Washington Wednesday – Trump’s final weeks in office


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 13th of January, 2021. 

Thank you for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, Washington Wednesday.

It’s been a week since an angry mob scaled Capitol Hill and broke into the people’s house in an attempt to overturn the election. Law enforcement agencies are looking for the perpetrators. Hundreds of people could eventually face charges for their actions. But they’re not the only ones dealing with the consequences.

BROWN: President Trump is spending his final days in office defending his ability to stay there. Democrats, and some Republicans, want him out of the White House immediately. They’re holding out hope the president’s Cabinet will invoke the 25th Amendment and force him to leave. Barring that, they plan to impeach him again.

REICHARD: What does all this political turmoil say about the state of our republic? And where do we go from here?

Joining us now to talk about those questions is Mark Caleb Smith. He’s director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. Good morning, professor!

MARK CALEB SMITH, GUEST: Good morning to you.

REICHARD: Impeachment is at the top of everyone’s mind in Washington right now, so we’ll start with that. Given the timeframe, the Senate could not begin a trial until after the president is out of office. Does that follow constitutional rules?

SMITH: It certainly doesn’t follow typical procedures that we’ve seen before. The Constitution doesn’t necessarily clarify if you could have a trial, for example, after the president leaves office. I think that you could, honestly, but the goal then wouldn’t be to remove him from office. The goal then would be to bar him from holding office in the future. And so that would be a different kind of motivation to some extent. Also, the goal may be to send some warning to future politicians just simply to not engage in this kind of behavior and so there are lots of motivations working through here. But I think you’re right. It’s very unlikely they’re going to have a trial before the inauguration and, after the fact, we’ll see what they do then.

REICHARD: Before last week, political analysts speculated that President Trump would continue to influence the GOP for some time. Setting aside impeachment efforts, do you think last week’s events on Capitol Hill change that?

SMITH: I think they really did. It’s difficult to look into the future six months, much less six years. But I think that they really did have an effect. I think before last week, there was a wide sense that President Trump was going to be sort of the power broker to some degree within the Republican Party for at least the next two years, maybe the next four years, maybe the next eight years. After last Wednesday, however, I get the sense that his role is already eroding quite a bit. He still has widespread support amongst lots of Republican voters, but his support amongst the elite, those people who hold office, and those donors, and other people I think that’s slipped pretty dramatically during the past week. That’s going to negatively affect his opportunities, I think, to field challengers, for example in primaries where he doesn’t like the incumbent. That would be a real power broker right now in the GOP, if the president could say I’m going to support you in this House or Senate race or I’m going to support an insurgent against you. That’s true power. Right now, you get the sense that that’s waning a little bit. We’ll see what takes place over the next few weeks to see if we’re going to know more. 

REICHARD: If Democrats do proceed with impeachment, they might have to deal with some unintended consequences. What are the political pros and cons for each side of that?

SMITH: You know, the Democrats were really hoping to turn a page after the Trump administration and to embark on an agenda, at least to some extent, to unify the country. Certainly Joe Biden ran on a unity platform to some degree. And starting out the Biden administration with a Senate trial—even if it’s one that’s abbreviated and even if it’s one that’s delayed for a few weeks or a month—is really going to set a different tone than the Biden administration would have liked. It’s also going to resurrect, of course, divisions within the Democratic Party as well as divisions within the Republican Party. And I think everyone that’s listening probably understands how deeply divided we are as a country. If we go through an impeachment process, whether you agree with it or disagree with it, it is going to deepen those divisions. It may be worth it to deepen those divisions in the short term with the hope for long term healing, but I think we’re being fanciful if we think somehow an impeachment is going to solve anything, at least in the short term.

REICHARD: The power of the Executive Branch has really grown in recent years, and not just under President Trump. It accelerated under President Obama, who optimized the use of Executive Orders to get around legislative inaction in Congress. Do you think the events of these last few weeks might begin to reverse that trend? Or does a divided Congress make it even less likely that lawmakers will take back their constitutional authority?

SMITH: That’s a great question. What you described—the growth of the Executive Branch—it’s been a long process. Really, the last 100 years we’ve seen a radically growing executive. The last time we saw Congress really pull back a good bit of power from the executive was after Watergate, where massive Democratic majorities in both chambers were able to instill some safeguards, some guardrails so to speak, against the executive with the hopes of sort of clawing back some of that power. It is possible that after what we saw last week that we will see continued efforts like that to try to prevent the president from doing particular kinds of things.

I’ve seen Republicans already call for pulling back the president’s power of pardon—amending the Constitution, even, to limit the president’s ability to pardon people. And so, yeah, I think that you will see that. What we’ve lost, to some extent, over that 100-plus year period of executive growth is really a robust sense of Congress as its own branch of government. It is the first branch of government in our Constitution. If you look at the articles of the Constitution, it’s far and away the longest article. It’s the most time and space devoted to the three branches of our government.

Congress has really declined, I think, pretty significantly over that period while we’ve seen the executive increase. I think it’d be extremely healthy for Congress to pull back some of that power and to see Congress reassert itself as really the first branch of government. But, as you know, the obstacle of that is always partisanship. If the branches can work together and if the president and Congress are of one party, then those divisions kind of melt away. They get resurrected when we see a divided government. I’m still hopeful that maybe we’ll see Congress reassert its pride to some degree. You heard language like that last week. You’ve heard it somewhat this week. I’m really interested over the next couple of years to see what legislation comes forward.

REICHARD: We started this discussion with impeachment, but of course the other major post-riot development involves social media. All the major platforms have now banned President Trump. Other conservative accounts are suspended or permanently blocked as well. They call that an assault on free speech, and even the ACLU agrees! What effect do you think this move might have on the debate about Big Tech and whether Congress should regulate the platforms?

SMITH: It’s certainly going to bring that debate to the forefront, at least for now. But I get the sense, too, some of this debate is really an effort to shield the party from other things happening right now. Certainly if you’re a supporter of President Trump, you’d much rather talk about Google and Facebook and Twitter as opposed to what took place last week. And so some of this, I think, is an effort to really change the subject.

However, putting that aside, there are serious issues connected to a platform’s ability to take the president’s account and simply remove it from a platform. But we have to remember, these are private companies. They are not functioning under the flag of government. The First Amendment doesn’t really apply to them in the same way it applies to government and it’s a significant issue. These aren’t just sort of mom and pop bakeries, for example. These are billion dollar plus entities that control communication to some extent in our country and across the globe. So, they’re not the same thing as the Christian baker who decides not to bake the cake for the same sex couple that comes into his bakery. It’s a different thing altogether to a degree. But there are some similarities there, as you can see.

Private businesses can make these choices if they see fit. Right now, the law gives them this ability. If we’re going to change that, they’d have to be regulated more severely. The risk, though, of course, is if you’re going to regulate what is your most cutting-edge industry, the part of our economy that’s truly leading the globe in this sense, then you really run the risk of flattening your own economy and making America less competitive in the process. And so there are some real trade offs here no matter which direction the policy makers end up going.

REICHARD: Mark Caleb Smith is a political science professor at Cedarville University, a Christian college in Cedarville, Ohio. Thanks for joining us today!

SMITH: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.


(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) An American flag flies at half-staff in remembrance of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick above the Capitol Building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.

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