The impeachment brief as a virtual clinic in passive voice

The lawmakers from the House of Representatives sent a brief to the Senate about the single count of impeachment they’re about to try. For the most part, it’s clear and straightforward. But an analysis of the 115 instances of passive voice in it reveals a lot about what lawmakers — and former president Trump — don’t really want to say about who did what, and who ought to take what actions.

The purpose of this exercise in translating passive voice is to make you think. When you use passive voice, why do you do it? Are you hiding something? Are you softening your message? There is always a reason. Some reasons for passive voice constructions make sense, but others weaken the argument and blunt its effect. This analysis is basically a clinic in identifying and replacing passive voice.

What follows is a list of all the 115 instances of passive voice in the 80-page, 27,000-word brief, how these sentences would read in the active voice, and why they’re there. I show passive voice verbs in italic and the active voice rewrite in parentheses.

Actions by rioters and law enforcement

The brief talks so much about rioters that it become repetitive. Passive voice avoids too many sentences of the form “Rioters did this” and “Capitol police did that.”

  • Members and their staffs were trapped and terrorized. (Rioters trapped and terrorized members and their staffs.)
  • Our seat of government was violated, vandalized, and desecrated. (Rioters violated, vandalized, and desecrated our seat of government.)
  • Congress’s counting of electoral votes was delayed until nightfall and not completed until 4 AM. (Rioters delayed Congress’s counting of electoral votes until nightfall; Congress did not complete it until 4AM.)
  • [A]t least one leader of the Proud Boys was later arrested for vandalizing a church. (Law enforcement arrested at least one leader of the Proud Boys for vandalizing a church.)
  • This mobilization was not hidden away in the dead of night. (Rioters did not hide this mobilization away in the dead of night.)
  • [Pence] had to be rushed from the Senate chamber to escape an armed mob seeking vengeance. (Capitol police had to rush Pence from the Senate Chamber to escape an armed mob seeking vengeance.)
  • The officer at the door shot one woman attempting to break through, merely ten yards from the path where Members were being evacuated to safety from the House floor. (The officer at the door shot one woman attempting to break through, merely ten yards from the path where Capitol police were evacuating Members to safety from the House floor.) There are 3 other similar examples of “were evacuated.”
  • When gunshots were heard outside the House Chamber, police screamed, “Get down! Get down!” (When they heard gunshots outside the House Chamber, police screamed, “Get down! Get down!”)
  • Yet another rioter yelled at police officers, “[w]e were invited here … by the President of the United States!” (Yet another rioter yelled at police officers that the President of the United States had invited them.)
  • One [officer] suffered an apparent heart attack after he was hit six times with a stun gun. (One [officer] suffered an apparent heart attack after someone hit him six times with a stun gun.)
  • In the early evening, after the Capitol had finally been secured and the scope of the devastation was clear, President Trump sent another tweet. (In the early evening, after law enforcement had finally secured the Capitol and the scope of the devastation was clear, President Trump sent another tweet.)
  • Moreover, President Trump never disputed the facts that gave rise to his impeachment, which were captured on recordings. (Moreover, President Trump never disputed the facts that gave rise to his impeachment, which the rioters themselves, members of Congress, and others had captured on recordings.)
  • It has been a week since so many were injured, the United States Capitol was ransacked, and six people were killed, including two police officers. (It has been a week since so rioters injured so many, ransacked the United States Capitol, and initiated events that lead to the death of six people, including two police officers.)
  • Although this assault was put down after several hours, and the Joint Session fulfilled its responsibility later that night . . . (Although police put down this assault after several hours, and the Joint Session fulfilled its responsibility later that night . . . )
  • Members of Congress and their staffs were forced to improvise barricades and hiding places while they awaited rescue by law enforcement. Others were trapped in the House Chamber, where they seized gas masks and ducked behind furniture to avoid insurrectionists. (Rioters forced members of Congress and their staffs to improvise barricades and hiding places while they awaited rescue by law enforcement. They trapped others in the House Chamber, where they seized gas masks and ducked behind furniture to avoid insurrectionists.)
  • Sadly, [this day] will be remembered too by the Members of Congress, their staffs, and the law enforcement officials who were attacked by the insurrectionist mob. (Members of Congress and their staffs, and the law enforcement officials that the insurrectionist mob attacked, will, sadly, remember this day, too.)
  • Indeed, hundreds of people have already been arrested and charged for their role in the events of January 6. (Indeed, law enforcement has already arrested and charged hundreds of people for their role in the events of January 6.)
  • As the Capitol was overrun, President Trump was reportedly “delighted.” (As rioters overran the Capitol, President Trump was reportedly “delighted.”)
  • The Capitol was defiled. The line of succession was imperiled. America’s global reputation was damaged. For the first time in history, the transfer of presidential power was interrupted. (Rioters defiled the Capitol. They imperiled the line of succession. They damaged America’s global reputation. They interrupted the transfer of presidential power.)

Trump’s own statements about supposed fraud by Democrats and other officials

The quoted statements (mostly tweets) by the president reveal his habit of making accusations without identifying those who are acting.

  • “[m]illions of votes were cast illegally in the swing states alone.” (Voters cast millions of votes illegally in the swing states alone.)
  • He insisted that the election had been “rigged” and “stolen,” . . . (He insisted that Democrats had rigged and stolen the election.)
  • “Washington is being inundated with people who don’t want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats.” (People who don’t want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats are inundating Washington.)
  • “[Thousands of people pouring into D.C.] won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen.” ([Thousands of people pouring into D.C.] won’t stand for Democrats to steal a landslide election victory.)
  • President Trump spent the weeks preceding his rally doing everything in his power to persuade attendees that their votes—and the election itself—were going to be stolen away in the Joint Session of Congress. (President Trump spent the weeks preceding his rally doing everything in his power to persuade attendees that the Joint Session of Congress would steal away their votes—and the election itself.)
  • Over and over again, President Trump publicly declared that if Vice President Pence refused to block the Joint Session from finalizing President Biden’s victory, then the election, the party, and the country would be lost. (Over and over again, President Trump publicly declared that if Vice President Pence refused to block the Joint Session from finalizing President Biden’s victory, then his movement would lose the election, the party, and the country.)

Media reports and actions of state officials

The brief cites many specific sources. But in some cases, it omits the sources and just shows what “was reported,” which weakens the argument.

  • As a result— and as had been widely reported—the crowd was armed, angry, and dangerous. (As a result— and as the media had widely reported—the crowd was armed, angry, and dangerous.)
  • President Trump took full advantage of those opportunities, focusing on the states in which he claimed President Biden had been improperly recognized as the winner. (. . . the states in which he claimed that officials and media had improperly recognized President Biden as the winner.)
  • Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger publicly stated that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud and that ballots were being accurately counted. (Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger publicly stated that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud and that elections officials were accurately counting ballots.
  • [The mobilization] was widely discussed on websites—such as TheDonald.win—that, as confirmed by a former White House staff member, were “closely monitored” by President Trump’s social media operation. (President Trump’s social media operation closely monitored widespread discussions about it [the mobilization] on websites such as TheDonald.win.)
  • These calls for violence at the Capitol were widely covered. (Media widely covered these calls for violence at the Capitol.)
  • But then he spoke for another 50 minutes, using highly inflammatory rhetoric—exactly the kind of language calculated to incite violence given what had been reported about the crowd. (But then he spoke for another 50 minutes, using highly inflammatory rhetoric—exactly the kind of language calculated to incite violence given what the media had reported about the crowd.)
  • At approximately 4 AM, President Biden was confirmed as the winner of the 2020 election. (At approximately 4 AM, Congress confirmed President Biden as the winner of the 2020 election.
  • [A]fter insurrectionists had overcome the Capitol perimeter—and after reports of pipe bombs had been confirmed—President Trump retweeted a video of his speech at the rally. ([A]fter insurrectionists had overcome the Capitol perimeter—and after police confirmed reports of pipe bombs—President Trump retweeted a video of his speech at the rally.)

Directives to lawmakers and readers

When the brief tells the Senators what to do, it avoids the direct “you” or the equally direct “Senators.” Instead, you get the “something must done” formulation, which is less confrontational, but allows the reader to say “Hey, you aren’t talking to me, are you?”

  • For that reason, President Trump’s conduct must be declared unacceptable in the clearest and most unequivocal terms. (For that reason, we must declare President Trump’s conduct unacceptable in the clearest and most unequivocal terms.)
  • Only after President Trump is held to account for his actions can the Nation move forward with unity of purpose and commitment to the Constitution. (Only after the Senate holds President Trump to account for his actions can the Nation move forward . . .)
  • It cannot be ignored that President Trump encouraged this insurrection. (We cannot ignore that President Trump encouraged this insurrection.)
  • Every argument that may be raised in President Trump’s defense further demonstrates that he is a danger to our democratic system of government. (Every argument that President’s Trump’s defenders raise further demonstrates that he is a danger to our democratic system of government.)

Accusations

While there are plenty of active voice accusations in the brief, it couches some in passive voice, perhaps to avoid sounding too shrill. Notice how much more damning these sentences are when written in the active voice.

  • [Trump’s resorting to any means necessary to overturn the election] is confirmed by his persistent (and increasingly extreme) efforts to transform DOJ into an arm of his assault on state election results. (His persistent (and increasingly extreme) efforts to transform DOJ into an arm of his assault on state election results confirm how he was resorting to any means necessary to overturn the election.)
  • Indeed, it was obvious and entirely foreseeable that the furious crowd assembled before President Trump at the “Save America Rally” on January 6 was primed (and prepared) for violence if he lit a spark. (Indeed, as was obvious and entirely forseeable, President Trump had primed (and prepared) the furious crowd assembled before him at the “Save America Rally” on January 6 for violence if he lit a spark.)
  • And all that remained for President Trump was the seething crowd before him—known to be poised for violence at his instigation. (All that remained was for President Trump was the seething crowd that he had poised for violence at his instigation — as everyone knew.)
  • These feelings [of delight and excitement] were reflected in President Trump’s actions (and inactions) over the following hours . . . (President Trump’s actions (and inactions) over the following hours reflected these feelings [of delight and excitement] . . . )
  • The gravity of President Trump’s offense is magnified by the fact that it arose from a course of conduct aimed at subverting and obstructing the election results. (The fact that President Trump’s offense arose from a course of conduct aimed at subverting and obstructing the election results magnifies the gravity of that offense.)
  • The duration and severity of this threat were amplified by President Trump’s dereliction of duty during the attack. (President Trump’s dereliction of duty during the attack amplified the duration and severity of this threat.)

Legal counterarguments

Legal arguments often use passive to avoid naming subjects of sentences. This makes them less clear.

  • No one would seriously suggest that a President should be immunized from impeachment if he publicly championed the adoption of totalitarian government, swore an oath of eternal loyalty to a foreign power, or advocated that states secede from and overthrow the Union. (No one would seriously suggest that a President should be immune from impeachment if he publicly championed the adoption of totalitarian government, swore an oath of eternal loyalty to a foreign power, or advocated that states secede from and overthrow the Union.)
  • Yet even if President Trump’s acts while occupying our highest office were treated like the acts of a private citizen, and even if the First Amendment somehow limited Congress’s power to respond to presidential abuses, a First Amendment defense would still fail. (Yet even if we treated President Trump’s acts while occupying our highest office like the acts of a private citizen, and even if the First Amendment somehow limited Congress’s power to respond to presidential abuses, a First Amendment defense would still fail.)
  • [T]he Senate has jurisdiction to hear this trial against President Trump for the constitutional offenses that he committed against the American people while he was entrusted with our highest political office. ([T]he Senate has jurisdiction to hear this trial against President Trump for the constitutional offenses that he committed against the American people while the voters had entrusted him with our highest political office.)
  • Nowhere does the Constitution suggest that an impeachment is permitted only when both judgments can be imposed. (Nowhere does the Constitution suggest permitting an impeachment only when both judgments can be imposed.)
  • The separate availability of disqualification—without any suggestion that it must necessarily follow removal—confirms that former officials like President Trump can be tried by the Senate. (The separate availability of disqualification—without any suggestion that it must necessarily follow removal—confirms that the Senate can try former officials like President Trump.)
  • And [the Constitution] makes perfectly clear that the Senate is empowered to “try all Impeachments,” . . . (And [the Constitution] makes perfectly clear that it empowers the Senate to “try all Impeachments,” . . .)
  • And that purpose [punishing corruption] would be obstructed if Clause 7 were distorted by an interpretation that precluded the impeachment of former officials. (An interpretation that precluded the impeachment of former officials would distort Clause 7 and obstruct the purpose [of punishing corruption].)
  • If a defendant made that contention [that removal, one of the penalties available, is no longer available] in court, her argument would be rejected out of hand. (A court would reject out of hand that contention [that removal, one of the penalties available, is no longer available].)
  • As House Manager James Proctor Knott of Kentucky explained to the Senate during the trial of Secretary Belknap, the ultimate question is simply stated: “Whether you exercise the functions devolved upon you today as the highest court known to our Government by virtue of a constitutional power, or merely at the will and pleasure of the accused.” (As House Manager James Proctor Knott of Kentucky explained to the Senate during the trial of Secretary Belknap, the ultimate question is, simply, “Whether you exercise the functions devolved upon you today as the highest court known to our Government by virtue of a constitutional power, or merely at the will and pleasure of the accused.”
  • That conclusion is confirmed (and independently required) by the language used in the impeachment provisions of Article I, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7. (The language used in the impeachment provisions of Article I, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7 confirms (and independently requires) that conclusion.)
  • Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which provides that “all civil Officers of the United States” must be removed from office upon conviction for impeachable offenses. (Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which provides that the Senate must remove “all civil Officers of the United States” from office upon conviction for impeachable offenses.)
  • [T]his provision is contained in a part of the Constitution addressed only to current officers . . . (A part of the Constitution addressed only to current officers contains this provision.)
  • Like the rule that pardons cannot defeat an impeachment, the rule set forth in Section 4 is meant to restrain the Executive Branch—and it does so by establishing a baseline requirement that officials at least be removed if convicted of impeachable offenses. (Like the rule that pardons cannot defeat an impeachment, the rule set forth in Section 4 is meant to restrain the Executive Branch—and it does so by establishing a baseline requirement that convictions at least remove officials convicted of impeachable offenses.)
  • Moreover, the reason the Chief Justice is summoned is to ensure the Vice President does not preside over a trial where conviction would result in her becoming the President . . . (Moreover, the reason the Constitution requires summoning the Chief Justice is to ensure the Vice President does not preside over a trial where conviction would result in her becoming the President . . .)
  • The need for conviction and disqualification is further supported by Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars from government service those who “having previously taken an oath … to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” (Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars from government service those who “having previously taken an oath … to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof,” further supports the need for conviction and disqualification.)

Actions by the House

Those writing this brief don’t get into how the impeachment action began and eventually passed the House.

  • Five days after the assault on the Capitol, an article of impeachment for incitement of insurrection was introduced in the House and referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. (Five days after the assault on the Capitol, House Democrats introduced an article of impeachment for incitement of insurrection and referred it to the House Committee on the Judiciary.)
  • The article of impeachment was adopted with the support of 232 House Members, including every Democrat and ten Republicans. (In the House, 232 members including every Democrat and ten Republicans adopted the article fo impeachment.)
  • As will be shown at trial, President Trump endangered our Republic and inflicted deep and lasting wounds on our Nation. (As we will show at trial, President Trump endangered our Republic and inflicted deep and lasting wounds on our Nation.)

Statements about historical context

Passive voice arises in statements about the history of impeachment.

  • [The founders’] worldview was shaped by a study of classical history, as well as a lived experience of resistance and revolution. (Classical history, as well as a lived experience of resistance and revolution, shaped [the founders’] worldview.)
  • [T]he Framers imagined a society ‘‘where the true principles of representation are understood and practised” . . . ([T]he Framers imagined a society where lawmakers practice and understand the true principles of representation. . . . )
  • Since our Nation was founded, it has been well recognized that impeachment is warranted for “betrayal of the Nation’s interest—and especially for betrayal of national security.” [A rare “triple passive.] (Since we founded this Nation, we have recognized that “betrayal of the Nation’s interest–and especially . . . betrayal of national security.” warrants impeachment.)
  • Andrew Jackson, for instance, strongly believed that the 1824 election had been stolen from him because powerful forces refused to accept his candidacy on behalf of the common man. (Andrew Jackson, for instance, strongly believed that his opponents had stolen the 1824 election from him because powerful forces refused to accept his candidacy on behalf of the common man.)
  • Richard Nixon believed in 1960 that he had been cheated out of the Presidency by widespread voter fraud in Illinois. . . (Richard Nixon believed in 1960 that widespread voter fraud in Illinois had cheated him out of the Presidency.)
  • And in 2000, Vice President Al Gore and many of his political supporters thought he would have won the Presidency had all of Florida’s votes been properly counted. (And in 2000, Vice President Al Gore and many of his political supporters thought he would have won the Presidency had Florida properly counted all of its votes.)
  • And it was firmly established in both England and the early states that former officials were subject to impeachment for abuses in office. (Impeachments in England and the early states firmly established that former officials were subject to impeachment for abuses in office.)
  • As defined by British and early American practice, the phrase “impeachment” was thus understood as covering former officials. (British and early American practice defined the term “impeachment” to cover former officials as well.)
  • Throughout this early period, disqualification was recognized as essential to achieving the core purposes of impeachment. (Officials in this early period recognized disqualification as essential to achieving the core purposes of impeachment.)
  • If [a person who commit an abuse of power is] currently a civil officer and [is] convicted, they must at least be removed from office. (If they are currently a civil officer and an impeachment trial convicts them, it must also remove them from office.)
  • The House concluded that Blount should also be disqualified from future officeholding, so it proceeded with its investigation and adopted five articles of impeachment on January 29, 1798. (The House concluded that it should also disqualify Blount from future officeholding, so it proceeded with its investigation and adopted five articles of impeachment on January 29, 1798.)
  • Unlike Senator Blount, who was held accountable through expulsion, President Trump will escape responsibility for his betrayal of the Constitution unless this body tries and convicts him. (Unlike Senator Blount, whom the Senate held accountable through expulsion, President Trump will escape responsibility for his betrayal of the Constitution unless this body tries and convicts him.

Abstract subjects; parallelism

In some cases, the subject of the sentence is abstract, or the sentence uses passive voice to maintain parallelism.

  • That outcome [conviction by the Senate] is not only supported by the facts and the law; it is also the right thing to do. (The facts and the law support that outcome, and it is also the right thing to do.)
  • That trend [of inflammatory statements] was matched by escalating violence. (Violence escalated along with the trend [of inflammatory statements.])

The passive “was impeached” or “was convicted.”

The brief includes many instances of “to be” in some form followed by “impeached” or “convicted.” This is a common locution and avoids the need to continually refer to the fact that the House did the impeaching and the Senate the convicting. A similar argument applies to “was inaugurated.” This type of passive occurs 16 times in the brief.

  • A President may be impeached for conduct that severely undermines this structural separation of powers. (Congress may impeach a President for conduct that severely undermines this structural separation of powers.)
  • If the accused is currently in office, and is convicted by the Senate, they are removed upon conviction. (If the accused is currently in office and the Senate convicts them, it removes them upon conviction.)
  • And the threat of violence remains with us: as President Biden was inaugurated and even now, the Capitol more closely resembles an armed camp than the seat of American democracy. (And the threat of violence remains with us: as President took the oath of office on his inauguration and even now, the Capitol more closely resembles an armed camp than the seat of American democracy.)

Should you rewrite every passive voice sentence?

No. As you can see from some of these rewrites, passive sometimes draws attention to an actor in a sentence that isn’t important, or creates an awkward statement.

However, you should consider rewriting every passive voice sentence. That will enable you to increase clarity and readability and focus on who actually is, or should be, acting any given sentence.

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