Amidst Dark Hour In America, Georgia Scholars Weigh In On 25th Amendment, Impeachment
GPB News spoke to Georgia State University professor Anthony Kreis and Kennesaw State University professor Andrew Pieper only a few days ago to discuss the legal ramifications of President Donald Trump's zero-hour phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he attempted to persuade the secretary to overturn the election results in the state.
"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," Pieper said then. "It was kind of painful in my heart to know that there's a very powerful individual who is living in an alternate reality."
At the time, many assumed that phone call — along with the Jan. 5 runoff election eventually won by Georgia's two new Democratic U.S. senators — would be the biggest story of the week. But the two scholars now find themselves weighing in on something else entirely.
On Wednesday afternoon, Georgians, the nation and the world watched in horror as the doors of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., were breached in a violent pro-Trump insurrection amidst the Electoral College certification, taking in images of rioters flooding the halls of the House and Senate.
For the first time in the building's history, a Confederate flag was paraded through the halls of Congress by an insurrectionist. The mob posed for photos on the floor of the Senate. Gunshots were fired in the House chamber as some members of Congress cowered in fear, trapped in the gallery above. Like a scene out of a movie, a battle took place in the Rotunda as the seditionists clashed with Capitol police.
Now five people are dead, including a Kennesaw woman and a Capitol police officer.
"What we witnessed was a direct assault on the democratic process," Kreis said.
President Trump now finds himself under a siege of his own after refusing to condemn the violence at the Capitol until hours after it began, only doing so while continuing to bolster unsubstantiated and widely debunked claims of voter fraud in a video that eventually led him to being temporarily banned by Twitter and indefinitely banned by Facebook and Instagram. He concluded that statement by calling the insurrectionists "special people."
This came on the heels of the president's criticism of Vice President Mike Pence for not using his largely ceremonial role in presiding over the electoral count to overturn the results.
In the time since then, congressional Republicans and Democrats, current and former members of his Cabinet, every living former president, President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, state governors, and foreign leaders have fiercely criticized the president.
President Trump seemed to attempt damage control on Thursday night, releasing another video to his Twitter account following the end of his temporary ban, acknowledging that he will not serve a second term and condemning the siege that he himself instigated.
"My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote," he said. "In so doing, I was fighting to defend American democracy. I continue to strongly believe that we must reform our election laws to verify the identity and the eligibility of all voters and to ensure faith and confidence in all future elections. Now Congress has certified the results."
This statement hasn't been able to stave off furor around the president's actions, with many leaders in government now pointing a finger at his rhetoric for directly inciting the insurrection on the Capitol. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Pence on Thursday to encourage him to invoke the 25th Amendment, which would remove the president from power with a majority vote from his own Cabinet. Barring that from happening, Pelosi said her chamber may consider a historically unprecedented second impeachment.
Georgia Reps. Lucy McBath and Hank Johnson signed on to a letter encouraging Pence to invoke the 25th.
Pieper said the 25th Amendment, whose fourth article has never been used in the country's history, does not provide completely clear instructions surrounding its implementation.
The first hurdle, he said, is getting the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to sign on to this effort.
"Then when that happens, at that moment, Pence becomes acting president," Pieper said. "But as soon as President Trump sends a letter to Congress contesting it, well, then we don't know what would happen. We believe probably President Trump would continue to serve as president."
From there, Congress would have four days to make a decision to overturn the president's contest of the Cabinet's decision.
"Here's where the challenge comes in," Pieper said. "You need two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to essentially confirm the Cabinet's position. So, the burden of proof is kind of on the Cabinet and the vice president at that point. If they can't get two-thirds of the House and the Senate, then President Trump is president."
The New York Times has reported that Pence is unwilling to go through with the 25th Amendment at this time. However, CNN has reported that he has not spoken with Trump since the violence at the Capitol.
Pieper said that the Congress could, in theory, expedite an impeachment vote in the president's remaining days. America has only impeached a sitting president three times in the nation's history — including Trump in 2019. No president has ever been impeached twice.
"Impeachment could move as quickly as they want; in literally a couple of days, you could impeach the president," he said. "Now, that would mean not having testimony, not having hearings, not giving the president really any ability to respond. You would simply go through the process because your mind is made up."
Pieper argued the move would be an unprecedented step for American lawmakers — and a conviction would spell a new political reality for congressional Republicans, especially those who'd have to vote for the conviction.
"You have to believe that there's really an imminent danger in these 13 or 14 days in order to take steps that are not only unprecedented in constitutional history, but also steps that would essentially be admitting that you've been wrong for four years," he said.
Kreis compared the moment to another impeached president, Andrew Johnson.
"Johnson had a deep resentment for Republicans in Congress, so much so that he went on a national tour urging people to engage in acts of violence against members of Congress," he said. "He was not remotely nearly as successful in that sense as President Trump was in actually manifesting a mob to lay siege on the Capitol. Andrew Johnson was impeached in large part, specifically because of those acts of incitement."
Kreis also said there could be consequences ahead for some of the president's more vocal supporters in Congress who amplified his false claims of voter fraud, including a censure vote. Largely ceremonial, a censure is the body's formal condemnation of conduct.
"That kind of condemnation would only require a majority vote from each chamber," he said.
For Kreis, the comparison to Johnson also comes with a warning from history.
"Reconstruction did not live up to its full potential in large part because of two things," he said, "We let this myth of the 'lost cause' be perpetuated for years, this idea that there was something noble about the things that the Confederates fought for and that there was something meritorious about that."
He said now is the time for the country to look inward.
"We really need to ask ourselves, looking from that lesson for Reconstruction and looking at the facts on the ground today, what are we willing to do to stop that from happening?" Kreis said. "What are we willing to do to stop this from festering? To preserve our democracy?"
America, a deeply divided country now shaken to its core from its highest seat of power, may find itself in another moment of reflection. Its future may now depend on it.