In the 245th year of our nation, a president of the United States incited an armed attack on the Capitol, the seat of Congress and the granite symbol of American democracy. “We will never concede,” Trump told a crowd of his supporters near the White House, pointing them to the Capitol and condemning his own vice president. “You will never take back our country with weakness.” Riled up by the president’s tweets, and at his verbal instruction, the mob marched down the Mall, stormed the Capitol building, broke windows, looted offices, and attacked police. Dozens were arrested, some carrying guns. The insurrectionists’ goal was to disrupt Congress as it performed one of its sacred responsibilities: formalizing the election of Trump’s successor and preparing for the peaceful transfer of power that is at the heart of democratic self-government.
Words like sedition, coup, and treason get tossed around almost too casually in today’s heated political climate — and yet there are no other words that describe what Trump’s actions amounted to on Wednesday. His utter contempt for democracy and the rule of law, and his willingness to foment violence to cling to power, have no parallel in the history of the American presidency. With two weeks left in his term, and the awesome powers of the federal government still at his disposal during that time, as well as thousands of fascist extremists ready to receive his next orders, the country is in demonstrable danger unless other leaders in Washington take extraordinary measures.
The best immediate outcome, by far, would be for Trump’s close political allies to convince him to resign and let Vice President Mike Pence finish out the remainder of the term, which ends at noon on Jan. 20. That is not likely to occur. But they should point out to him that if he resigns now, while accepting responsibility for Wednesday’s disaster, he would at least soften the dark verdict history will render on his presidency.
It would also, perhaps, save him from the stigma of removal from office under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, a possibility that no longer appears unrealistic. The 25th Amendment is intended for situations in which the president is “unable” to do his job. It would not be a form of punishment for Wednesday’s incitement. Rather, to use it, Pence and members of the Cabinet would need to conclude that Trump has become so mentally unhinged, as demonstrated by his reaction to his loss in the November election and conduct since, that he lacks the capacity to do his job. Because there is so little time left in Trump’s presidency, triggering the 25th Amendment would effectively sideline him for the remainder of his term. Members of Congress, including some Republicans outraged by the president’s conduct, have called on Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the amendment, which has never been used in such a way before.
Meanwhile, government officials and members of the military must be on high alert — and with a lawyer on speed-dial. Wednesday showed just what Trump is capable of; not only did he unleash the radical extremists, but, according to reports, he also initially withheld his permission for sending the National Guard to quell the unrest, practically giving the mob his blessing. In the final days of the Nixon presidency, officials effectively kept the president on a leash, to ensure that the man with control over nuclear weapons would not take drastic actions on his way out the door. It is not paranoid to imagine officials may need to resist orders from the president to commit crimes. Trump has made little secret that he’s considering illegal ways to retain power, holding a meeting with advisers to consider declaring martial law, for instance.
The fact that any of these conversations need to occur — the fact that serious people in Washington have had to consider once-unthinkable constitutional fail-safes like the 25th Amendment — is the direct result of four years in which Trump’s fellow Republicans allowed him to disregard laws, degrade norms, and debase his office. GOP members of both Houses even pretended to take seriously his made-up allegations of voter fraud, which Trump blames for his loss in November, thus helping to create the monster that crashed the gates of the Capitol on Wednesday.
Right now, the most important thing for the country is removing the immediate threat posed by Donald Trump. But that urgent short-term priority does not eliminate the need for accountability for his behavior, including not just his sedition and incitement of violence but his attempt to subvert the election in Georgia by calling an election official and asking him to “find” votes. The House impeached Trump once, and must do so again — whether or not he leaves before Jan. 20. And this time, the Senate must convict him. Not only would the procedure be the proper constitutional response to what are plainly “high crimes and misdemeanors,” it would also protect the American presidency from future desecration and restore what has been lost of the world’s respect for our system of democracy.
Impeachment would also disqualify Trump from running again in 2024 — something invoking the 25th Amendment would not accomplish — thus sparing the country the possibility of a return to the chaos and criminality of the last four years. It would also neuter some of Trump’s post-Inauguration Day political organizing and fund-raising power, which could weaken his disinformation campaigns and his dog whistles of white supremacist violence.
Impeachment has due-process protections for the accused — as it should. After Wednesday, some political figures have discussed summoning both Houses back to Washington for a quickie impeachment and removal. That option can’t be ruled out, especially if no other way to constrain Trump can be implemented. But politicians should carefully consider the precedent a rushed impeachment and trial would set. Presidents can still be impeached after they leave office, and conducting the proceedings at a deliberate pace would make the message sent by a guilty verdict that much more powerful. Nor is there an insanity defense in impeachment proceedings; if Trump is removed via the 25th Amendment, it does not preclude impeachment.
There will be time, later, to reflect on how to move forward from this sad moment in history — on how so many Americans became galvanized by Trump’s hate-mongering and conspiracy theories. For this outrage to occur in a country that held itself out for centuries as the beacon of democracy is a humiliation that can never be repeated. But for now, the priority must be for political leaders to uphold their oaths to the Constitution, and to protect the public from a lawless president with every tool at their disposal. If a Congress that was directly attacked at Trump’s behest can’t find the courage to impeach and convict him now, its members do not deserve the privilege of serving in public office in our democracy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.