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US President-elect Joe Biden (AFP)
US President-elect Joe Biden (AFP)

Biden faces no-win choice: Play avenger or conciliator?

  • Despite the president-elect’s goal of national unity, many Democrats want him to endorse impeachment

President-elect Joe Biden faces a lot of tough choices as he heads into office, but he now confronts a particularly fraught one: Does he play the role of avenger or conciliator?

It is a no-win proposition.

The stream of videos, pictures and sounds that continue to emerge from inside a Capitol under siege last week are showing in more graphic detail the horrors that unfolded when a pro-Trump mob showed up to try to stop the confirmation of Mr. Biden’s election over unproven charges of election fraud. One man ran through the Senate gallery carrying zip ties, the only logical use for which would be to handcuff hostages. The crowd chanted that Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the building, should be hung.

A group of staff members of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hid under a conference table while the crowd outside, in search of the speaker, tried to break down the door. Two police officers who tried to defend the Capitol have died, one after having been hit in the head with a fire extinguisher.

Even Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager and White House counselor, responded over the weekend with a tweet saying, “Don’t avert your eyes & don’t excuse this. The more we see & learn, the worse it is."

Those images have hardened the resolve of many Democrats, and even some Republicans, to push Mr. Trump out of office in the few days left, either through his own resignation or invocation of the 25th Amendment’s clauses providing for the removal of a president unfit to continue serving. But neither course seems remotely likely.

That leaves either simply letting Mr. Trump serve out his final days—or, as seems increasingly likely, have the House impeach him and the Senate try him for encouraging the attack. Many Democrats charge that it is important to discourage future insurrectionists by showing that the president’s role in inspiring this one won’t go unpunished. They would like Mr. Biden’s endorsement, which he has so far declined to provide.

The practical problem is that, while the House might move quickly to impeach, the Senate almost certainly wouldn’t move quickly to a trial. Democrats might not even want a trial until they take control of the Senate later this month. Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, said over the weekend that House leaders might wait until after Mr. Biden’s first 100 days to send articles of impeachment to the Senate, raising the novel question of whether a president already out of office still can be tried.

That course would ensure that the controversies Mr. Trump generates would hang over the crucial opening phase of Mr. Biden’s presidency, including the life-or-death matter of speeding up the rollout of coronavirus vaccines. Mr. Trump, who thrives on attention, would continue to get it; the hopes of foes who want him to simply fade away would be dashed.

Moreover, some Republicans argue that Mr. Biden’s oft-professed desire to move beyond divisions and political reprisals and into a period of greater unity would be seriously undermined if he supports reprisals against Mr. Trump personally. They also argue that the case against Mr. Trump as an inciter of violence is undermined by the fact that in his speech to his supporters before they marched on the Capitol, while he encouraged his supporters to “fight like hell" to change the election outcome, he also told them to march “peacefully and patriotically."

To most Democrats, those calls for unity and healing now ring hollow after most Republicans either tacitly or explicitly accepted Mr. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and his charges that the election was stolen.

Still, history offers some examples of new presidents who have chosen to make tough choices in the interest of national healing. President James Monroe, a southerner, undertook a tour of northern states shortly after his inauguration in an attempt to start healing a north-south political split exacerbated by his election. President Warren Harding, whose brief term was marred by scandal, nonetheless tried to heal wounds left by World War I by commuting the sentence of socialist Eugene V. Debs, convicted of seditious actions for, among other things, encouraging draft resistance.

Most famously, of course, President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, to spare the country the trauma of a trial over Watergate crimes. The decision sparked outrage and probably helped cost Mr. Ford election in 1976, but has been looked upon more kindly by history.

“Each—even poor Harding—perceived that the temperature had to be turned down," says historian Stephen Ochs.

There is no easy call here for an incoming president. History and the chances for upstanding future behavior by public figures require some reckoning for what happened last week. But deciding what that reckoning should be isn’t easy—and it’s surely not a choice Mr. Biden wanted.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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