The logic of holding a Senate impeachment trial even after Donald Trump has already left office is not hard to understand. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. Given the unprecedented Jan. 6 insurrection, and Trump’s clear role in it, there’s no better way to hold Trump accountable.
After all, he was in office leading up to the insurrection, during the insurrection and when the House impeached him for inciting the insurrection. Now there must be a Senate trial.
If the trial is done properly, it will not seek simply to punish Trump — I mean, no one really expects 17 Republican senators to join 50 Democrats for the 67 votes needed to convict him — but to reveal the former president and his fellow travelers for the grave threat that they have been and continue to be to the nation. We should not forget that 74 million voted to re-elect Trump. You could say that this trial is being held for the persuadables among them and also, of course, for the history books.
That threat culminated — at least to this point — in the assault on Congress, which was a frightening assault on its members, as some are now detailing, but also an assault on democracy, which is the greater crime. I mean, the Jan. 6 date was not a coincidence. It was the day Congress would count the Electoral College votes and declare Joe Biden the winner. And so it became the day that insurrectionists were invited to town by Trump and the day they went looking, they said, to hang Mike Pence. It was the day that five people died.
And so the question is, who sent them there? The House managers’ answer is that Trump “aimed them like a loaded cannon down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
If you haven’t figured out why Republicans, led by Lindsey “OK, Maybe I Haven’t Had Enough” Graham, are scared to death that Democratic House managers, including Colorado’s Diana DeGette and Joe Neguse, will call witnesses, it is because some — say overwhelmed cops or frightened lawmakers — could detail the assault on Congress while others — say, Georgia’s Secretary of State or Pennsylvania state legislators — could detail Trump’s arm-twisting assault on democracy.
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And what of people who were in the room with Trump on Jan. 6, who apparently saw the president rooting the rioters on? We must remember that after finally being convinced — after many long hours — to call for the insurrectionists to stand down, Trump, in his tweet, also expressed his “love” for them?
Republicans are threatening to call their own witnesses, but whom would they call in return — Rudy Giuliani? Sidney Powell? Lauren Boebert? In the House managers’ 80-page brief, in which they call Trump “singularly responsible” for the insurrection, they also cite GOP Rep. Liz Cheney’s memorable assessment of Trump’s guilt: Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing …There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
But as the managers lay out, the betrayal began long ago, well before the election, when Trump would, at every opportunity, insist that he could lose only if the election were rigged. That was his insurance policy in case he did lose. And once he did, that set up the post-election campaign, with its Strangelovian sensibility, the danger played as a farce by all the president’s men (and women).
It all began with The Big Lie, which is only fitting because Trump’s presidency was marked by lies, large and small, great and gratuitous, but, most importantly, Big.
The Big Lie was at the center of it all, and it is the Big Lie that the House managers must confront. In Trump’s latest defense team’s 14-page brief, they argue that Trump didn’t incite the crowd, that the Big Lie — they didn’t call it that, by the way — was reasonable and that you can’t hold a Senate impeachment trial for a president who is no longer in office. Trump lost his entire defense team a couple of days ago, with the ultimate disagreement apparently being that Trump wanted them to defend him against the charge of fraud. Now, he has apparently found lawyers who will.
If you want more detail to prepare for the trial next week, read the New York Times’ in-depth take on Trump’s final 77 days, during which Trump basically gave up governing — as the pandemic reached its most lethal stages and as the economy continued its alarming descent — in order to attempt to subvert the election. It will scare the hell out of you.
And then, if you have the stomach, dig into what Axios calls the “craziest meeting” of Trump’s presidency. For four hours, Trump’s White House lawyers loudly argued with four conspiracy theorists, including Powell, who wanted Trump to invoke emergency national security powers in order to seize Dominion voting machines because, you know, Venezuela.
Powell’s argument was that the president’s people had quit on him and he needed to put her in charge of this investigation. It was so wacky that, in the end, even Trump had to move on.
We don’t have to move on. We can’t move on. That’s why the trial must be held.
In making its argument, the House managers relied — as one does in these times — on the Federalist papers and the fear of those writing the Constitution that a power-hungry president would spare “‘no efforts or means whatever to get himself reelected.” In their brief, they made the obvious point: “If provoking an insurrectionary riot against a Joint Session of Congress after losing an election is not an impeachable offense, it is hard to imagine what would be.”
My fear is that Democrats will want to rush through the trial. It’s true that Joe Biden and the Congress have much work to do in facing down the pandemic and its related ills. But this, too, is critical work. The record will be a critical record. In taking the easy out, Senate Republicans, still clearly beholden to Trump, mustered 45 votes out of 50 last week in saying such a trial would be unconstitutional.
You could make the unconstitutionality argument, I guess. But could you really argue that Trump’s actions weren’t unconscionable? That’s why we have to hold a trial.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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