The United States constitutional system was not a winner.
Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial had something to disappoint practically everyone.
Democrats and Trump’s Republican critics were of course disappointed by the outcome — the former president was acquitted on the charge of “incitement of insurrection,” with 57 senators voting to convict and 43 voting to acquit. (Sixty-seven votes were required for conviction.)
Seven of 50 Republican senators voted to convict, which was more than expected. But the outcome is still a blow for anyone who hoped the US constitutional system would ensure consequences for a president who tried to disregard election results and maintain his hold on power.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell probably isn’t thrilled with how things went. He at least feinted toward trying to “purge” Trump from the party due to his actions on and before the storming of the Capitol on January 6. But the GOP senators he leads quickly made clear they were far more loyal to Trump than McConnell, and McConnell eventually announced that he, too, would acquit.
An added disappointment for Democrats was a confusing late turnabout Saturday in which the House impeachment managers decided to ask for witness testimony but then swiftly dropped that request. The move fed doubts among the party’s base over just how serious their leaders were about pressing the case against Trump.
But overall the closest thing to a winner is Trump himself. He proved yet again that the Republican Party remains unshakably loyal to him — even inciting a mob to attack the US Capitol can’t make them quit him. And by avoiding conviction, Trump retained his opportunity to try and pull off something similar again in 2024. That bodes ill for the stability of the US political system, but it’s good for Donald Trump personally.
Loser: The US constitutional system
For the first time in the history of the United States, a defeated president attempted to overturn the election’s outcome to keep himself in office.
Trump’s effort to try to steal the election was multifaceted. He spent months lying that there was massive voter fraud. He pressured state officials and state legislators not to certify Biden’s win. He filed dozens of frivolous lawsuits. He urged members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to throw out valid electoral votes on January 6. And, that same day, he encouraged supporters to gather in Washington and egged them on. The violence at the Capitol ensued.
It was stunning conduct that flew in the face of the US tradition of peaceful transition of power. And Congress did have an opportunity by which they could make Trump face a very real consequence for this: impeachment and prohibition from holding federal office again in the future (preventing him from winning again in 2024). An impeachment of a US president has never ended with conviction, but surely, if one ever would, one would think that Trump’s conduct would merit it.
But instead, partisanship triumphed, Republicans mostly closed ranks around Trump, and he fell well short of the two-thirds threshold needed for conviction. The result is that Trump will face no consequences — from Congress, at least — for his effort to defy the will of the voters and stay in power. That has ominous implications for the political system’s future stability, and seems to invite Trump or someone similar to try something like it again.
Loser: Mitch McConnell
In recent years, allies of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell have hyped the legend of “Cocaine Mitch.” Using a joking moniker bestowed by his critics (long story), this was an attempt to reshape the public’s perception of the bloodless, big-money-loving politician into something of a badass — a fighter who would take on his critics (mostly the libs) and win, again and again, heedless of what people say about him.
And for a brief moment, it appeared Cocaine Mitch might be moving to take out Trump.
“Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has told associates that he believes President Trump committed impeachable offenses and that he is pleased that Democrats are moving to impeach him, believing that it will make it easier to purge him from the party, according to people familiar with his thinking,” the New York Times reported on January 12.
By all accounts, McConnell was appalled by Trump’s conduct and the chaos in his beloved Senate days earlier. (His wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, resigned from the Trump administration early in protest.) McConnell also may have blamed Trump’s post-election conduct for costing him his Senate majority, with Republicans’ twin defeats in Georgia. So, fresh off his reelection to a new six-year stint, McConnell had a chance to make a stand, to fight for the future of the GOP on his terms.
But he failed. Within weeks, it became clear that the vast majority of Republican senators would not vote to convict Trump. What’s more, some of them anonymously told CNN that if McConnell did break with Trump so openly, he would no longer be able to lead them.
McConnell backed down. He announced his decision to vote to acquit Trump Saturday morning, saying that though it was a “close call,” he concluded the Senate had no jurisdiction to try a former president. He did not address the fact that, while he was still majority leader in mid-January, he had an opportunity to start the trial while Trump was still in office — but said he wouldn’t reconvene the Senate to do so. So though McConnell allies talked a big game to political reporters beforehand, his own role in this saga ended in a humiliating surrender.
Losers: The House impeachment managers
For the most part, the House impeachment managers did a fantastic job making their case against Trump. In many hours of effective and often moving presentations, they expertly described the disturbing events that took place at the Capitol on January 6, tying them to Trump’s actions beforehand and his lack of action as the violence unfolded.
Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Joe Neguse (D-CO) stood out as particularly eloquent — and, since both are relatively new members of Congress, their prominence pointed toward how the House could function if talent rather than seniority mattered more often. Raskin had the added pressure of acting just after an immense personal tragedy. They are clearly rising stars in the Democratic Party, with much more ahead for them. And their arguments seem to have been persuasive to seven Republican senators — more than expected.
But they, too, ended the trial with a surrender.
Throughout the week, senators had expected that Trump’s trial would be ending quickly, without any witnesses being called. But all along, the trial rules provided an opportunity for the House impeachment managers to seek witness testimony.
And on Saturday morning, Raskin shocked Washington by announcing he’d do just that. Responding to a Friday night report from CNN, Raskin said he would like to subpoena Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), one of 10 House GOP members who voted to impeach Trump. Herrera Beutler had said that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told her that Trump had spoken to him on the phone while the riot was taking place, and that when McCarthy urged him to tell his supporters to back down, Trump responded, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
So in a last-minute move, Raskin proposed getting Herrera Beutler’s testimony. And the Senate swiftly voted on whether witnesses would be in order (though not yet which witnesses), and all Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted that they would be. Trump’s team was furious, and the Democratic base was overjoyed — it seemed the trial would continue, with witnesses making an even more damning case against the former president.
Then, though, the action moved behind the scenes, and a deal materialized. Raskin agreed to drop the witness demand. In exchange, Trump’s team acknowledged that if Herrera Beutler did testify, her testimony would match what she had said publicly, and allowed that public statement to be entered into the record.
Yet this deal achieved nothing of consequence. Unlike in a regular trial, it makes no difference whether a certain fact is in the record — senators can make up their minds based on whatever they want.
Now, the stakes of this dustup shouldn’t be exaggerated — Republican senators weren’t going to convict Trump no matter what. Still, it’s unclear why Raskin pushed forward if he was just going to quickly back down. All it ended up doing was raising the hopes of the Democratic base, and then dashing them, politically botching the end of what had been an overall strong performance.
Loser: The United States Senate
The Senate was charged with the weighty responsibility of weighing whether the former president had in fact committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office.
But it became clear on Saturday that senators’ top priority was, instead, getting out of town.
When Raskin introduced his proposal to call Rep. Herrera Beutler as a witness Saturday morning, senators were put on the spot. And in public, all 50 Democrats voted in favor of moving to consider witnesses. In private, though, they were evidently not so keen on the idea, as the swift deal reached by senators to avoid witnesses and end the trial Saturday shows. (CNN’s John King reports that Senate Democratic leaders pressured Raskin to back down.)
Democratic leaders have long been skeptical about holding a lengthy impeachment trial. They say it’s important to return to confirming President Biden’s nominees or passing legislation. Indeed, those things are important. But in theory, it’s totally possible to do both. And senators did not, in fact, wrap up the trial and return to those matters. They wrapped up the trial and began a preplanned vacation that will last until the week after next.
Again, in fairness to these Democratic senators, they are entirely right that the outcome was set in stone. Their Republican colleagues had made their preferences clear, and spending more time and calling more witnesses would not have changed that. But considering the seriousness of what happened on January 6, the Senate’s desire to dispense with the trial ASAP showed a galling lack of gravity on their part.
Loser: Donald Trump’s attorneys
Yes, Trump’s defense team got the outcome they wanted — they won a rigged game. But overall their blustering, dodging, and rambling performance wasn’t remotely impressive.
Bruce Castor kicked off the proceedings on Tuesday. Charged with addressing the constitutionality of an impeachment trial for a former president, Castor more or less riffed about whatever seemed to be on his mind, a performance so unimpressive it lost him the vote of Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on the topic.
Further lowlights over the next few days included an overreliance on extremely long montage videos with absurdly dramatic music, David Schoen’s insistence that a Twitter user Trump retweeted who mentioned “bringing the Calvary” wasn’t a typo of “cavalry” but rather a biblical reference, and Michael van der Veen’s utter failure to answer basic factual questions about Trump’s conduct posed by wavering Republican senators. The former president did not send his best.
And yet …
Winner: Donald Trump
He got acquitted. The trial ended exactly when he hoped it would, rather than stretching on into next week or beyond. He cemented the loyalty of the vast majority of Republican politicians to him yet again. And he has the opportunity to try to win back the presidency in 2024.
Some have argued, of course, that the impeachment trial has sunk Trump politically even though he was acquitted. “I don’t see how, after the American public sees the whole story laid out here … I just don’t see how Donald Trump will be reelected to the presidency again,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who voted to convict him, said earlier this week.
Trump’s popularity has indeed declined a bit. But memories are short, and Trump remains quite popular among the Republican base — that is, after all, why he was acquitted. And if GOP voters disillusioned with Trump’s actions continue to leave the party, that will leave Trump superfans making up more of the party’s primary electorate.
Despite the pandemic and innumerable scandals, Trump came remarkably close to winning in 2020. We don’t know what the political situation will look like in 2024 — maybe Biden will be coasting to reelection in a reopened country with a strong economy. But it’s certainly not out of the question that not-yet-known crises and controversies could sink his popularity and make his reelection difficult.
For those worried about the threat Trump poses to the American democratic system, there was one clear way to protect against that threat — conviction in the Senate trial and a ban on his holding federal office in the future. But that didn’t happen, and now Trump will have time to lick his political wounds, and a chance to try it all over again if he so desires. What’s the worst that could happen?
Author: Andrew Prokop