When 2020 ended, I was among many who celebrated the end of that annus horribilis. 2021 is already better under the stewardship of Biden & Harris. Even so, amid that improvement, it has also brought us, in just six short weeks, two of the darkest days in modern American history.
One of course was January 6th, when we saw a bloodthirsty mob sack the US Capitol and try to murder a slew of federal officials and overturn a free and fair election. The other was February 13th when the Republican Party refused to hold accountable the president who fomented that attack.
Worst President’s Day weekend ever.
No one really thought there were going to be 17 Republican votes to convict; how could there be, when so many Senate Republicans told us outright both before and during the trial that they had already made up their minds? (So much for their oath as jurors.) How could there be, when Senators like Graham, Lee, and Cruz openly and brazenly coordinated with the defense team?
Hell, I was surprised we got seven. I’ve been very hard in these pages on Collins and Sasse in particular, and while their votes to convict do not absolve them of their past shamefulness, let’s give credit where it’s due, along with Romney (again), Murkowski, Toomey, and — surprises — Burr and Cassidy.
It is deliberately hard to remove a US president via impeachment. For context, this was still the largest and most bipartisan vote to convict in US history, covering four Senate trials over 152 years (half of which starred Donald Trump). Indeed, for the first time ever, a bipartisan majority of US Senators decreed that an American president is guilty of high crimes and unfit for office. I would venture that with the passage of time, the power of the House managers’ case will loom even larger than just the 57–43 number.
And so will the cowardice of the 43 votes to acquit.
How to Succeed in Jurisprudence Without Really Trying
There is little to say about Trump’s “defense” that hasn’t already been said. The retired Florida man and his lawyers were so contemptuous of the process that they barely bothered to mount one, using less than three hours to engage in shameless whataboutism (while denying they were doing so), showing a montage of random, out of context sound bites (while openly accusing the House managers of doctoring their own footage, which is an outrageously slanderous allegation), and arguing — irrelevantly — that the President has extra-special First Amendment rights above anyone else’s.
But a collage of clips from Madonna, Johnny Depp, and Maxine Waters that had zero practical impact isn’t remotely comparable to the aggressive propaganda campaign and solicitation of violence that Trump and his enablers engaged in over months, let alone the lethal results. Also: none of them are President.
But there was a subtext to that, video, which Jake Tapper dubbed “a Sean Hannity mixtape.” In The New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin quotes House manager Del. Stacey Plaskett, of the Virgin Islands, who said, “It is not lost on me that so many of (the speakers in the videos) were people of color. And women — Black women.” Sorkin adds: “As Trump surely knows, that message won’t be lost on his supporters, either.”
In a twist worthy of a John Grisham thriller, we also got the eleventh hour revelation of a screaming match between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in mid-riot, in which Kevin called the White House pleading for help, and Donald replied, “Well Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” prompting McCarthy to scream back, “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”
I think he knew, Kev. Because he owns you.
As Jennifer Rubin notes, just how low is Kevin McCarthy that even after all that, in the weeks following January 6th he still kept silent about what he knew, voted against impeachment, and even trekked down to Florida to kiss Trump’s ass, er, ring.
In prison they have a word for people like that, but I won’t use it because I’m too woke. (#sexismisbad, amirite?)
Message from Moscow
As far as Trump’s defense goes, the conventional wisdom is that Republican Senators needed cover to justify why they voted to acquit….but do they? Their base already believes this is a witchhunt. All they needed was the flimsiest of fig leafs, and Trump’s legal team seemed to dead set on giving them the flimsiest leaf humanly possible.
Which brings us to Mitch McConnell, whose bizarre and infuriating speech at the end of the proceedings was a master class in utter hypocrisy and howling cynicism, even by his own Olympian standards in those arenas.
McConnell affirmed Trump’s guilt as established by the House managers, but insisted that the Senate had to acquit him on a technicality, which is to say, timing, because he is no longer in office.
First of all, that issue was settled with very first vote of the trial, in which the historical precedent for trying a former official was firmly established, and the Senate voted to affirm it. Mitch, of course, is not a constitutional scholar, but 144 people who are wrote an open letter during the trial confirming that position. The Constitution leaves it to the Senate to decide its own rules when it comes to impeachment, and once it did so, the jurors are supposed to abide by that and rule on the evidence, as Richard Burr (R-NC.) did. But Mitch has never been big on rules that are inconvenient for him.
More to the blood-boiling point, even if it were true that a former president can’t be tried, McConnell himself is responsible for that timing, by refusing to allow this trial to happen before January 20th. In so doing, he personally created the conditions he now claims tie his hands. To state the bleeding obvious, would he and the others have stood on this specious technicality — let alone created it — if it had been a former Democratic president?
So Mitch’s grave, sanctimonious closing statement condemning Trump was so much bullshit. MSNBC legal analyst Ari Melber tidily summarized his position: “Trump did it, but the only time we could try him was when I prevented it.”
It was largely a speech aimed at corporate donors, the backbone of the old school plutocratic wing of the GOP, who need a pretext to continue supporting a Republican Party that would forgive Donald Trump for a sin like this….which they are glad to do, but know it’s shitty PR, absent the facade of Captain Renault-like posturing like Mitch’s.
And there was still more hypocrisy in McConnell’s attempt to have it both ways. He railed self-righteously against Trump’s Big Lie, but it’s a lie that he actively abetted. Transparently, he passed the buck to the criminal justice system for further prosecution of Trump’s transgressions, throwing the onus onto the Biden Justice Department (ironically, to be led by Merrick Garland) which he knows will be a fundraising extravaganza for Republicans as they rail against the never-ending Democratic vindictiveness. Indeed, that fundraising effort began within minutes of the acquittal, MSNBC reported.
In closing, McConnell claimed that in coming to this conclusion he engaged in “intense reflection.” Which I always thought vampires were incapable of.
Most Republican Senators predicated their not guilty vote on the idea that Trump’s actions did not constitute incitement, or short of that, in any way render him unfit for office.
These same Republicans are members of a movement that believes Hillary’s email protocol merited “locking her up,” that Benghazi justified two years of multimillion dollar investigations at taxpayer expense (yielding nothing), and that Bill Clinton deserved removal for lying about an affair…..but fomenting a violent insurrection gets a pass? Again, the Republican defense is that Trump did no such thing, but it’s risible. Even if one takes the indefensible position that his actions didn’t constitute “incitement,” and that he is somehow still fit for public office, the majority of the GOP refuses even to criticize him on the matter or acknowledge its gravity. Such is the behavior of pathetic, shit-scared little weasels.
George Conway is among many who have said that Republican cowardice in Trump’s first impeachment is what led to January 6. There can be no doubt. Indeed, it was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House manager in that trial, who told us in his closing statement a year ago that, if left in office, Trump would soon do something like he did in Ukrainegate yet again.
And he did. In fact much much worse.
In The New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes:
Trump alone never could have wreaked such mayhem on our democracy, on our Capitol. His mob is not just the thugs who attacked cops with flagpoles on January 6th; it also includes some of the elected officials inside the besieged building, the ones in suits who advanced and promoted Trump’s election lies, just as they had advanced and promoted so many of his other lies for the previous four years. Of course, they are standing by him now.
Lead House manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) hit the nail in his closing statement, addressing a group that likes to describe itself as “the world’s greatest deliberative body”:
This is almost certainly how you will be remembered by history. That might not be fair. It really might not be fair. But none of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now. Our reputations and our legacy will be inextricably intertwined with what we do here and with how you exercise your oath to do impartial justice.
See Donny Run
As Tim Miller writes in The Bulwark, we now live in a world where Donald Trump might very well be president again. Miller specifies that that is not a prediction that he will run, let alone win, or that the odds favor it (which they don’t), but merely that it is now a possibility in purely practical terms, since the US Senate did not see fit to prevent it.
On that front, my friend Scott Matthews has pondered whether the failure to convict and bar Trump from office might actually come back to haunt the GOP, not only in terms of public demonstration of its shamefulness, but by keeping a Trump candidacy in the mix for the next three-plus years, cockblocking other Republican hopefuls (like the conniving Nikki Haley) or at least severely complicating the situation. Only time will tell, as I used to say at the end of my undergraduate history papers, when I wrapped them up at 4:30 a.m. on the morning they were due.
But does Trump even want to be president again? Or does he just wanna be on Twitter? He loves to be the center of attention, of course, but he is also lazy and selfish, and would prefer to play golf and raw dog porn stars than have to, ya know, work.
Maybe he will run just for the legal protections the office provides, ’cause he’s gonna need it. As even McConnell pointed out, Trump still faces criminal prosecution at the federal, state, and municipal levels over this and many other crimes. (I would add the International Criminal Court to that list.)
And of course there’s future conduct to consider as well. I’ve compared Trump to OJ before, in numerous ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump follow his lead again in squandering his acquittal with new crimes, just as he did after skating on Russiagate and Ukrainegate. Guard your trophies, folks.
Since Trump has not been barred from running again, the practical impact of the impeachment will largely be to lay down a marker that at least some members of the body politic will not tolerate insurrection — an important point, even if you’d think it was self-evident — and to (further) stain Trump as the worst US president ever. Though conviction and disqualification would have been preferable, that’s still no small thing, even if in terms of concrete impact, his de-platforming from social media may well have a more severe repercussions.
If Trump does choose to run again, he will have to do so without the help of Jack Dorsey and his preferred megaphone, and while bearing the scarlet “I” of twin impeachments, and our collective memory of all the horrors he wrought, from caged children to half a million dead to a violent attempted self-coup.
Still, watching the behavior of right wing America through all this, I am not ready to write that off as an impossibility.
Here’s Heather Cox Richardson:
Republican Senators willing to excuse Trump for his incitement of an insurrection that attacked our peaceful transfer of power are tying the Republican party to the former president and to an ideology that would end our democracy.
What led the rioters on January 6, 2021, to try to hurt our elected officials and overturn the legal results of the 2020 election was Trump’s long-time assertion that he won in a landslide and the presidency had been stolen from him.
This big lie, as observers are calling it, is not one of Trump’s many and random lies, it is the rallying cry for a movement to destroy American democracy. He is building a movement based on the idea that his supporters are the only ones truly defending the nation, because they — not the people who certified the 2020 election — are the ones who know the true outcome of the election. He is creating a narrative in which he is the only legitimate leader of the nation and anyone who disagrees is a traitor to the Constitution.
As (House manager David) Cicilline noted, even after the riot Trump refused to repudiate that big lie. And now, even in the face of impeachment he has not repudiated it. Indeed, he has doubled down on it, refusing to admit he is a “former” president. His supporters haven’t admitted it, either, including his supporters who sit in Congress. None of those who challenged the counting of the electoral votes on January 6 and 7 has admitted it was a political stunt. Now, they are arguing that impeachment is a partisan attack on the part of Democrats.
Trump is not trying to win just this trial: he is trying to win control of the Republican Party and, through it, the country.
I’ve recycled the title of this essay from the last time craven Senate Republicans let the worst president in American history off the hook, the final installment in a four-part series on the Ukraine impeachment collectively titled “Travesty.” At the time I had no idea there would be a reprise just a year later, with even higher stakes.
The GOP has now told future presidents, “If you don’t like the results of a given election, feel free to send a mob to try to overturn it.” It has also given the green light to violent political intimidation at the everyday level.
One of the reasons that the abortive decision to call witnesses was hastily reversed, we are told, is that the House mangers discovered that numerous would-be witnesses were too afraid for their lives to testify. No doubt some Republican Senators were afraid too. In the words of former Assistant US Attorney Daniel Goldman (one of the prosecutors in the last impeachment), we have gone from a point where Republicans feared a mean tweet from Trump, to one where they fear for their physical safety from an army of thugs that Trump commands…..and that is surely emboldened by his acquittal yet again.
When you let a criminal off the hook, what do they usually do? Commit more crimes of course. Within hours of his acquittal Trump was already firing up his followers and talking about holding new rallies as part of his Nixonian-style comeback. Those followers, similarly emboldened, are no doubt getting their zipties and tasers and tactical gear ready.
Former Republican strategist Kurt Bardella, now of the Lincoln Project, has opined that the GOP is now a domestic terrorist party and should be treated as such. (In this he is echoing Noam Chomsky, who has been saying something like that for years.) It’s impossible to look at what just happened in the past six weeks and offer a rational rebuttal.
If and when there comes more violence, what will these Senate Republicans say?
“Not my fault,” I presume, as all cowards do.
In the meantime, the rest of us will be left with the damage that they have done to the republic, and the shame that they brought on us all.
For more essays, go to The King’s Necktie Archive.