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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

JIM BOURG/Reuters

There is no surer measure of the gravity of the American political crisis than the growing likelihood that Congress will take an all-but-forbidden step: exercising its most dreaded power and attempting to remove a president from office for the second time in less than a year.

Another effort to drive Donald Trump from the White House would be only the fifth time in 232 years that such an ominous procedure – the last resort of a legislature repelled by the actions of a president – were undertaken.

The first endeavour, set in motion like those preceding it in 1868, 1974 and 1998, was begun with a preliminary inquiry, lengthy hearings, theatrical floor debate, a dramatic impeachment vote and then Senate histrionics and eventual acquittal. This was a process that consumed Congress and country for nearly a half-year.

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To impeach or not to impeach: That is Washington’s question

A second effort – like so much of the Trump era, not only unprecedented but also unthinkable since the creation of the impeachment mechanism in the late 18th century – could be completed in a mere matter of days.

Those Enlightenment-era American Founders – shaped by the ideas of Montesquieu and Locke, both deeply distrustful of strong executive leadership – did not anticipate a rush impeachment. But they also did not anticipate a mob rushing past security barriers in a riot unleashed against the legislative branch of the government by the head of the executive branch.

With just more than a week remaining in Mr. Trump’s term and with Vice-President Mike Pence apparently unwilling to set in motion Mr. Trump’s removal through the balky procedures of the 25th amendment, congressional leaders are seriously contemplating telescoping the process into a brief period.

This is in large measure because the revulsion of Democrats and some Republicans has been put into sharp focus by Wednesday’s episode, where a protest march swiftly took on the air and optics of a putsch.

Early reports, since discounted, that members of the Trump cabinet were contemplating the 25th-amendment route cheered some Democrats. But they pressed ahead in recent days with drafting an impeachment resolution charging the President with “willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States” because that route, if successful, would assure that Mr. Trump could not run again for the presidency in 2024.

“This is the right thing because Donald Trump has shown to be extremely dangerous and extremely unstable and capable of doing an enormous amount of harm,” Laurence Tribe, the Harvard Law School expert on constitutional law who is working with the Democratic congressional leadership to shape the impeachment efforts, said in an interview. “He set in motion an attack on the heart of our democracy, an obvious act of sedition if not treason.’'

Because of the procedural hurdles to be overcome by an impeachment effort, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would prefer the crisper solution of a presidential resignation. But that is unlikely; Mr. Trump boasts of not being a “loser” and is unlikely to want to be paired in history with Richard Nixon, who regularly is characterized as the only president to resign the office “in disgrace.”

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It is those latter two words, inevitably attached to Mr. Nixon’s 1974 decision, that repel the President. In the 2018-19 struggle, he wore the badge of “impeached president” with unusual and at times inexplicable honour.

That first effort to remove Mr. Trump from office was fuelled by a vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives that was, apart from a few Democratic defectors, approved in a clear partisan manner. Although the Democratic delegation in the House shrank after the 2020 election, the party still has a majority and this time will expect the support of at least a handful of Republicans, some of whom already have publicly voiced their horror at Mr. Trump’s actions.

The key vote would be in the Senate, where the Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided. A two-thirds margin is required for presidential removal. Republicans Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse are almost certain to vote to convict Mr. Trump.

Gaining the additional votes in a highly partisan atmosphere will be difficult, but the resignation from the cabinet of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao may signal that her husband, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, at least may not be hostile to the notion.

It was the defection of Republican congressional leaders who at the height of the Watergate era prevailed upon Mr. Nixon – all but certain to be impeached and then convicted – to resign. He was not impeached, but 24 years later, after revelations that he had an affair with a White House intern, Bill Clinton was – but not convicted.

Some Republicans have argued that impeachment in the last days of the President’s term would be a gratuitous effort, but Andrew Johnson (1865-69) was impeached about a year before his term ended. It was in different circumstances, of course, but, as with the Trump example, he was charged with an action pitting the executive against the legislative branch.

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One way or another, Mr. Trump will leave office this month. Impeached or not – and legal scholars have debated whether a former president can be impeached – Mr. Trump will have the succor that comes with the adulation of his base and the alienation, in both New York and Palm Beach, of the elites he assiduously assailed, but whose approbation he desperately sought.

In his three-volume study of “the institutions and the people of America as they are,” James Bryce, later a British ambassador to Washington, anticipated Mr. Trump’s sad destiny in his classic The American Commonwealth, published in 1888 but still widely read today.

In that volume, he considered the conundrum of a figure such as Mr. Trump. “In America,” he wrote of millionaires, “if his private character be bad, if he be mean or openly immoral, or personally vulgar, or dishonest, the best society may keep its doors closed against him.’'

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