The question bedeviling the latest Trump impeachment trial has never been whether he would be convicted — he won’t be — but whether it would be worth all the effort to try a president who’s no longer in office, even when that former president is Donald Trump.
After Day One of the impeachment trial, that question is clearly answered.
I’m not giving anything away when I say the answer is yes. I suspected it would be, if only because history demanded a reckoning of Trump’s vile attempt to overturn an election. I suspected it would be even with the many pressing issues facing the country and the urgent need for legislation to deal with them.
But what no one could have guessed, certainly not for Day One when the competing lawyers argued whether trying a former president was constitutional, is how compelling a case the House managers would make.
We didn’t know that Jamie Raskin’s emotional presentation would move so many to tears. We didn’t know that Colorado’s own Joe Neguse would blow everyone away with his artful argument on the dry topic of constitutionality. And, most of all, we didn’t know how powerfully the 13-minute video of the assault on Congress, interspersed with Trumpian provocation, would take us back to Jan. 6 and the day that American democracy came under direct threat. The angry mob, the broken glass, the assault on a D.C. cop with an American flag. You will see this and more for as long as the trial lasts.
Yes, as Neguse made the cogent constitutional argument for a Senate trial — a notion with which most scholars agree — the managers, more to the point, also made the argument that Trump must be held to account, whether it was the first month of Trump’s presidency or his last. As Raskin put it, there can be no “January exception” for a president to incite an insurrection.
And it wasn’t just how compelling a case the House managers made. If you watched, you know just how embarrassing the Trump defense team was. We couldn’t expect much since it had been so hard to find a respectable lawyer who wanted any part of defending Trump. One of the lawyers now on the team had actually sued Trump — I swear this is true — over Trump’s charge of voter fraud. Does anyone else sense an SNL comeback?
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When Trump’s leadoff lawyer Bruce Castor began his long, strange meander into what passed for a Trump defense, never finding time to actually argue the facts of the case, I assumed that if Trump had still been in possession of his Twitter account, he would have fired Castor on the spot. I don’t know which Castor moment is your favorite — so many to choose from, not least his observations on the Greek senate — but mine was when he said the impeachment trial was futile because, you know, America had already chosen another president.
“President Trump no longer is in office,” Castor said. “The object of the Constitution has been achieved. He was removed by the voters.” Yes. Yes. And yes.
And yet, if only Trump had ever said as much.
What wasn’t a surprise was that 44 craven Republicans, having seen all that, still managed to vote so as not to offend their former leader. The final vote to proceed with the trial was 56-44 — six brave-enough Republicans voting with 50 Democrats to go forward — but the game was not nearly as close as the score. This was a Super Bowl-level blowout, with Trump’s legal team coming in somewhere behind the Super Bowl referee team.
In an earlier vote on the trial’s constitutionality, 45 Republicans had voted yes. So in the world’s great deliberative body, after digesting hours of great deliberation, only one Republican senator, Bill Cassidy, had changed his mind.
After the vote, Cassidy praised the House managers and said of Trump’s “disorganized” team that they “did everything they could but to talk about the question at hand and when they talked about it, they kind of glided over, almost as if they were embarrassed of their arguments.”
They should be embarrassed, as should the 44 senators who pretended they were persuaded by their arguments. The second Trump lawyer, David Schoen, was more Trump’s style — screaming that Dems wanted to “disenfranchise” Trump voters and that the trial “will tear this country apart, perhaps like we have only seen once before in our history.” Presumably he meant the Civil War, and not the assault on the Capitol.
One lawyer argued that the House had moved too early to impeach. Another argued that the Senate had moved too late. If you were confused — I was — it made no difference to the Trump 44.
But persuading Republicans senators is not really the point anymore. The real audience is the American public. Going into the trial, 56% of Americans, according to the latest CBS News poll, thought Trump should be convicted. That’s a big number. There were other big numbers, though. According to the same poll, two thirds of Republicans still say they believe Trump won the election.
I wonder if the trial will move either number. Certainly, it was hard not to be moved as lead House manager, Rep. Raskin, opened the Democratic argument. He showed the video. He made the case that it took hours for Trump to try to get the rioters to stop. And even then he called them “special people” and said he loved them. You want more? The House managers had more. Trump tweeted that night that we should “remember this day forever.”
But it was in the telling of that day’s story, and his own, that Raskin showed, in his words, how democracy was “personal.” He told the story of the recent death of his son, Tommy, whom they had buried the day before, and how his daughter Tabitha and a son-in-law, Hank, who’s married to Tabitha’s sister, Hannah, had accompanied Raskin to the Capitol to watch the expected peaceful transfer of power.
After Raskin had given a speech, his family went to an office near the House floor just before the insurrectionists would be literally at the door.
“And then there was a sound I will never forget,” Raskin said. “The sound of pounding on the door like a battering ram. It’s the most haunting sound I ever heard, and I will never forget it. My chief of staff Julie Tagen was with Tabitha and Hank locked and barricaded in that office. The kids hiding under the desk, placing what they thought were their final texts and whispered phone calls to say their goodbyes. They thought they were going to die.”
It was another hour, Raskin said, before he was reunited with them, and all were safe, and he apologized because he had assured them there was no reason for concern. This was the U.S. Capitol after all.
“And I told my daughter, Tabitha, who’s 24 and a brilliant algebra teacher in Teach for America,” Raskin said, his voice breaking. “Now, I told her how sorry I was. And I promised her that it would not be like this again, the next time she came back to the Capitol with me. And you know what she said? She said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol.’”
And yet the rest of us must go back, or at least as close as our televisions will take us. On Day Two, the real trial will begin. The House managers will begin to make their case. There will be more video. There might be more tears. And when the trial ends in a week or so, we know what the outcome will be in the Senate. But whatever the final vote, the Democrats’ hope for a victory in the trial of Donald Trump is that those millions watching at home will have the final word.
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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