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Congress should impeach Trump for the Capitol riot. So why is it heading into recess?

Now is not the time for a quick vacation.
Photo illustration of a group chat window with members Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and an icon of the Capitol. The text messages read,"Your there?" and "???"
Eleven days is too long to be out of session.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

President Donald Trump needs to be removed from office as soon as possible. That his term ends in less than two weeks doesn't change this fact. As it stands, there is a good chance that he manages to escape culpability after inciting a mob that attacked a co-equal branch of government. And while Trump finally issued a belated video Thursday night condemning the rioters, this attempt at contrition is no guarantee he won't try the same thing all over again if agitated — or worse.

Meanwhile, the one body that under the Constitution can definitively kick him out of the White House is scattered to the winds.

I spent most of Thursday incredulous, borderline incensed, that the lawmakers targeted by Trump's insurrectionist hordes weren't voting on articles of impeachment by noon. Instead, Congress has opted to take its previously scheduled recess next week.

The Senate isn't scheduled to resume until the president's last day in office. The House had no votes scheduled as of Thursday and isn't due to reconvene until after President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

Now it appears that one of our last lines of defense against tyranny is AWOL.

I could understand being rattled by the siege that Trump prompted — especially given that most of the culprits are still walking free. I could also understand wanting to distance yourself from a Capitol building that has been proven insecure until Capitol Police procedures can be changed.

But refusing to meet now, in this moment of crisis, is an utter abdication of responsibility. The U.S. elects a president to represent us all. Congress provides a key check on the power of the presidency, which has only grown in my lifetime. Now it appears that one of our last lines of defense against tyranny is AWOL.

The arguments usually given for poorly timed congressional recesses are invalid. I appreciate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday as much as the next Black man, but I have never taken a full week off for it. And the winter holiday season has just ended, giving lawmakers plenty of time to spend with their constituents. There are no bills on the floor to stump for and no elections to campaign in.

As ever, the pandemic complicates things — Covid-19 is spiking still, and in the aftermath of Wednesday's insurrection, Rep. Jake LaTurner, a freshman Republican from Kansas, learned that he'd tested positive for the virus. LaTurner had objected to Arizona's electoral votes from the House floor, potentially infecting his colleagues. And calling on the lawmakers who've already left Washington to turn around and come back is also a health risk — although that just highlights why none of them should have left town in the first place.

There can be nothing more important right now than protecting America from Trump during his final and most desperate days in office.

Thankfully, several Democratic members of the House have begun drafting articles of impeachment. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said Wednesday that she is working on a draft. (Late Thursday, Omar implied that a vote might come as soon as Friday on her articles, but nothing had formally been announced.) Judiciary Committee members Ted Lieu of California, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and David Cicilline of Rhode Island circulated a draft Thursday that would charge Trump with "abuse of power" for his attempts to overturn the election since November. And Jerry Nadler of New York, the committee's chair, has urged that articles skip Judiciary and head straight for the House floor.

But any talk of impeachment stays rhetorical if Congress isn't in session.

It's possible that an emergency session is called in the next day or two: Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, shifted from saying Democrats are "looking forward" instead of investigating Trump's potential crimes to calling for Trump's immediate impeachment and removal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is paying attention. In her weekly news conference, she urged the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, whereby Vice President Mike Pence and a majority of the Cabinet would vote to strip Trump of his presidential powers.

"Ask each member of the Cabinet — do they stand by these actions?" Pelosi said. "Are they ready to say in the next 13 days this dangerous man can do more harm to our country?"

Her call echoed sentiments Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had made earlier in the day. Both warned that impeachment could come if the Cabinet doesn't act — but I think they need to be way past "could" at this point.

If Pence does invoke the 25th Amendment, Trump would absolutely contest the invocation, as is his right. Unlike with impeachment, the clock definitely works against Trump here. The amendment says that unless Trump agrees to give up power, Congress must assemble within 48 hours if it isn't in session. It would then have 21 days to debate whether to uphold the vice president's claim that Trump can't carry out his duties. Importantly, during those 21 days, Pence would remain acting president.

But relying on the 25th Amendment isn't a perfect solution. For one, Pence is reported to be against it. And for another, it's unclear whether there are even enough Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretaries left to fulfill the amendment's requirements, potentially giving Trump room for a legal challenge. Rather than wait for Pence to formally reject the option, the House should cancel its break to consider articles of impeachment as soon as it is able.

Sure, Mitch McConnell is unlikely to support removal, and he's still the Senate's majority leader until Sens.-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are seated later this month. But if the House passes articles of impeachment, the Senate is still required to take up the trial — and as I've argued, barring Trump from ever holding office again is a worthy goal.

Either way, Congress has to be ready to act now. The clock is ticking, and Trump knows it. Worse: His supporters know it.