Trump may have been acquitted but this is far from an exoneration
For a few minutes on Saturday morning in the US, it looked as though the plans of both Republican and Democratic leaders for the second impeachment trial of former US President Donald Trump were suddenly disintegrating. For their own reasons, each wanted to avoid any prolonged proceeding involving witness testimony.
Everything was going as expected, with Mr Trump headed towards acquittal but several Republicans probably voting against him.
But on Friday night, Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler confirmed that House minority leader Kevin McCarthy told her that he called Mr Trump during the January 6 attack on Congress, begging for help. Mr Trump refused, expressed no concern about safety, and praised the rioters as "more upset" about the election than Republican lawmakers.
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This flatly contradicts trial claims by Mr Trump's lawyers that the former president had no idea about the violence at Congress, was horrified and immediately sent help.
All of that is obviously untrue, but it is instructive that his dereliction of duty included a real-time, expletive-laden shouting match with his chief enabler in Congress.
This revelation posed quandaries for both sides. Democrats couldn't ignore such powerful evidence of Mr Trump's guilt. Republicans couldn't dismiss it because it came from their own colleagues.
So, they jerry-rigged a compromise that left Mr Trump acquitted – again –
on a jurisdictional technicality. Seven Republicans, instead of just one last year, found him guilty. Though 17 were needed to convict him, this is a historically unprecedented rebuke.
It never made any sense, except politically, to try Mr Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection without seeking more evidence, especially of the president’s words and deeds on that day. His own testimony was plainly indispensable.
He was invited to testify but declined, absurdly dismissing the trial as unconstitutional. Yet Congress could have compelled his testimony. If fact-finding were its paramount purpose, it certainly would have.
There are dozens of relevant witnesses and key documents. But both sides feared a lengthy and contentious process. After all, efforts to secure testimony from Former White House counsel Donald McGahn for last year’s impeachment are still being litigated.
Republicans, overwhelmingly still loyal to Mr Trump, fear additional evidence because the former president manifestly did what the article of impeachment accuses him of.
They were mostly determined to acquit him anyway, but the stronger the case against him, the worse the Republicans look. An accumulation of damning evidence could shift public opinion, further increasing pressure.
They have every reason to fear him. In a recent survey, about one third of Republicans said they would definitely join a new Trump-led party if one were formed, and another third said they would consider it.
Such numbers tend to render bloody insurrection somewhat less objectionable.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden made it clear he wants to move on from Mr Trump and focus on his own agenda.
He believes providing deliverables to much of the public that is hugely suffering from the coronavirus and economic crises is the key to a successful presidency and even an unusually positive midterm election performance.
The Senate trial produced the first unified, coherent narrative of January 6, and it is exceptionally damning
The new president is focused on results, legislation and confirmation of officials. He therefore views the past conduct and political future of his predecessor as an annoying distraction and opposed any protracted process.
The stunning new evidence, which only emerged through the press and not the impeachment process, threatened to undo the tacit understanding for a quick resolution.
Democrats absolutely had to ensure it became part of the record. Backed by several Republicans, they passed a resolution allowing for witnesses and new evidence.
Mr Trump’s supporters were obviously alarmed that more evidence might make acquitting him even more shameful and embarrassing. And Mr Biden’s camp faced the unpalatable prospect of weeks, and probably months, of ongoing tumult, likely only resulting in Mr Trump's eventual acquittal anyway.
Senate Republicans were also reportedly threatening to block Covid-19 relief efforts if the impeachment trial was prolonged, and Democrats had contacted many former Trump aides who did not wish to testify.
So, both sides pulled back by agreeing to enter Ms Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record, proceed to closing arguments and take the final vote.
Senate Republicans have walked a remarkably timorous middle ground in dealing with Mr Trump since the November election. They declined to help him overthrow the US system and stay in office despite a decisive loss. But they have now refused to hold him accountable for his numerous unprecedented, improper and unlawful actions, including the attack on Congress, to try to do just that.
They have not stood firmly with or against him, being – as the Bible says of those who cannot commit – “neither hot nor cold” but “lukewarm". They will hope not to be “spat out”, as the verse suggests such ambivalence provokes.
Democrats have deeply disappointed their supporters by not pursuing more evidence at the trial.
But their goal couldn't really have been to convict Mr Trump and bar him from future office. That was never plausible. Instead, it was clearly to create public awareness and establish an official record. In that, it had already succeeded.
Republican senators claim they voted not guilty based on the specious assertion that former officials cannot be impeached and tried. The Constitution’s language, precedent and traditions all clearly demonstrate they can. And the Senate, which alone decides this matter, last week confirmed that.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he acquitted Mr Trump on this spurious and formally-foreclosed basis, even though he admits "there is no question – none" that the former president is "practically and morally responsible" for the January 6 mayhem.
More facts must now be pursued by a national commission or at least Congressional hearings.
Congress could adopt a censure resolution, or even use section 3 of the 14th amendment to bar Mr Trump from federal office. Or Democrats could just move on, as Mr Biden wants.
If nothing else, the Senate trial produced the first unified, coherent narrative of January 6, and it is exceptionally damning.
Mr Trump may have been legally acquitted and thus not banned from re-election. But he was morally convicted of inciting an insurrection against the state that was entrusted to him to protect and that may have all but foreclosed his dreams of a presidential comeback.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National
Updated: February 15, 2021 07:34 AM