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Thirteen Days of Peril: Managing the Chaotic End of the Trump Presidency
Thirteen Days of Peril: Managing the Chaotic End of the Trump Presidency
Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, in Washington, DC. Demonstrators breached security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. ALEX EDELMAN / AFP
Statement / United States

Thirteen Days of Peril: Managing the Chaotic End of the Trump Presidency

The mob incursion into the U.S. Capitol on 6 January proved that the United States’ transfer of power holds dangers without modern precedent. Political leaders of both parties should urgently explore their constitutional options for protecting the country’s people and institutions from their own president. 

Since a violent mob instigated by President Donald Trump surged into the U.S. Capitol on the afternoon of 6 January, a question that U.S. political leaders have arguably been dodging for too long became especially acute: how to safeguard the United States’ people and institutions, and for that matter global peace and security, from the U.S. president. While the thirteen days left in Trump’s administration may seem a modest period to weather, they could be a perilously long time given the extraordinary powers of the U.S. presidency. Members of the president’s Republican Party in Congress and in senior roles in his administration must use the influence afforded by their constitutional powers to rein in Trump for the next two weeks, which at a minimum will mean wielding a credible threat to expel him from office if he threatens to do more harm on the scale of the 6 January events. Then it will be up to the incoming Joe Biden administration to begin tackling the internal rifts and tensions that have led the world’s most powerful nation to this precarious place.

While the thirteen days left in Trump’s administration may seem a modest period to weather, they could be a perilously long time given the extraordinary powers of the U.S. presidency.

When, in October 2020, Crisis Group wrote for the first time in our 25 years about the risk of election-related violence in the U.S., we highlighted risk factors that would spell danger in any country. These included years of political polarisation overlaid with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with ideological agendas; the likelihood of a contested outcome; and above all President Trump himself, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict in the service of his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. We also observed that the country’s mature democratic institutions could serve as guardrails that might, with some luck, keep it from heading over a cliff.

For about eight weeks those guardrails appeared to be holding, notwithstanding President Trump’s best efforts to test them. On election night (3-4 November 2020), he took to the airwaves to declare victory, even as broadcast network projections were signalling the opposite; as his loss became clear, he set his sights on overturning it. His attempts to do so subsequently ran the gamut from a litigation campaign that failed in the course of 60-plus cases to prove even a single instance of serious electoral fraud, to an unsuccessful effort to persuade state legislatures to appoint Trump electors to the Electoral College – the body that under the U.S. constitution selects the president – even though their constituents had selected Biden. On 3 January, officials from the southern state of Georgia released audio tape of an hour-long telephone call during which Trump harangued the state’s top elections official (like the president, a Republican) to “find” the 11,000-plus votes that would be required to flip the state from Biden to Trump. None of it worked. Indeed, Trump’s insistence that the November polls had been rigged may have depressed Republican turnout for two Senate runoff races in Georgia, which the Democratic Party won on 5 January, allowing it to claim control of the upper legislative house. 

As 6 January began, and Congress convened in a joint session to tabulate and certify the votes cast in December by the Electoral College, the final constitutional act required in the selection of the president-elect, it almost seemed that the country might be preparing to turn a corner. Some Trump stalwarts in Congress made clear that they would object to certification out of purported respect for Republican voters who – after being inundated for months by the president’s and his allies’ meritless claims of election fraud – doubted the polls’ integrity. Critics rightly noted the cynical circularity of this logic. Still, the objections promised to be a largely performative gambit. Between the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a strong cadre of Republican members (most prominently in the Senate) who correctly considered the move anti-democratic and unconstitutional, it was doomed to fail. 

But while it fizzled as a legal matter, it also proved a catalyst for the violence that unfolded on 6 January. Early in the day, infuriated by news that Vice President Mike Pence would not use his ceremonial role as presiding officer at the congressional joint session to reject the Electoral College votes, Trump fulminated before a crowd of supporters who had gathered in downtown Washington. They had been drawn to the city in part by the president’s own social media exhortations. Referring to the election as an “egregious assault on our democracy”, he urged them to march on the Capitol, in order to “cheer on” members of Congress who were planning to object to certification of Biden’s victory, before concluding ominously: “We are probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you will never take back our country with weakness”. The president’s address followed rabble-rousing speeches by his sons, Trump loyalist Rudy Giuliani and others. 

It took several hours for authorities to restore control of the building so that Congress could resume its vote count.

Members of the mob, seemingly having absorbed these words, headed down the National Mall to the Capitol, where they breached security barriers (though at some points footage shows security officers allowing them access), overwhelmed the police, took control of the corridors, ransacked offices and draped banners emblazoned with Trump’s name from the railings. Amid the chaos, Capitol Police shot and killed one woman, three others died from medical emergencies, and the authorities found and removed two pipe bombs from the area – one at the Democratic National Committee and the other at the Republican National Committee headquarters. At a press conference that night, the District of Columbia police chief reported finding other weapons cached in the vicinity, including a cooler containing Molotov cocktails. It took several hours for authorities to restore control of the building so that Congress could resume its vote count, and it was well past 3 am on 7 January when Joe Biden had received enough certified votes to be declared victorious.

The question is what happens now. The events may have served as an awfully belated wake-up call to some senior Republicans who – out of principle or political expediency – finally urged President Trump to end his resistance to a peaceful transfer of power. Trump himself, under pressure, later issued a statement in which he reiterated that he “totally disagreed with the outcome of the election” but vowed that “there will be an orderly transition” on 20 January, when President-elect Biden is slated to be sworn into office. 

The events may have served as an awfully belated wake-up call to some senior Republicans who finally urged President Trump to end his resistance to a peaceful transfer of power.

That may not be wholly reassuring. With thirteen days left before Biden’s inauguration, the extraordinary powers of the U.S. presidency, from the ability to call up armed forces to quell civil unrest to the unfettered power to launch nuclear weapons, rest with a president who fomented an act of insurrection against the legislative branch of his own government. Even when the consequences of his incitement were clear, Trump appeared remorseless, putting out a video statement in which he doubled down on his false claims the election was rigged and professed love for the insurrectionists even as he urged them to go home, and resisting his staff’s entreaties to call up the District of Columbia national guard to restore order in the city. (The Pentagon reportedly dispatched the guard only after the intervention of Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.) Social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter suspended the president’s access, although the non-mainstream platforms where the 6 January gathering was largely organised have yet to take action. Some senior staff have resigned their posts and others have signalled that they are considering it. But absent more concerted action the risk remains that Trump will incite further violence or lash out in other dangerous ways.

That risk can be managed, but it will be tricky. It will require consistent pressure from the leaders of Trump’s own Republican Party, who – because they would be linchpins of any constitutional effort to remove him from office – control what is likely the most effective source of leverage for keeping him in line. Under the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – which Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have already said should be invoked – the heads of major executive branch departments and agencies can suspend his authority by majority vote if they find that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. Alternatively, Congress can seek to impeach and then convict the president – something that would require a significant number of Republican Senators to join with their Democratic counterparts. Neither process is easy, but with sufficient will neither is impossible.

Pence may see that he has less to lose by remaining loyal to Trump, and more to gain by behaving presidentially when the real president will not.

Vice President Pence, who has a dual constitutional role both near the apex of the executive branch and as the leader of the Senate, would be well positioned to pull together the support that is needed in both branches and to present the president, at a minimum, with a simple message: either refrain from instigating further violence, and do (or delegate) what needs to be done to hold the country together until it passes into safer hands, or we will expel you from office. This step might have been unthinkable even weeks ago but with the recent rupture between the two men and Trump’s public vituperation about it, Pence may see that he has less to lose by remaining loyal to Trump, and more to gain by behaving presidentially when the real president will not. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who gave a strong speech against the decertification effort before the violence erupted, should work hand in glove with Pence to deliver him the votes he would need to make good on this threat. 

Whether crisis mitigation would be better served by removing Trump from office, potentially martyring him further in the eyes of his most dangerous supporters, or allowing him to serve out the last thirteen days of his term, will be a judgment best informed by how he actually behaves. As for other steps that can be taken, law enforcement officials should immediately make clear that they will vigorously prosecute all those for whom there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing and that any who follow in the mob’s footsteps will be held to account. Congress should investigate why Capitol security was so unprepared and why the mob attained such easy access to the grounds. Foreign leaders who expressed their shock about the 6 January events should continue to do so; the U.S. political elite needs to know just how alarming and potentially destabilising its dysfunctionality appears to the rest of the world. Cabinet members and their staffers whose leaked whisperings about the 25th Amendment on 6 January may have helped pave the way for the president’s grudging acquiescence the next morning should keep it up, mindful that the spectre of invoking this remedy may be the best medicine against having to apply it.

Finally, and crucially, U.S. leaders and ordinary citizens alike will need to reconcile themselves to the reality that the tensions that brought the country to the lip of the volcano where it now finds itself are not going to evaporate with the transition of power on 20 January. In an understandable appeal to the population’s best instincts, President-elect Biden said in an address on 6 January, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are”. 

These events are the culmination of decades of polarisation that politicians have exploited to propel their careers, that social media algorithms have rewarded to boost their platforms’ popularity, and that have helped fuel the rise of white supremacist organisations.

If only that were fully true. The events may not represent the totality of the U.S. experience, but they manifest an important part of it. Putting aside the country’s long history of violence, slavery and racial discrimination, these events are the culmination of decades of polarisation that politicians have exploited to propel their careers, that social media algorithms have rewarded to boost their platforms’ popularity, and that have helped fuel the rise of white supremacist organisations that the U.S. government now ranks as the top “persistent and lethal threat” at home. The U.S. today is a nation where millions are convinced the new president was illegitimately elected, and where too many among those millions are both armed and seemingly willing to resort to extreme measures to ensure their view prevails. That is a nation where political violence will remain a threat. It is an open question whether and how its political leaders and civil society will address the country’s deep challenges underlying these circumstances. But having spent decades telling other countries that they need to face up to their problems, it is past time for the U.S. to turn its gaze inward. The stakes could hardly be higher.