Moreover, Mr. Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 were of a piece with attempts — nonviolent but no less wrongful — to intimidate other officials, such as Georgia’s secretary of state, to use their powers to thwart the election results. The Trump campaign had every opportunity to substantiate its claims of massive fraud in court and failed miserably to do so.
By focusing the impeachment resolution on the charge of incitement of insurrection, the House made it easier for Mr. Trump’s supporters in the Senate to dismiss these acts of intimidation as irrelevant to the accusation on which they were voting.
It should not be necessary to point out that the use of the presidential office to keep power after losing an election is the gravest possible offense against our democratic constitutional order — one that the authors of the Constitution specifically contemplated and sought to prevent. The violence of Jan. 6 was bad, but even if no one at the Capitol had been hurt that day, Mr. Trump’s attempts to mobilize a mob to impede the democratic process was still a high crime or misdemeanor.
To make matters worse, Mr. Trump did nothing to stop the violence even when he was aware it was occurring. He did not deploy forces to the Capitol to put down the riot and protect members of Congress. He sent two messages to the rioters, but his appeals for peaceable behavior were tepid, and intermixed with words of support and affection for the rioters.
Perhaps most egregious was his tweet that “Mike Pence did not have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” at a time when rioters were threatening to hang the vice president. We now know that a senator informed Mr. Trump of the danger to Mr. Pence — but Mr. Trump did not retract his tweet or lift a finger to protect Mr. Pence.
This dereliction of his constitutional duty was wholly apart from any incitement and was an impeachable offense in itself. But it was not charged in the article of impeachment.
It would be foolish to think that the vote on impeachment would come out differently if the charge had been differently framed. But if the House was going to impeach, it should have framed the case to make it as difficult as possible for the Senate to acquit.
It is far from clear that Mr. Trump incited the violence of Jan. 6 in a technical legal sense, but it is abundantly clear that he sought to intimidate members of Congress and other officials to block Mr. Biden’s election, and that he failed in his duty to do what he could to end the violence once it started. Those would be ample grounds for conviction, quite apart from whether Mr. Trump committed the crime of incitement.
Michael W. McConnell, a former federal appeals court judge appointed by President George W. Bush, is a professor and the director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School. He is the author, most recently, of “The President Who Would Not Be King: Executive Power Under the Constitution.”
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