Trump v. democracy — Round Two

Why the Senate impeachment trial is a referendum on the GOP’s future

Seventeen GOP senators could permanently change the trajectory of their party if they voted to convict Donald Trump for inciting the mob attack on the Capitol, Shapiro writes.   (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Seventeen GOP senators could permanently change the trajectory of their party if they voted to convict Donald Trump for inciting the mob attack on the Capitol, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 26, 2021 at 6:00am

In politics, especially on Capitol Hill, there is an eternal conflict between the impulse to do something and the more considered strategy to do something effective.

That is why I was somewhat of a liberal skeptic as House Democrats (joined by 10 brave Republicans) rushed to impeach Donald Trump after the assault on the Capitol. I understood the impulse, but I couldn’t see how the strategy would be effective.

Make no mistake. I reviled Trump’s conduct and feared for American democracy over his assault on the Constitution and free elections. But I also recognized that there was no chance of removing him from office before his term expired.

My biggest fear was that Trump’s Senate trial would complicate the first weeks of Joe Biden’s presidency and jeopardize the swift confirmation of the new Cabinet.

With the odds low that 17 Senate Republicans would vote to convict Trump, I worried that acquittal in a Senate trial would serve as a form of vindication for the former inciter in chief. And any constitutional effort to bar Trump from running for president again in 2024 first depends on conviction in the Senate.

But now with the Senate trial set to begin in two weeks, I have come to see the enduring value in holding Trump constitutionally accountable for a second time.

A dark legacy

Almost every day, new and chilling details emerge about how close the nation came to the murder of House members and senators by a crazed mob of Trump fanatics. Almost every day, we learn new details of how Trump set out to overturn the results of the election that threw him out of power.

The New York Times in a chilling story by Katie Benner revealed how Trump came to the brink of firing acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen so that a bit player in the Justice Department (Jeffrey Clark) could be elevated for the sole purpose of trying to reverse Georgia’s electoral votes for Biden.

It is hard to still be shocked by the weaponization of the Justice Department under Trump. But this Times story — later confirmed by other major news organizations — served as a reminder of how much we still don’t know about the final frightening and desperate days in the White House bunker.

The Senate trial, delayed until Biden can get a running start on his presidency, has become the nation’s best hope of confronting the legacy of a former president with an autocrat’s hatred of free elections. The House impeachment managers must remind voters of how close to the abyss we came with Trump’s shakedown of democracy.

The task will not be easy. Already, the Republican Party is working overtime on revisionist history. House GOP leader and Trump lackey Kevin McCarthy said in a recent TV interview about the storming of the Capitol: “I also think everybody across this country has some responsibility.”

Yeah, we’re all to blame.

Sorry, Leader McCarthy, if I manage to carry on with this column despite my intense guilt over something or other.

OK, I confess. I’m responsible for some anti-Trump tweets while the ex-president whom McCarthy reveres urged on a mob that sacked the Capitol. Seems pretty equivalent to me.

A chance for redemption

The impeachment trial will be a moment of moral reckoning for Senate Republicans. The time is long past for Trump enablers from Mitch McConnell on down to redeem their personal reputations. But, at least, the opportunity still remains to shout, “Never again.”

Sure, it is tempting for skittish Republicans to take refuge in arcane debates about whether the Senate can convict an official who has left office. Everyone in Washington suddenly has strong opinions on whether the 1876 impeachment trial of former Secretary of War William Belknap offers a valid precedent.

In truth, an impeachment trial, for all of its judicial trappings, is a political reckoning rather than a legal proceeding. Therefore, it is important to render a verdict on Trump’s postelection conduct rather than searching for an escape route from constitutional duty.

Now that it is no longer possible to confirm conservative judges or enact corporate tax cuts, Senate Republicans have to ask themselves how they benefit from continuing to bow and scrape before the Great Donald J. Trump.

McConnell is minority leader for a reason — thanks to Trump, the Republicans failed to make major gains in the 2018 elections, despite the most favorable Senate map in generations. Actually, there’s also a second reason: Trump’s conspiracy mongering undermined GOP turnout in the two Georgia Senate runoffs this month.

When Trump isn’t threatening to start a third party, he is loudly plotting 2022 primary challenges against conservative Republicans such as John Thune, the Senate Republican whip. Trumpism isn’t an ideology — it’s a cult demanding unswerving devotion.

Already, corporate America has loudly signaled that it will not donate to Capitol Hill Republicans who challenged the legitimacy of Biden’s election. Their obvious next step would be to cut off financial support for GOP senators who back Trump in the impeachment trial.

With mainstream Republicans like Rob Portman announcing that they will not run for reelection in 2022, the Senate GOP caucus may soon be filled with fire-breathing extremists like, say, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan.

So the Senate impeachment trial has become, in effect, a referendum on the future of the Republican Party. All it takes is 17 Republican senators with the courage of a Liz Cheney to permanently change the trajectory of their party.

That’s why convicting Donald Trump of fomenting the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries would be doing something not only morally right, but also effective. Something that would help restore the luster of 232 years of constitutional government.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.