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Jimmy Panetta on Impeaching Trump Twice and Threats to Democracy

Letter from El Salvador highlights the stakes for U.S. democracy

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta felt better about supporting President Donald Trump's second impeachment than the first. COURTESY PHOTO

In the days after the pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 in an attempt to overthrow results of the November election, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) received a letter from lawmakers in El Salvador.

Assemblymember Damian Alegria, who wrote the letter, expressed concern about the violence. “As I watched your Congress being overrun and the seat of your democracy being vandalized, I was saddened for you and for the world,” the letter stated. 

The backstory to the letter goes back nearly a full year. El Salvador witnessed a troubling use of force of its own in February 2020, when its president and a group of soldiers occupied the capitol in a show of force. In the days that followed, Panetta wrote his own letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling attention to the action and condemning it. Eighteen members of Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Ted Lieu (D-Torrence), signed on to the letter. 

When rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol after being incited by President Donald Trump and his allies, the parallels were all too striking for Alegria and his colleagues. “You’re just like us,” he wrote. 

January has been an eventful month in American politics. Panetta made some time Thursday afternoon to talk with us about the riot at the Capitol, the impeachment of Trump, the letter from El Salvador, and what comes next.

Where were you when the looters broke into the Capitol building? Were you in your office?

JIMMY PANETTA: That’s correct. they had advised members who weren’t part of the states that were being challenged—so at that point it was mainly Arizona—to remain in their offices. They said you could go watch in the gallery. But based on that advisory, I had already scheduled a Zoom call with some constituents about vaccine distribution, so I had work to do. And in the middle of that call, U.S. Capitol Police came knocking on the door loudly and advising us that we had to leave. I went ahead and sent my staff out with them. But I stayed in my office because I had to finish that call! Then I had some other stuff to do as well, so I stayed holed up in my office the whole time.

Was that scary?

It was not scary. I was not scared. If anything, Jake, I was really pissed off. I was more angry than anything—watching the scene on TV unfold, getting text messages from my colleagues, who had then been ushered into a secure location in the Ways and Means Committee Room. I was not scared. They were not scared, or at least the ones I spoke to. If anything, we were really angry, upset. Then, as we saw the president was involved in the incitement, obviously it became distressing—that he played such an integral part of this, with the constant lies prior to it and then the incitement immediately before it. That’s what led to our vote yesterday and his second impeachment from the House of Representatives within four years.

When you supported Trump’s impeachment in 2019, did you think there was any possibility that you might end up impeaching him again before his term ended?

Look, you don’t ever go into this job thinking that you might have to impeach a president, you know what I mean? So it’s obviously something you don’t want to have to do, but it’s part of our responsibility to hold a president—especially like Donald Trump, who acts in the manner that he does, when it comes to causing disruption and violence—[accountable].

This second impeachment—I actually felt better about it than the first one. Similar to the first one, but more so in this one—you had strong evidence. It wasn’t just a phone call. It wasn’t just a transcript. This is something we saw play out on TV from right at the end of the November election all the way up to the day of Jan. 6. From his action and his incitement before the riot to his inaction and his failing to lead before the riot and then his thinking that it was appropriate, subsequent to the riot. I hope that the Senate not only feels the same way, but does the same thing, based on the evidence that’s out there. As a former prosecutor, you look at the facts, you look at the law, you apply the facts to the law, and that’s your verdict.

We’re not in a court of law. The Senate’s not a court of law. It’s a political courtroom. Therefore, they take in other political considerations, as we saw with the first impeachment. Let’s hope with new evidence and the drip-drip-drip of new videos, new information that’s coming out, that they feel not only is the evidence there but, politically, it’s the right thing to do to convict this president.

Would you have preferred that the Trump administration officials instead use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office?

No, I would have preferred that he just did the right thing and stepped down. Now, he obviously did not do that. We called on Vice President [Mike] Pence to step up and invoke the 25th Amendment by gathering the cabinet members and having them conclude that the president was unable to perform his duties. Now, Pence wasn’t able to do that. So we in the House of Representatives stepped up and impeached him.

Some Salvadoran legislators sent you a very powerful letter after the attempted coup at the Capitol. How long have you known those lawmakers?

Just during my time in office. There were a few members who came to Capitol Hill. Then, obviously, when I found out about the Feb. 9, 2020, incident, where [President Nayib Bukele and armed soldiers] stormed their legislature, I wanted to show our support to the members that we have members of Congress here in the U.S. who support them and their efforts to fully exercise their democracy and ensure that they don’t cower to threats of democracy, as I believe they tried to do when he and that group stormed the congress. So I wanted to send a letter to them, letting them know they had our support. They sent a letter back to us [this month], letting us know that we have their support. 

They did the right thing, in that they didn’t back down. And we did the right thing on the morning of Jan. 7, showing that we weren’t gonna back down. Despite the violence that was perpetrated on the Capitol, we got right back on the same House floor that they tried to storm, and we did our job. We certified the electoral college count, so that there will be a transition of power on Jan. 20. I appreciated that they sent me that letter, inspiring us that we would continue to do our jobs, just like we did to them.

The letter, written by Assemblymember Damian Alegria, ends with the passage, “I never imagined that anything like that could happen there. You’re just like us. We will be praying for you and your country.” Do you remember how you felt when you read that?

I took that to mean, ‘Look, we are not going to back down to any sort of violence or threats of violence when it comes to exercising our duties to uphold our constitution and to ensure that our democracy moves forward.’ They didn’t do it. We didn’t do it, and I believe that’s how we continue to move forward as a country. Our history has been riddled with more bad times than the good times. But the way we’ve been able to get through it is to do our jobs and uphold the U.S. Constitution and move forward. And this is one of those times. It’s obviously difficult  right now. There’s a lot of corrections that we have to make, but that’s one of the things that makes this democracy one of the greatest in the world. We can self-correct. We can make ourselves the more-perfect union that we’re supposed to be.

We could all use some of that optimism right now. However, the letter shows a lot of concern for the U.S., and obviously we have seen some Central American countries, like El Salvador, encounter real threats to their democracies. The letter expresses fears that the U.S. is trending in that direction, that our democracy is in danger—that maybe we’re no better off than they are. Do you share those concerns at all?

What you have to realize is that democracies are very fragile. It gives us a framework. But it’s up to individuals; it’s up to the people to make sure that we continue to make that framework strong enough to hold our house, our government, our country. What people need to understand is that politics flows down from morality. So when you are electing people to office, no matter what the position is, you need to make sure that they are the right character to reinforce and work for our democratic values.

As I said on the House floor, American exceptionalism is not guaranteed. We constantly have to work for it. We have to make it better. But like I said, that’s the good part, that we can make it better. Yes, we may have incidents like this, horrific incidents like we saw the sixth of January. But we damn well better be able to correct it and move forward, if we’re going to uphold our democracy, and I believe we will.

By very narrow margins, we’ll see a Democrat-controlled government when former Vice President Joe Biden assumes the presidency Jan. 20. What are you expecting?

It’s going to help that you have Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House. You’re going to have a Democrat-led Senate and, of course, a House of Representatives led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obviously, that’s a good foundation. But as you mentioned, based on the narrow majorities, it demonstrates [the need for] what I believe Joe Biden ran on. And that’s his ability to get things done and his ability to work together to get things done. I think that’s what people are yearning for after four years of a president who didn’t get much done. I believe it’s going to be refreshing. It’s going to be a sense of normalcy. That is exactly why President Biden won. So I’m very optimistic—in the sense that he will put together a national strategy on fixing Covid-19, basically making sure that the vaccines are distributed properly. We just had a briefing about the economic stimulus package he put forward. We will put forward an immigration package. We will put forward an immigration reform package. These are all big things that President Trump could have done, but clearly based on a lack of leadership didn’t do.

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