Despite late-inning impeachment drama, our Senate voted to drop charges against Donald Trump. Yes, it was a 57-43 majority that pinned the blame for the incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection on Trump, but not the two-thirds needed for conviction. Seven Republicans supported conviction.
We'll have to listen to Trump exclaiming exoneration, but after these days, few could have any real question about the central role Trump played in bringing about an attack on his own government in a riot that killed five, left 140 police injuries, put lawmakers in fear of their lives and threatened an end to American democracy.
In the end, no one got what they wanted – but they were able to push off the worst of what they did not want.
Indeed, the airwaves would suddenly fill with the spin to make the most political hay for the outcome. The gold star winner was Mitch McConnell, who despite voting to acquit, absolutely trashed Trump, insisting that while Trump was practically and morally at the heart of the violence, Trump was beyond the narrow reach of impeachment for a former president.
Donald Trump, of course, got what he most wanted – a no-convict verdict, not exoneration, but non-conviction – but he won a permanent scar of double impeachment, widespread acceptance of belief that he indeed summoned, assembled and incited rioters to attack the US. Capitol and notoriety that he deserves to be nowhere near elected office.
- House prosecutors won their argument but lost the vote, and defenders managed to further debase any sense of honor for lawyers who will say anything, including untruths, to win the day for their client.
- Senate Republicans may now be more confident of political success in any pending primaries, but flipped off American democracy, to say nothing of their oaths, their responsibilities to do their jobs properly and anything resembling empathy for the dead and injured.
- By not speaking up to rebut contentions by Trump lawyers, House Minority Leader Kevin D. McCarthy was somehow able to swallow any responsibility for continuing to protect Trump from the obvious – that in the midst of the insurrection, Trump was more interested in delaying election certification than in the safety of Congress members and Vice President Mike Pence. Selected Republican senators like Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Mike Leegot away with canoodling with the defense team in open violation of oaths they took.
- Democrats and Joe Biden got the trial out of the way, to allow for a focus on working with those very same Republicans on legislation that continue to be points of partisan, not need-based, contention.
The country may have advanced to a verdict, but did little either towards bridging the divides, about interest in truth or about protecting the fragility of our democracy. As the House prosecutors warned in exhaustive presentations connecting Trump speech and actions towards a declaration of official state authoritarianism we're going to have more of the same as a prize for non-conviction.
The Surprise Call for Witnesses
For 90 minutes, some participants in the Senate trial showed that they actually wanted a window on truth rather than bluster – and, second surprise – they represented that same bipartisan majority in calling for a minimal number of witnesses. Naturally, the way out of that stickiness was a side agreement to enter remarks in the record rather than actually hearing witnesses.
But it did kick off quite an entertaining ruckus. Lead prosecutor Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., wanted to call Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wa., to confirm news reports that Trump told House Minority Leader McCarthy in a phone call in the midst of the riot that the rioters were more upset about the election than McCarthy himself. Beutler had crossed party lines to vote for impeachment, willing to say out loud what McCarthy has not.
Beutler's testimony was further evidence that Trump cared more about overturning the election than the fate of lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence at the hands of insurgents.
On some level, it was refreshing to see a roadblock to the inexorable march towards a pro-Trump vote by recalcitrant Republicans and a slapdown of the sharpest-edged member of the Trump defense team, Michael T. van der Veen, who sarcastically threatened to call 100 witnesses for his side.
But ending the trial seemed the bigger priority. Calling even a limited number of witnesses raised the specter of delay and of more contention over what is fact and what is just hot air. Even closing arguments could not proceed without ugly charges of distortion among the lawyers. The vote showed the trial changed few of any minds, and that political loyalties remade rules, fact-patterns and interpretations.
There is little more frustrating to voters than Senate debates over internal rules.
But then, there was a mixed environment for taking in anything resembling right and wrong over airing partisanship.
Where Are We?
While disputed, rocky closing arguments finally passed despite strange objections, setting up the vote, I wondered what the same facts all look like now to actual federal and local prosecutors in Washington, Georgia and maybe Michigan and Pennsylvania where Trump sought to intimidate state officials. After all, the defense here claimed that Trump was now a former president, and beyond the reach of impeachment.
But that means, as for any other American, Trump is subject to answer legally for any criminal matters. In Atlanta, Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani T. Willis already has trained an investigation on actual criminal charges arising from seeking to lean on state officials to "find" votes for him to overturn election results.
Maybe what the impeachment process has taught us again is that we need a real trial, with actual rules of evidence, witnesses, facts and some skin in the game if you lose.
Somehow, actual militia members and Trump supporters who heeded Trump's provocations are in jail or facing serious criminal charges. There are no charges against Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn and others involved. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who spoke at the same rally, is in good standing in the House, along with dozens of legislators who continued to call for overturned election results even once the riot abated. There are avowed followers of conspiracy theories in Congress and in state offices.
We are being promised candidacies of Trump clones if Trump himself does not make a return, and there are at least 165 proposals under consideration in 33 states to restrict voting access by limiting mail-in ballots, implementing new voter ID requirements and slashing registration options. Republican state legislators around the country are clamoring for Census results to redraw gerrymandered election district lines.
Prosecution team member Rep. Ted Lieu warned that Trump can do it again, especially if it looks as if he might lose in a future election.
Indeed, we already can see the deleterious scars of Trump's insistence on winning at any cost.