It was too little, too late, and may fail to save a presidency imploding at staggering speed under the weight of Donald Trump’s tragic flaws.
Late in the final act of his tumultuous administration, the President finally admitted the reality of his political demise Thursday, suddenly surrounded by calls for his resignation, a staff exodus, potential criminal liability and concern over his mental state. The threat of a second impeachment was gaining momentum Friday morning, as more House Democrats signed on to the idea, even if a Senate trial appears inconceivable so close to Inauguration Day.
In a scripted, stilted video, Trump condemned the mayhem unleashed by his supporters in the US Capitol and admitted unequivocally – more than two months after his election loss – that he will no longer be president in 12 days.
But presidents don’t get credit for pledging a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power” after encouraging their mobs to punish another branch of government and doing everything possible to destabilize the nascent administrations of their successors.
They can’t get away with lurching into an “address on national healing,” as the White House called his remarks, after spending two months subverting democracy by denying their election losses and spending four years shredding truth and inflaming cultural and racial divides for political gain.
Given multiple reports about Trump’s true, defiant state of mind, there is every reason to doubt the sentiments behind a prerecorded video message in which he never mentioned President-elect Joe Biden. In the past, the President has often used formal addresses to extricate himself from tough spots before revealing his true feelings on Twitter.
There is also little doubt that Trump’s video message was a desperate attempt to salvage his fast-declining political position after a disastrous day filled with outrage about his conduct and growing concerns about whether he is psychologically fit for office.
“I think that video was done only because almost all his senior staff was about to resign, and impeachment is imminent,” a Trump adviser told CNN’s Jim Acosta. Several disgusted senior aides have already quit over his seditious behavior – including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Others are staying only to keep the country on the rails over the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, Trump’s relationship with several of his top allies on Capitol Hill appears to be fraying. He engaged in a “heated exchange” with House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, a stalwart ally, as rioters were overrunning the Capitol this week, a source briefed on the conversation told CNN’s Phil Mattingly. The House minority leader was impressing on Trump the real-time severity of the situation and implored him to forcefully denounce the attackers, to which Trump demurred, leading to the back-and-forth.
And Trump hasn’t spoken to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for weeks, sources say, as part of the fallout from the Kentucky Republican’s acknowledgment last month that Biden won the presidency.
‘A very flawed human being’
Advisers to Vice President Mike Pence have been fielding inquiries about whether he would lead the Cabinet in invoking the 25th Amendment to declare Trump unfit for office. Pence, however, is unlikely to pursue the option, CNN has reported, since it is a highly complicated constitutional maneuver that Trump could counter and that would take up most of the waning days until Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
But former White House chief of staff John Kelly told CNN’s Jake Tapper in a candid interview on Thursday that if he were still in the Cabinet he would advocate the President’s removal.
“He’s a very, very flawed human being,” Kelly told Tapper, after days in which the President’s demagoguery, autocratic instincts, lack of compassion, assaults on truth and vanity have driven the nation to a breaking point.
Trump White House
In another barely believable move in the fast-escalating implosion of the presidency, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, issued a statement revealing that they had called Pence to discuss the 25th Amendment but had not yet heard back.
“The President’s dangerous and seditious acts necessitate his immediate removal from office,” they said.
Even the staunchly conservative editorial page of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal told Trump he should take personal responsibility and resign – a sign of his fracturing political power base.
The Journal argued that it would be in everyone’s interest, and preferable to impeachment or removal, if Trump “simply goes quietly” but left no doubt that it considered his actions on Wednesday impeachable.
Chances rise of end days’ impeachment
A second, unprecedented impeachment of a living president would normally be inconceivable. But in a way, such a scenario would be a fitting finale for the most lawless, turbulent presidency in history.
When House Democrats on Friday hold their first full-caucus call since the attack on the US Capitol, they’ll weigh the possibility of a swift vote on articles of impeachment against the President, sources told CNN.
The drama comes amid fury and trauma on Capitol Hill over Trump’s incitement of a mob that breached the Capitol for the first time since 1814 in rioting that left five people dead.
The events of the past two days have spurred bipartisan concerns about Trump’s increasingly vengeful mood and the damage he could wreak as he contemplates the end of his presidency and a transition to civilian life in which a flurry of legal challenges awaits.
In essence, the rationale for the impeachment effort would be a stunning conclusion that America – and the world – is in peril if he remains in office even for little more than a week. And there’s a long-term argument, since impeachment, if he were convicted, would bar Trump from holding public office in the future.
A decision by House Democratic leaders to pursue an unprecedented second impeachment would find fertile evidence. It could be argued that Trump has committed several high crimes and misdemeanors in the last week alone, from his attempt to pressure Republican officials in Georgia to find voters to overturn his election loss to his goading of the Capitol attackers.
What, for example, could be more contrary to Trump’s oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States than inciting supporters who then sought to disrupt the lawful ceremony finalizing his successor’s election?
Federal investigators are looking at everyone involved in Wednesday’s unrest, including the role Trump played in the mass rally that preceded the assault on the citadel of US democracy and left lawmakers and staff cowering in their chambers amid an appalling scene of mob rule.
But a new impeachment push would face huge practical and political challenges with a high bar of convincing the country that ousting a President so close to the end of his term was in the national interest.
House Democrats – who previously impeached Trump over his pressure on Ukraine to interfere in the US election to damage Biden – would face claims from some Republicans that they are seeking to exact political revenge at the end of Trump’s term.
And despite the widespread outrage across party lines over Trump’s behavior, it still seems a stretch that proponents of impeachment would reach the necessary two-thirds majority in the Republican-led Senate to secure a conviction and ouster of the President.
Then there are the logistical challenges built into compressing a process that normally takes months – includes long committee hearings, debates and a trial in the Senate – into a few days.
There’s the question of whether a final-days impeachment – which would serve as a warning to future presidents about the limits of their power – would only deepen the venomous divides that have been ripped open by Trump’s presidency.
Still, the overwhelming sentiment expressed in a discussion between Pelosi and her leadership team Thursday night was to move ahead with a quick impeachment vote, multiple sources tell CNN’s Manu Raju. The view among most top Democrats, including Pelosi, was that Trump should be held accountable for his actions, though there were some dissenters who were concerned such a move could be perceived as an overreach.
Biden is already facing multiple crises, including a murderous pandemic that has never been worse and on Thursday killed more than 4,000 Americans in one day – a record. The aftermath of an impeachment would likely make his all-but-impossible task of unifying the country even tougher.
A person close to Biden told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that the President-elect has no appetite for opening an impeachment proceeding against the President.
“Impeachment would not help unify this country,” the person said, while stressing that the matter was one for Congress to decide.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.