WASHINGTON—American politics is not done yet with former president Donald Trump, if he decides he is not done with it.
In a vote that could have barred him from seeking federal office in the future, Trump was acquitted by the U.S. Senate in his second impeachment trial in just over a year. A majority of Senators voted to convict him on the charge of “incitement to insurrection” — the vote was 57-43 — but not enough to rise to the two-thirds majority the U.S. Constitution requires in impeachment trials.
It was the most bipartisan impeachment in history. In the Senate, seven members of Trump’s own Republican party — Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse and Pat Toomey — voted to convict him after 10 Republicans voted in the House of Representatives to impeach him last month. In the previous three impeachments, only one Senator had ever before voted to convict a president of his own party.
History will record this as perhaps the most severe censure of a president ever taken by Congress, after an unprecedented insurgency to prevent the transfer of power by a defeated president’s supporters. History was invoked throughout the closing presentation.
“234 years from now, it may be that no one person here among us is remembered. Yet what we do here, what is being asked of each of us here in this moment, will be remembered. History has found us. I ask that you not look the other way,” Rep. Madeleine Dean said, arguing for the House managers prosecuting the case, looking to the future.
Her colleague Rep. Joe Neguse recalled the past, invoking historic moments in the Senate, including the end of slavery, the adoption of the Civil Rights Act. “There are moments that transcend party politics. Senators, this is one of these moments.”
Reader, the entire day’s events on Saturday did not prove it to be one of those moments.
It was the partisan concerns of Democratic senators that prevented the trial from turning out to be the full record for future historians of Trump’s actions that it seemed, briefly and surprisingly, that it could have been.
As the day started, it was widely expected the trial would opt not to hear from witnesses, and proceed to a vote whose verdict acquitting Trump was considered a foregone conclusion. But House managers Jamie Raskin rose and said they would like to call witnesses — including Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who on Friday night released a statement saying that on the phone while the insurgency was underway, Trump had responded to a plea for help from the House Republican leader by saying, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
By all accounts, this request seemed to blindside everyone in the room. Trump’s lawyer, Michael van der Veen, snarled that he would “slap subpoenas on a good number of people,” including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and 100 others or more. He sneered that the depositions shouldn’t happen by Zoom but “in my office, in Phil-ee-delphia,” as though it were a threat, prompting laughter from the Senate. “I don’t know why you’re laughing,” he shouted, explaining that in his personal injury civil practice that is how depositions work. “I haven’t laughed at any of you.”
His threats were toothless, as any witnesses he wanted to subpoena would require the approval of a majority of the Senate.
During the back and forth, the two sides seemed to dare each other to call Trump himself as a witness — van der Veen suggesting the managers could subpoena him if they were really interested in the truth, Raskin saying the only witness the defence should talk to is “their own client.”
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When a majority of the Senate did vote to allow witnesses, the chamber broke for roughly two hours of furious negotiation between the parties.
By almost any estimation, the verdict would be unlikely to change because of witnesses. But many questions raised by the trial about Trump’s behaviour before, during, and after the insurrectionist riot — questions to which there are knowable answers — were left open for lack of evidence in the record beyond scattered tweets, media reports citing anonymous sources, and reasonable speculation of what was likely.
Witnesses could have cleared up those questions. So that history would know the answers. And so that the American people, and those around the world watching, would know.
But when the trial resumed, a deal was announced allowing Herrera Beutler’s statement to be read into the record in exchange for proceeding to the vote without witnesses.
The best guess of most observers as to why the Democrats in the majority agreed to this, when Trump’s lawyers and most Republicans in the room seemed panicked at the prospect of hearing from them, was simple. They were eager to have the trial end so as not hold up the business of President Joe Biden’s agenda. The desire to support that partisan aim trumped the desire to have a complete trial record of what happened Jan. 6.
From there, the other partisan conclusion — predicted since the start of the trial — took over, in which Republican Senators overwhelmingly voted to acquit, for the most part because they fear further enraging Trump and his base. Although that was not the justification offered.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, after voting to acquit, stood in the chamber and basically co-signed nearly every element of the House managers’ case. “There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” He suggested that perhaps the criminal justice system should charge Trump. But, he said, the Senate is not an “overarching moral tribunal,” and he did not believe it had the constitutional authority to convict a former president in an impeachment trial.
That was the justification offered by most of his caucus members who voted to acquit.
It was not, by their spoken account, a vindication of Trump. But he will almost certainly claim it as one. In a statement released immediately after the verdict, Trump said, “This has been yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country. No president has ever gone through anything like it.” He promised the verdict would ensure he continued to be a political force. “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” he said.
“In the months ahead I have much to share with you.”
This — that his movement’s rejection of the results of the election and murderous riot to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power would be just the beginning — was a fear invoked by those presenting the case against him as they argued he needed to be prevented from seeking office in the future. History will record that their plea went unheeded on Saturday.
And it will no doubt record the as yet unknown consequences.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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