making a political decision.

But that is just part of the story. Trump didn’t speak in a vacuum on Jan. 6. To understand the true depth of the injury he caused requires examining his poisonous rhetoric over time. Two months of false claims of a stolen election and bullying of election officials give the lie to any idea that Trump’s speech to the mob was innocent. Coupled with weeks of prodding his followers to descend on Washington, it amounted to a call to arms that cannot be misunderstood.

We might see things differently, if we had mistakenly overlooked serious election wrongdoing. Is there any single person among 328 million Americans who can produce a shred of evidence that the election was stolen or fraudulent? If so, we haven’t heard from them. Trump’s attorneys scoured the countryside for months searching for a competent witness of fraud without finding one. They filed claims of fraud and malfeasance far and wide in over 60 courts, but they forgot to provide any evidence. Neither the courts, the Congress, nor election officials found any evidence of material mistake or wrongdoing in any state’s election results.  

To claim otherwise is bald opinion. Bald opinions, even from 74.2 million Trump voters, are not evidence and will not change the election. Reason stares to think that 81.4 million Biden ballots could be disqualified merely because members of the losing side believe they should. 

This mob acted on nothing but rank opinion fomented by Trump and hopped-up agitators like Congressman Mo Brooks, Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, and Rudy Giuliani. Marinated in self-interest, they pumped out a torrent of lies wildly amplified on social media. Now the chickens have come home to roost and they are spouting a different line: don’t rush to judgment; we need due process; the real culprits were those with brickbats, zip ties and nooses; it’s time for healing, not more disunity; impeachment is a dangerous precedent; we must act to save a Christian nation. 

Rush to judgment, no due process? Please. Due process means fair treatment under the rules. This impeachment is within the rules. Conviction for high crimes and misdemeanors is defined solely by the collective judgement of senators and occurs whenever two-thirds of them decide that standard is met. Can any reasonable person really separate acts of a violent mob from their wellspring? Perhaps others were also behind this American tragedy, including white supremacy terrorists on the right, but Trump could have prevented it and instead brought the fuel and lit the fire. Go to the video footage. It’s there for all to see.  

A time to heal, not further divide? Wishful thinking. The wound is too serious for the body’s immune system. A wound left to fester leads to out-of-control infection, septic shock and death. The scab must be ripped off and the medicine — personal accountability — applied as quickly as possible, before the heathens rage again. And Emerson’s metaphor applies, “If you shoot at a king, you’d better kill him.” Removal and disqualification are required; impeachment alone won’t do.

Impeachment a dangerous remedy? The real danger is freedom of fair elections, and it’s teetering on the precipice. We take freedom for granted, but freedom is fragile. As Ronald Reagan said in a 1967 speech, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction ... it must be ... protected ... or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our grandchildren what it was once like where men were free.” To blow up democracy by nullifying nearly 160 million votes would surely put freedom in a death spiral. This is a time for profiles in courage, not cowardice. Admittedly, courage asks a lot from lawmakers whose office hangs in the balance.    

Keep Trump on the throne in order preserve a Christian nation? That is a fine piece of political legerdemain from Sen. Hawley. Name one example from Christ’s teachings and practices justifying the self-righteous imposition of one person’s religion on another by fraud, subterfuge, for political gain or for any other reason. Hawley’s vision is that Americans have but one choice — his preferred religious doctrine or paganism. As one writer says, it is a vision that a corrupt sociopath is preferable to the “horrifying freedom that religious moderates and liberals offer the world.” It is a vision that is incompatible with a constitutional democracy and it cannot stand. His clenched-fist salute to the angry mob is permanent proof of his disqualification as an elected official.  

We are about to find out whether any principled leaders remain in the Republican Party. More of them need to stand up and seal the removal of Trump, if the party is to recover.

We will need to be ever vigilant. As President Truman once told a member of his staff, “I sit and shiver ... at the thought of what could happen with some demagogue in this office I hold.” We had one and we barely rid ourselves of him. May there never be another.

There are positive signs on the horizon. As Shakespeare wrote, “There is a benefit of ill.” We may look forward to rhetoric from our president that soars, not sours. We see a vision of mutual respect and good will ahead, not the specter of dystopia. We will still celebrate Independence Day, not Insurrection Day. Reassuring norms and rational decision-making will return to the White House. However we may view his policies, we will have a new president who appeals to our higher angels, not our baser instincts.  

Can we ever expect a return to “old-fashioned primary values,” as they were called by the great and exceedingly modest American novelist Conrad Richter, “courage, respect for one’s fellow man, self-reliance, courtesy, devotion to the truth, a loathing of hypocrisy, the power in simple goodness”? We may hope so.

Heaven willing, we will no longer be bombarded by Trump’s ubiquitous tweets. I woke up one morning last week thinking of this and was reminded of the old Alka-Seltzer jingle: “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, oh, what a relief it is.”

Brent Ward is a Salt Lake City attorney, former U.S. Attorney for Utah and still a member of the Republican Party.