The U.S. Senate will begin a second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump in a few weeks.
Discussion of that trial, its constitutionality and its political implications are well underway and will continue, reflecting the now familiar partisan perspectives that can be counted on to be consistent.
The fact that it is a second impeachment widens the context and changes the character of the process and what it represents on the larger stage of ethical and moral consideration.
An alleged abuse of presidential power to influence an election nearly two years away by coercing a foreign ally to provide negative publicity on an anticipated election opponent was the focus of the first impeachment.
The House of Representatives that voted and delivered the articles of impeachment argued that this reflected a pattern of conduct that violated constitutional authority and that warranted disqualification from office.
A partisan exercise with a foregone conclusion is how I would characterize the Senate trial. Defenders of the trial claimed that the alleged offense was “just a phone call” and the trial a “sham” and another expression of a “witch hunt.”
The second trial will be different in many ways.
Another year of Trump’s pattern of behavior saw movement from continued efforts to influence the election to efforts to overcome it once held and verified.
The pattern was evident in pressure to delegitimize the election outcome, culminating in the climax of an insurrection watched live in real time by millions of Americans and global neighbors.
The first trial was about President Trump and resulted in a demonstration of his hold on Senate Republicans.
The second will be about our national character and whether we will disavow or condone a multifaceted assault on our constitutional system.
The fact that the former president is no longer in office is used by some to argue that a trail is unnecessary because the typical understanding of impeachment involves primarily removal from office. That is an effective point if impeachment is understood to be limited to a punitive response to political misconduct.
But the fact of two impeachments, separated by a year of continued misconduct, exercised and condoned by a wide range of leaders and culminating in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, lifts the question to another level that has to do with the very integrity of the constitutional provision of impeachment itself.
And, I would suggest, it moves the question beyond legal and political considerations to collective moral ones.
We are not surprised to see the discussion call for accountability for the offending parties – those who encouraged and those who carried out the insurrection.
Nor are we surprised to hear the challenges from those who fear the political consequences of having to vote for or against that accountability:
“Why don’t we just move on toward this ‘unity’ that is being talked about, now that removal from office is no longer an issue? (And, by the way, not run the risk of offending our constituents, who will turn on us if we don’t.)”
The peculiar (dare I say “unprecedented”?) character of this impeachment process has moved beyond the legal and political realm of applying the constitutional provisions for dealing with a problem.
It is no longer only a trial on an article of impeachment of a former president, based on certain deeds and consequences. It is now an impending referendum on our national character as a constitutional republic.
Are we committed to requiring integrity for leaders and citizens alike? Will we make a clear and unequivocal statement through our political process that we disavow efforts on several levels to subvert the processes of our democracy? Or will we condone and declare the matter “settled” by the clock having run out on President Trump’s time in office?
The Senate is our highest elected body, empowered by the Constitution to speak for the people on matters of this magnitude and described recently by Sen. Patrick Leahy as the “conscience of the nation.” This task is now in their hands.
More than likely, the specific outcome of the process will be determined by legal and political maneuverings. But the broader outcome will show the moral verdict – whether we, as a people, will be on record as saying the kinds of things we have witnessed, especially over the past year, are OK or not.
This is now the moral question, whose answer will continue to define us longer and more clearly than legal and political outcomes.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).