Trump’s acquittal: a political verdict?


Trump’s acquittal: a political verdict?

When Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial began last week, we thought we “knew the evidence inside out already”, Well, it turned out that “we didn’t know the half of it”. In an electrifying start to proceedings, Democrat prosecutors broadcast previously unseen CCTV footage of Trump supporters storming the Capitol on 6 January – and the impact was “stunning”. We saw some of Nancy Pelosi’s staff ducking into a room – and minutes later, rioters arriving to break down the door; and Mitt Romney walking down a corridor towards the roving mob – until a passing police officer spotted the danger, and deftly directed him away. We saw protesters chanting “Hang Mike Pence”; and the vice-president himself, being ushered to safety along with an agent who carries the “football” – the suitcase containing the nuclear launch codes.

The trial shed alarming light on the “intent and violence” of the mob, They’d arrived in the capital with pipe bombs, weapons and zip ties; footage from bodycams showed them attacking police with bats and flagpoles. “You are outnumbered, and we are listening to Trump, your boss,” one police officer was told. Crucially, the trial heard that President Trump hadn’t just urged his supporters to “fight like hell” as they assembled in Washington; he had later kept silent, “even when aides and allies pressed him to call for peace”. According to hearsay evidence, Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy spoke to the president when the Capitol was being attacked, and urged him to take action to stop his supporters. At first, Trump allegedly claimed the rioters were “not my people”; when McCarthy assured him that they were, he reportedly replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

The prosecution case was clear, Trump hadn’t just urged his supporters on at the rally that morning; he’d been whipping them up for months, warning them that the election would be stolen – that the only way he could lose was if it was rigged. “This was a premeditated, systematic undermining of confidence in the integrity of the electoral system. For this alone he could be accused of seditious intent.” Yet, as predicted, Trump got away with it, as 43 out of 50 Republicans backed his acquittal, These senators “have sought refuge in the First Amendment”, arguing that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was protected by his right to free speech; they have claimed that it would have been unconstitutional to impeach a former president. But ultimately, it wasn’t the legal arguments that decided the trial; it was fear – their fear that if they turned on Trump, his supporters in their home states would turn on them.

Really? Isn’t it even possible that some voted with their consciences,There was good legal argument that the trial was unconstitutional; and having backed a “snap impeachment”, the Democrats offered little evidence that Trump intended to launch a violent uprising. The charge of inciting insurrection was always sure to fail; had the Democrats been serious about unity, they’d have framed the articles differently. Still, the 57 to 43 split made it the most bipartisan conviction vote in history, And the result was no vindication of Trump, as Republicans conceded. Sen. Mitch McConnell accepted the constitutional argument, but described Trump as “morally responsible” for the attack; and warned that he may yet end up in court. In fact, prosecutors in Georgia are now investigating claims that Trump tried to interfere with the vote there. “As for the seven GOP senators who voted to convict, they deserve respect for their independent judgement.” Moves to censure them are wrong – and only play into the hands of Democrats, who’d love to see the GOP divided over Trump.

It’s often said that Trump’s support is impregnable. As he once put it, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. But even if his core support is intact, in the GOP as a whole, there are signs that attitudes are already shifting, In October, 59% of Republican voters said they mainly supported Trump, and only 30% the party; in January, 38% were mainly for Trump, and 48% for the party. Republicans have always taken a pragmatic approach, treating their leaders as “appliances, to be disposed of or upgraded as necessary”. As the journalist Joseph Alsop put it, “Politicians are like toilet fixtures; they need only serve the intended purpose; they need not be beautiful”. In that spirit, Republicans may decide Trump has served his purpose – and start planning for a future without him.