Of all the footage that played in the video-intensive impeachment of the screen-addicted president, the clip that truly mattered was the one in which a group of rioters, ransacking the Senate chamber on Jan. 6, finds a document in Sen. Ted Cruz’s desk about his objection to the electoral college certification. At first they are furious, until one of them explains that the objection means that, like them, Cruz is fighting against the election result. “He’s with us, he’s with us,” this one rioter tells the other rioters.
That rioter was more honest, and more accurate, than the Democratic impeachment managers were when they made a point of telling the Senate that Donald Trump was singularly, egregiously responsible for the attack on the Capitol—even as clip after clip of their video evidence showed the opposite. Trump’s incitement of the mob was singularly Trumpian in its mood and execution, but it was also the culmination of years of Republican politics built on raw power and cooked-up grievance.
The managers had to pretend Cruz and McConnell and the other Republicans were not complicit in Trump’s abuses, because their goal was to get 17 Republican senators to join the Democrats in convicting him. At trial’s end, only seven of the 50 members of the minority conference took the managers up on it. The rest of the Republicans didn’t care what rhetorical gestures the impeachment managers had made toward separating them from their president, for the sake of granting them independence from the president and his mob. They chose to stay bound to him. They are the mob.
To prosecute the impeachment trial required the House managers to ignore the obvious, telling a story of Trump’s guilt that overlooked their jurors’ role in the same misdeeds. Had the president, in the months-long violent buildup to the attack on the certification, celebrated his supporters’ attack on a Biden campaign bus? Yes, but so had Sen. Marco Rubio. Did the president pressure Georgia officials to make up reasons to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state? Yes, but so did Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Still, the distance between the insurrectionists and the people judging the insurrection kept collapsing. If the costumed bozo in the face paint and furry helmet was no longer shouting in the Senate chamber, there was still Sen. Mike Lee, repeatedly breaking into the proceedings to yell his objections when the managers mentioned the story of how Trump had called Lee’s phone, mid-riot, to keep lobbying senators to block the certification. The story was false, Lee said, though he never specified how, let alone volunteered to testify under oath.
The Trump-loyal Republican senators spent the trial looking for the tiniest space to hide, and the president’s defense team spent their time inventing that space for them. Perhaps the House had defeated its cause by lumping all of the president’s various attacks on the election under the single charge of incitement. Or maybe the whole case had to fall because, in between the time when he was summoning the crowd to Washington for the day of the electoral college certification to “stop the steal,” and the time he was reportedly taunting House minority leader Kevin McCarthy that the people breaking his windows “are more upset about the election than you are,” Donald Trump did once utter the word “peaceful.”
Every senator had seen what happened Jan. 6 firsthand. A mob had in fact stormed the Capitol, leaving blood and corpses in its wake, its members quoting Trump’s tweets and waving Trump flags and shouting that they were fighting for Trump. The senators also all knew why it had happened—the mob, like many of them, was trying to stop the certification of Trump’s election defeat. There was no set of facts that could possibly have exonerated Trump. Yet there was no set of facts that could possibly have gotten 67 votes to convict him.
So led by Mitch McConnell—who said afterward that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack—the Republicans chose to pretend that they had no power to do anything. Rubio, who’d called the violence around Trump rallies “frightening, grotesque, and disturbing” during the 2016 primary campaign, cast the 34th vote to acquit, sealing the result. In regretful tones, when it was over, McConnell repeated the same message he’d issued in a statement in the morning, preempting the closing arguments, that he read the Constitution to mean that impeachment could only apply to current officeholders.
Apparently if the coup had succeeded, and Trump had held onto office through mob violence, then he could have been impeached for it. But since the attempt failed, there was no way to stop him from trying it in the future, if he runs in the future.
Yet again—one more time, if not one last time—the Trump presidency had demonstrated that the United States Constitution is a failure. Its fundamental mechanisms do not work. A president may not be investigated, if he refuses a congressional subpoena. A president may take bribes and misappropriate funds, if he does it all in the open. Five dead bodies and a Congress put to flight are not enough to convict and disqualify a president from seeking power again, if that president’s party wants to protect him.
At the beginning of Saturday’s proceedings, Senate chaplain Barry Black cited the courage of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman and asked God to give the senators the same sort of courage, to “move them to believe that the end does not justify the means.” At the end, Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, told the Senate, “This trial is about who we are.”
If any doubt had been left, the Senate established what we are, or what this government is. Donald Trump is still in command of one major political party and free to run for president again, in hopes that the next election might be closer, or that his next mob might bring more guns. Immediately after the trial ended, the Louisiana Republican Party voted to censure Sen. Bill Cassidy, who had been one of the seven Republicans to find Trump guilty. To oppose the coup was to oppose the party.