Editorial: Impeachment is the last chance for the GOP to divorce itself from Trump’s thuggery
On Tuesday Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial will begin in earnest in the U.S. Senate. The conventional — and cynical — wisdom is that most Republicans will vote to acquit the former president despite his undeniable role in inciting a deadly attack on the Capitol.
Yet if Republican senators consider the evidence and recognize the magnitude of Trump’s offense against American democracy, they will confound expectations and do their duty. That means punishing Trump for the campaign of lies designed to keep himself in power and thwart the voters’ will, and ensuring that he will never hold federal office again.
The House managers who are prosecuting the case against Trump are expected to offer video and other evidence that make it clear that Trump’s inflammatory words at a Jan. 6 rally on the National Mall incited his supporters to storm the Capitol where Congress was counting the electoral votes that made Joe Biden the 46th president.
But it shouldn’t take a special-effects extravaganza to convince senators. They were in the Capitol when crazed Trump supporters, egged on by his lies about a “rigged” election, sought to stop the electoral count — some even chanting “hang Mike Pence” in response to the then-vice president’s refusal to hand the election to Trump.
Some of Trump’s defenders argue that, because some of the rioters appear to have planned to attack the Capitol before his speech, that absolves him of inciting insurrection at the rally. In a filing Monday, Trump’s lawyers said that such planning proved that the siege “had nothing to do” with Trump’s rhetoric.
That’s absurd. Moreover, the former president is culpable not only because of his incendiary comments that day, but also because of his attempt to cling to power that began immediately after the election. That shameful campaign included not only the propagation of lies about massive voter fraud, but also attempts to bully election officials, state legislators and Pence to override the voters’ will. Even if Trump had said nothing on Jan. 6, his conduct after his defeat was outrageous and, yes, impeachable.
The article of impeachment accusing Trump of “incitement of insurrection” refers to this broader context. For example, it mentioned Trump’s suggestion that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory there. Clearly, Trump’s exhortations to his supporters to “stop the steal” were the culmination of a larger assault on democracy.
Another defense in which Republican senators might try to seek refuge is that Trump — who was impeached while he was still president — cannot be tried because he is now out of office. Prominent legal scholars agree that Trump can be put on trial. Besides, if there were such a prohibition, it would only invite presidents to behave egregiously during their final days in the White House, as Trump did.
A third line of defense is that Trump’s words were protected by the 1st Amendment and didn’t constitute incitement under the law. In their filing, the former president’s lawyers cited a landmark Supreme Court decision that set a high standard for punishing incitement. But that ruling involved a criminal prosecution, not an impeachment. In their brief, the House impeachment managers quoted Alexander Hamilton’s observation in the Federalist Papers that impeachable offenses “are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
That’s a perfect description of Trump’s lie-fueled campaign to keep himself in office, which ended in insurrection and violence.
Judging by the responses Trump’s lawyers submitted to the Senate, they will have a hard time offering persuasive arguments for his acquittal. Perhaps the most ridiculous argument in their filings is that when Trump urged his supporters last month to “fight like hell,” he was encouraging them in figurative language to stand up for election security. As the House managers pithily noted in a reply filed Monday, Trump wasn’t urging his followers to “form political action committees about ‘election security in general.’”
Many commentators assume that most Republican senators will vote to acquit Trump — despite the strength of the case against him, despite the attack on their own chamber, and despite Trump’s inability to use the power of the presidency to retaliate against them. Even if every Democratic and independent senator voted to convict Trump, 17 Republican votes would still be necessary to reach the required two-thirds majority.
It’s true that 45 Republican senators supported a procedural objection by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky that questioned the constitutionality of putting a former president on trial. Among those voting with Paul was Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now the Senate minority leader, who said the mob at the Capitol was “fed lies” and “provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
Yet a vote on the constitutional issue does not prevent a senator from weighing the evidence now that the trial is going forward. In fact, senators swore an oath to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.”
What gives us some hope is that all but a handful of Republican senators had voted in the wake of the attack on the Capitol to reject the frivolous objections by Trump’s allies to slates of Biden electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania. What these same senators need to recognize is that the objections they rightly rejected can’t be separated from Trump’s thuggish attempt to override the vote of the people on the basis of a Big Lie — the same lie that inspired the attack. The only decent response to that provocation is conviction.
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