The second impeachment didn’t end in conviction, but in retrospect it did reveal the path of least resistance for condemnation of the former president.
Donald Trump’s domination of the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend serves as a sobering reminder that America’s Trump problem was never going to be resolved in February 2021. The former president is a charismatic populist leader and, in every sense, a demagogue. Nearly 75,000,000 million citizens voted for him in November, and the violent events of January 6 took place because he does, in fact, have a massive and passionate following. The de-Trumpification of America is going to be a long and involved process.
Even though it’s fading fast from memory, and although it didn’t end in conviction, Trump’s second impeachment trial was an essential part of that transition. The impeachment proceedings clarified two essential arguments against Trumpism that are worth keeping clear in our minds. First: Trump lost the election, and he lied about this fact shamelessly and relentlessly. Second, during the January 6 attack, Trump knew what was happening, and he did nothing.
Millions upon millions of people are still under the sway of Trump. These two insights, which were crystalized during the impeachment trial, should become a simple bipartisan mantra for anyone who hopes to dislodge Trump’s grip on the GOP.
The main focus of the second impeachment was Trump’s incitement of insurrection. The article of impeachment accused the president of engaging in “high Crimes and Misdemeanors by inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” This decision to focus on the inflammatory matter of incitement set the bar for conviction quite high. The idea that Trump intended to foment violence was always going to seem like an extraordinary reach to many in the GOP. It was susceptible to the legalistic disputes about criminal standards that we saw levied throughout the trial. Michael McConnell and others have argued that the second impeachment might have had a different impact had the articles been crafted differently. With a less legalistic approach, or a narrower focus on Trump’s dereliction of duty, the Senate might have had a more difficult time acquitting.
But in retrospect, impeachment 2.0 was also a real success. It was a bi-partisan affair that took place in a red-hot political climate. It provided a demonstration of competence and commitment to the Constitutional order. The impeachment managers’ forceful arguments provided some catharsis for Democrats. And by making the ambitious case for incitement of insurrection, the impeachment managers began to excavate the full truth of Donald Trump’s efforts to undercut American democracy.
The choice to focus on incitement also had the major advantage of highlighting Trump’s broad complicity in events leading up to January 6, and it allowed the impeachment managers to hammer down on the lies involved in “stop the steal.” The trial exposed the scope of Trump’s election fraud lies, and clarified the concrete dangers involved in that kind of relentless falsification. As Representative Joaquin Castro explained on day two, “A lie can do incredible damage and destruction. And that’s especially true when that lie is told by the most powerful person on Earth.” It’s essential that the broader public come to understand the scope of Trump’s “Big Lie.” The impeachment trial made a good start on that long-term project.
Furthermore, though the inflammatory question of incitement took center-stage throughout the trial, the impeachment trial did illuminate the massive political significance of Trump’s dereliction of duty. The trial demonstrated how, for many in the Republican party, the question of Trump’s guilt hinged on what exactly he was up to on the afternoon of January 6. This narrower matter of Trump’s failure to respond adequately to the attack on the Capitol has a kind of visceral and intuitive power.
Questioning along these lines dominated the final day of questioning on Friday, February 12. Senator Cassidy asked about the timeline events on January 6, and cited Trump’s failure to activate the National Guard as crucial evidence of his guilt. Senators Collins, Murkowski, and Romney were similarly concerned with Trump’s actions that day, and asked the defense for a detailed account of what and when Trump knew about the Capitol siege, and how he chose to respond. Trump’s lawyers were not forthcoming, but on Friday evening, Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler came forward with a damning account of Trump’s attitude during the siege. Her statement caused a dramatic temporary halt in the proceedings on Saturday the 14th, and was eventually entered into the official record. And although Senator Mitch McConnell did not vote to convict Trump, his speech in the aftermath of the trial made Trump’s “disgraceful dereliction of duty” crystal clear: “By that afternoon,” McConnell observed, Trump “was watching the same live television as the rest of the world… It was obvious that only President Trump could end this… But the President did not act swiftly. He did not do his job.”
Dereliction poses conceptual difficulties in any legal context, since it is difficult to prove a negative. But from a basic, common-sense perspective, the matter of Trump’s dereliction could not be plainer. As Representative Castro explained that Friday, Donald Trump was obviously aware of what was going on at the Capitol on January 6 because “the whole world knew it. All of us knew it.”
This is the most damning piece of evidence against Trump, because it is something that we all already know.
Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress have called for a bipartisan commission into the events of January 6, tohave full transparency about what unfolded that day. That is a fine idea, but the truth is that we know enough already. What the country needs in the coming months – more than investigations and litigation – is for Americans to keep speaking the plain, stripped-down truth. It goes something like this: “Donald Trump lied to America, again and again, about the election. And then he failed to defend our institutions when it mattered most. He should not be trusted with public matters again.”
This may not be the most satisfying narrative, especially for Democrats, especially when compared to the incitement-to-violence script. But to the extent that dislodging Trumpism is possible – and we must assume that it is – it’s going to take millions of quiet conversations, between people who trust one another, both out in public and behind closed doors. The dereliction story has a major advantage in that it sets a lower emotional hurdle: it’s easier to concede that Trump is guilty in a passive way than to acknowledge that he willfully caused an insurrection.
With the second impeachment, Republicans needed a fig leaf for conviction; they got a fig leaf for acquittal instead. A mantra-like emphasis on Trump’s lies and dereliction is the surest first step beyond Trumpism. CPAC was a good reminder of all that’s at stake. In the months ahead, Americans would be wise to leverage the less bitter pill.