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History won't acquit Trump

The Senate floor during the second impeachment trial

The Senate floor during the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Credit: Senate Television via AP

The second impeachment of Donald Trump is history.

The trial that concluded Saturday was not just about whether to remove Trump from an office he’d already left or to ban him from running again, the outcomes described in the Constitution. It also was for history. It was for creating a record of the events leading up to the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and detailing what happened on that awful day.

And that record clearly shows that Trump should have been convicted.

The House impeachment managers mounted a convincing case supported by dozens of videos and other evidence that showed how the former president stoked the ire of supporters for two months with his false claims of a stolen election, then lit the match on Jan. 6. They showed the cost of the carnage in terms of the fear felt by those who were inside the U.S. Capitol, the injuries suffered by the officers trying to protect it, and the fractured faith of so many in our democracy. They explained in chilling detail how so many people involved in the counting of the Electoral College votes came so close to danger. The managers also posed raised serious questions about Trump’s despicable failure to do anything to defuse the riot after it had started.

Inadequate defense

Trump’s hapless defense team failed to dismantle any part of the House managers’ argument. They relied instead on falsities, what-aboutism, misdirection, and faulty constitutional arguments. But it didn’t matter. Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate protected him again with the final vote for conviction 57-43, 10 votes short of the two-thirds needed.

That was not surprising. Remember what was at the root of these proceedings — Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him. Most of the Republican senators who sat in the chamber and passed judgment on him were his enablers. Few of them spoke up about the fundamental fairness of the election. They went along with Trump’s lies. They were complicit. They were his co-conspirators. And after four years of failing to hold Trump accountable for his egregious behavior, only seven Republicans rose to the challenge. In the end, lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin was correct: The trial was a referendum on Congress, too.

The failure to call witnesses — a controversy that arose on Saturday after news reports emerged of Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s characterization of a incendiary mid-riot phone call between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — was a missed opportunity. Instead, Senate leaders made a deal to simply read Herrera Beutler’s statement, which shows that Trump was aware of the dangerous situation as it was unfolding, into the record.

Witnesses might not have changed the verdict, but they would have added invaluably to the historical record. It’s unfortunate that Democrats and Republicans could not agree to call some while also continuing to do the regular business of the Senate, like confirming President Joe Biden’s appointees and passing coronavirus relief legislation.

The absence of witnesses underscores why a joint congressional investigation is needed to find out everything that happened that day.

  • Who knew what and when did they learn it?
  • What exactly did Trump do and not do before and after the riot started?
  • Did he know his own vice president, Mike Pence, was in harm’s way and did he do nothing to help?

This chapter is closed

This impeachment chapter might be over. But the story will continue to be written, as it must be. Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump demanded that Raffensperger "find" him enough votes to win that state, is the subject of a criminal investigation. The trials of hundreds of riot participants will unfold in the months ahead; they will shed light on the belief of many of them that they were acting as Trump had ordered.

The history being written will be the final judge. It will not be kind to Trump, whose legacy is forever tarnished. Nor will it be kind to the senators who never condemned his roguish behavior, or the party that has been craven in its fealty to him.

The vote to acquit Trump took place as the National Guard still stood watch outside the U.S. Capitol and high fences still served as barriers, painful reminders of a dark day. History also will judge what all of us — the voters who supported Trump and those who opposed him, and those in Congress who stood for and against him —- do from this day forward to strengthen our precious democracy from the blow it absorbed on Jan. 6.

— The editorial board