ANALYSIS — The Senate's acquittal of former President Donald Trump on a charge he incited Jan. 6’s deadly riot at the Capitol indicates again the depths of the party polarization that afflicts the country, the imperviousness of partisan loyalties to persuasion, and the fact that politicians today are more likely to use public opinion as their guide than try to steer that opinion with their leadership.
It may seem hard to believe, then, that government can ever work again. But there were in Trump’s second impeachment trial some glimmers of hope that there’s still a chance that politicians can right the body politic.
Democrats knew their Republican colleagues would acquit Trump and have condemned them for it since, but the tone of the proceeding itself was not partisan. The Democratic managers put Trump on trial, not the Republican Party, and there was a message in the images of Republicans and Democrats fleeing the mob that members of Congress shared the experience and were caught in the maelstrom because of their unifying commitment to public service.
The final vote fell 10 short of the 67 needed for conviction, but it was the most bipartisan of the four impeachment trials in American history, with seven Republicans joining all 50 in the Democratic caucus in favor of conviction. And as the post-trial statements of many of those who voted to acquit demonstrated, there are many other Republican senators who abhor Trump and what he did. They voted to acquit because they believe impeachment is reserved for current government officers or because they see it as their job to carry out the wishes of their constituents.
During the trial, there were moments of compassion that proved many in Washington still can put partisanship aside. The lead impeachment manager, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, recalled that the day before the riot he had buried his son, 25-year-old Tommy Raskin, who died by suicide. “Dozens of members, lots of Republicans, lots of Democrats, came to see me and I felt a sense of being lifted up from the agony,” he said.
Raskin’s comment was both touching and revelatory. The deliverers of partisan diatribes are still human, still capable of feeling sympathy for a colleague who’d experienced every parent’s worst nightmare.
It wasn’t the only time that Democrats expressed appreciation of Republican colleagues. One of the other impeachment managers, Ted Lieu of California, discussed the pressure Trump had placed on his vice president, Mike Pence, to disregard electoral votes and how Pence had refused and come to the Capitol that day to preside over their counting. “Vice President Mike Pence showed us what it means to be an American, what it means to show courage,” Lieu said.
Another manager, Del. Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, played video of rioters searching for Pence and threatening him. It was because of Pence’s “patriotism” that he was targeted, Plaskett said.
Some Republican senators acknowledged appreciation for the work of Democratic colleagues. John Thune of South Dakota credited the Democratic managers for doing a “good job of connecting the dots." Louisiana's Bill Cassidy said they had done “a great job” in arguing that former government officials were subject to impeachment and conviction and joined 55 other senators in affirming that precedent.
It was mostly quiet and sober in the jury box. There was at times a feeling of understanding and fellowship on the Senate floor.
And now, the country is at an inflection point. President Joe Biden has promised to lower the temperature of a boiling political debate. Republicans are grumbling that he won’t work with them on virus relief and that many of his early executive orders, like ending the Keystone XL pipeline, aim to please Democratic constituencies more than demonstrate sensible policy chops.
But Biden’s Cabinet is sailing toward confirmation in a 50-50 Senate with far greater ease than Trump’s did.
Disappointed Democrats now must accept that the impeachment process is nothing more than an elaborate censure. Conviction was never possible, even after no less a GOP luminary than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that Trump had "provoked" the rioters, because Republican voters are unconvinced of that.
Only 11 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s impeachment, according to an Economist/YouGov poll taken before the trial. Even a 49 percent plurality of independents indicated they were ready to move on from the Trump era without a Senate trial. Much of America is so fed up with the partisan brawling that it cannot distinguish the routine from the extreme.
Nearly nine in 10 Democrats did approve of the impeachment, according to the poll, and Democrats are dismayed that Trump’s actions will apparently go unpunished. Rioters will go to jail, but Trump will suffer no consequence, they fear. House impeachment manager Diana DeGette, the Colorado Democrat, urged the Senate jury to convict as a matter of fairness on Feb. 11: "All of these people who have been arrested and charged, they are being held accountable for their actions. Their leader, the man who incited them, must be held accountable as well."
Republicans insisted that Trump can still be called before a court of law, like any other citizen. But Democrats worry that Trump's acquittal leaves open the possibility that he can seek the presidency again.
That sells the American people short. Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign was the culminating event of a belligerent tenure. He did not get away with that. The voters ended his presidency because of it.