Trump's final days put the country at a dangerous crossroad

In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, with threats of removal from office, what will the final days of Trump's presidency look like?

Posted: Jan 11, 2021 7:01 AM
Updated: Jan 11, 2021 7:01 AM

Donald Trump's presidency is in its final, chaotic spiral. But even with the end so near, each hour seems to carry a new threat to America's fragile democracy.

With less than two weeks until President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the nation is on edge -- unsure whether Trump will incite another round of violence or just carry on, petulantly, seeking outlets to whine about Twitter's decision to ban him. Recognizing the instability, Vice President Mike Pence has not ruled out an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment, a source close to the vice president told CNN Saturday night. The relationship between Trump and Pence is fractured -- they haven't spoken since Wednesday, when a violent mob stormed the Capitol, and the President never bothered to check on Pence's safety.

The insurrection put the country at a crossroads. House Democrats could bring a new round of impeachment proceedings this week, this time over Trump's role in inciting the deadly riot. If they go forward, Republicans could again be faced with a public test of their loyalty. That so few seem prepared to forcefully speak out, let alone pledge to take action against the President, suggests the Capitol siege is less likely to have marked the bloody end of Trumpism than the opening of a more dangerous chapter.

The "paranoid style in American politics," as the historian Richard Hofstadter described it nearly 60 years ago, is nothing new. Under Trump, though, and through new organizing channels on social media, it has further radicalized the modern Republican Party and moved steadily from the fringes to the center of political power in Washington and state capitals around the country, which again saw angry clashes this week.

From their gilded bubble, top Republicans have mixed condemnations -- mostly focused on Trump and his chief allies in the electoral college stunt, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri -- with a familiar refrain: that any meaningful rebuke to this horrifying display would only serve to "politicize" it and "further divide" the country. Plans to impeach Trump again and even Twitter's de-platforming of the President should, many Republicans said, be viewed as political gambits rather than rational, overdue measures to combat a vicious assault on democracy.

But those who would deny the scope of the threat were stripped of their fig leaves -- or delusions -- on Wednesday, setting off an enervating race to January 20, when Pence -- but not Trump -- will attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

Republicans haven't strayed too far from Trump

But if Pence, in his bid to keep Trump onside until then, is counting on an outpouring of support from his old colleagues on Capitol Hill, he will be disappointed. Shortly before CNN reported the vice president is keeping the 25th Amendment on the table, Texas Rep. Kevin Brady rejected it -- along any move toward impeachment -- and suggested, ridiculously, that doing so was no different from Trump's incitements.

"Those calling for impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment in response to President Trump's rhetoric this week are themselves engaging in intemperate and inflammatory language," Brady tweeted, "and calling for action that is equally irresponsible and could well incite further violence."

Meanwhile, Hawley, who is seeking to co-opt Trump's movement to realize his own lofty ambitions, has spent more time bleating on Twitter about a canceled book contract than addressing his role in Wednesday's affair. Cruz, too, is shirking responsibility and even made the comically implausible argument that he has, actually, been a consistent critic of the President. Republican leadership has been mostly quiet, going through the motions of condemning the violence while refusing to endorse any meaningful action in response.

The party's grassroots have shown little inclination to make a clean break from Trump. On Friday, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a Trump loyalist who has been careful not to make a full break from the President, was reelected to her post despite the GOP having lost control of the House in 2018, the White House in 2020 and the Senate in 2021.

Even retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, who was critical of the effort to upend the Electoral College count and told Fox News on Saturday that Trump has "committed impeachable offenses," balked at pressing forward with the process.

"I don't know whether logistically it's actually really even possible or practical and I'm not sure it's desirable to attempt to force him out, what a day or two or three prior to the day on which he's going to be finished anyway," Toomey said. "So I'm not clear that's the best path forward."

But a day later, Toomey told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" that Trump should resign from office and could face "criminal liability" after the Capitol riot, becoming the second Republican US senator to call for the President's resignation.

The refusal of congressional Republicans' to entertain any meaningful conversation over what comes next has put the onus on Democrats to chart the path forward. But they have their own political weights to balance.

Biden has shown little enthusiasm for impeachment, knowing that a Senate trial would suck the oxygen out of his first days in office and give Republicans a high-profile forum to argue that his calls for unity and pledge to cool partisan passions were campaign trail lip service.

"I'm focused on the virus, the vaccine and economic growth," Biden said when asked about impeachment on Friday. "What the Congress decides to do is for them to decide. But I'm going to have to, and they're going to have to be ready to hit the ground running."

Concerns about what impeachment could mean for the early days of Biden's presidency were addressed Sunday by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who told Tapper that House Democrats might wait until after the first 100 days of Biden's term to send any impeachment articles to the Senate for a trial.

And the incoming President's aides are also working intently behind the scenes to figure out a way to prevent impeachment from taking over after Biden starts, CNN has learned.

The President-elect won't stand in the way of the House moving forward with articles of impeachment, but officials have told CNN that his advisers are recommending other solutions to punish Trump without overtaking the start of Biden's presidency. Delaying delivery of the impeachment articles to the Senate is one option, and another is to censure Trump -- a move that may be able to draw more bipartisan support than impeachment could.

Preparing for what's coming

The political calculations now consuming both parties' brass are playing out against the backdrop of more imminent threats. Security concerns ahead of Biden's January 20 inaugural are growing. Chatter on right-wing, pro-Trump social media forums has turned increasingly virulent -- and it is unclear whether the President, even if he so chose, could rein it in.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, told CNN that his group is seeing evidence that the inauguration could become another flashpoint.

"While the broader public was aghast at what happened (Wednesday) at the Capitol, in certain corners of the sort of right wing conversation, what happened," he said, "is viewed as a success."

After the failure to protect the Capitol last week, there is new concern on the part of some Democrats that the safety of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could be compromised. Even a brief survey of the better known right-wing, pro-Trump online hubs makes clear the severity of the threat -- one that has, for too long, been waved off as anonymous bluster.

Worries over future violence extend beyond the Capitol and its immediate surroundings. American and United Airlines, with the support of two flight attendants' unions, have taken steps to beef up security in the air and on the ground. Both carriers have increased staffing at DC-area airports, which will also see deployments of Capitol Police ahead of Inauguration Day, and American has put a stop on alcohol service on flights into and out of the region.

Members of Congress will be provided with increased security -- in a coordinated effort by the Capitol Police, the Sergeant at Arms' office and the US Marshals Service -- while traveling through airports after several senators, including South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham -- who broke with the President last week -- were harassed by other travelers.

On the Hill, Democratic lawmakers are beginning to consider their options, understanding that, but for the insurrectionists' brutish bumbling and the actions of some in the rank-and-file of the Capitol police force, the toll could have been much worse. Some have begun to plant the seeds for a root-and-branch review of security at the Capitol, examining not only logistics but the makeup of the personnel entrusted to protect them.

New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman is drafting legislation that would form a commission to investigate the Capitol Police, which has in some cases been accused of either standing down too easily or even welcoming -- as in the case of an officer who appeared to pose for a selfie with an insurrectionist -- the mob into the building on Wednesday.

"Why was a fascist, white supremacist mob able to overwhelm Capitol Police? Do ties exist between the white supremacists who launched that attack and members of the police force?," Bowman tweeted. "We need answers."

House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Grace Meng, also of New York, publicly backed the legislation and Democratic committee leadership, noting its role in funding the force, said in a statement that "the breach of the Capitol raises serious questions about what law enforcement did and what they should have done differently."

The Democrats also praised the bravery of some officers, including Brian Sicknick, who died, according to officials, "due to injuries sustained while on duty."

The US Attorney's office is planning a federal murder investigation in connection to his death, a law enforcement source told CNN on Friday.

Trump has not personally commented on his death.

This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.

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