On Day Five, the final day of the Trump impeachment trial, the United States Senate voted to let Donald Trump off the hook for what is likely the most dangerous and disgraceful set of actions by any president since the nation’s founding.
This is how history will remember it — and how history should remember it.
Was it significant that seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, particularly given that only one voted to convict the last time around? I guess. But not as significant as some would have it. I wouldn’t expect historians to dwell too long on the notion that seven Republicans found the nerve to do the right thing. It is the 43 who enabled Trump once again who demand our attention.
We’ve all seen the math by now. The vote was 57-43, 10 shy of the 67 votes needed to convict in a clear case of incitement to insurrection. Even Mitch McConnell said it was a clear case of incitement and that the mob’s actions were the responsibility of one person — Donald Trump.
But one reason you could never get 67 votes to convict Trump is that the Republican Party was, of course, an unindicted co-conspirator in this trial. For Republicans, a guilty vote was a vote to hold themselves guilty. I’m talking to you, Susan Collins.
But those Republicans, like McConnell, who said after the fact that, sure, Trump might have been guilty of inciting a riot, but they had no choice but to acquit him because of constitutional issues, Nancy Pelosi correctly labeled these people as cowards. This wasn’t a free speech case. It wasn’t a due process case. It wasn’t even a matter of constitutionality. The Senate had already decided that in a 56-44 vote as the trial began.
This is about 43 Republicans who voted with Trump despite the attack against them. As Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who voted to convict, would say in explaining his vote, “Tribalism is a hell of a drug.” That applies to both parties, of course, but no party had ever elected anyone like Trump.
And right in the middle of the group photo of the Cowardly 43 would be McConnell. It’s hard to come up with a fitting description for McConnell’s post-impeachment-vote speech on the Senate floor, in which he hit Trump as hard as any House manager ever did, and probably harder. It was definitely weaselly, in the McConnell way, but that doesn’t do the speech justice.
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If you watched, you heard McConnell say, “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” You heard him call out Trump for his “intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories.” You heard him say that Trump did incite the crowd and that their assault was clearly “foreseeable.” You heard him say that apparently Trump “watched TV happily” as the chaos ensued. You heard him say that Trump would do anything to hold onto power and if he couldn’t, he would “torch” American institutions on the way out.
All this is true. And all this is McConnell’s effort to get on the right side of history and maybe help to move his party beyond Trump. But then there’s the rest. McConnell argued that the Constitution didn’t allow for a former president to be impeached, despite the fact that the Senate had provided that guidance for him. Anything else was a rationalization, and, in McConnell’s case, a master class of having it both ways.
But that’s not the worst of it. McConnell said the House didn’t get the article of impeachment to him in time to hold a trial. But we all know that McConnell could have called back the Senate, which was not in session, to hold the impeachment trial before Trump left office if that was the only way Trump could be convicted. The trial took five days, and Pelosi assured us after McConnell’s speech that she would have met the moment.
McConnell did not take that step, and we know why. It was for the same reason that for months, McConnell, like most elected Republican officials, refused to call Biden “president-elect.” McConnell didn’t contribute to the Big Lie, but he didn’t spend much time correcting it. Yes, even as Trump nevertheless persisted. And here’s the real truth: McConnell could have made this speech a week ago when it might have mattered. He didn’t. Of course he didn’t.
But on Saturday, there was so much to consider. The House managers shocked everyone, including most Senate Democrats, in making a motion to hear a witness, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. As CNN reported first, she was told by Kevin McCarthy the details of his now-infamous insurrection-day call to Trump when McCarthy begged for help and Trump refused. And then the managers shocked everyone again — although Chuck Schumer was ready this time — when, after an apparent threat from McConnell to hold up all business, the Democrats caved.
Her quote was read into the record as evidence, and that was it. Did it matter? I was among those who criticized them harshly for it. They had the votes to call witnesses, unlike in the first impeachment trial, and it’s hard to see how they couldn’t try to take advantage of that. As several faithful correspondents pointed out to me, it wouldn’t have given us the witnesses who might have truly mattered — say, McCarthy and Mike Pence, who would have fought any subpoenas for months.
Lead House manager Jamie Raskin said they could have called 5,000 witnesses, and it wouldn’t have changed the technical argument that so many Republicans hid behind. He’s probably right, but, at minimum, McCarthy would have had to answer, and now, my guess is, he won’t.
Instead, we’ll move on, which can’t be an altogether bad thing. From a governmental standpoint, Joe Biden is now the only president to whom anyone needs to pay attention. As we know, he’s facing just a few challenges and has stayed as far away as possible from the impeachment drama. On the legal front, Trump still faces any number of possible charges involving his company and fraud. There is the chance, I guess, that the Justice Department could take up Trump’s incitement, although I’d be surprised.
The real issue is where this second impeachment leaves Trump and the Republican Party. The 43 votes seemed to show Trump’s hold on the GOP is still considerable. But Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who voted to convict, said she didn’t see how Trump could possibly win another term as president. Former Trump ally Nikki Haley, a potential 2024 candidate, said Trump has no future in the party. We saw a different take, though, from other potential candidates like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who have led his defense.
You’d like to think that Trump’s murder-on-5th-Avenue argument that his base would never desert him will get a true test. Who but the Proud Boys could be proud of Trump telling the rioters how “special” they were? I confess I don’t know. I do know I’ve been wrong about Trump too many times.
We’ll get some answers in the 2022 midterms and probably more in the 2024 elections. But what we just witnessed is not simply about politics. Yes, an impeachment trial is an inherently political moment. But it also provides a moment, when all the world is watching, for some to rise above politics and to, well, do what justice demands. The Senate failed. Those 43 Republicans who voted to acquit failed. And that, sadly, is the final verdict.
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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