This is significant because the majority determines the impeachment trial rules, just as Republicans did during Trump’s first trial. We don’t know exactly what kinds of changes this may bring to Trump’s second impeachment trial, but the President cannot rely on Senate Republicans to construct for him a procedural fortress. This time, Trump is largely on his own.
There are a number of political issues at play for McConnell and his Republican conference, and reasonable people of goodwill are going to reach different conclusions about them. People I respect tremendously, like Republicans Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming in the House and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, for instance, both voted to certify the Electoral College, making President-elect Joe Biden’s victory official, but split on whether impeaching Trump is the right answer for our country.
Every Senator has his or her own political fortunes, morals and futures to think about. Senators are different from House members; they are not “in cycle” every two years (and this occasionally breeds courage and statesmanship during the intervening four years), and most are far more confident in their own political positions back home than the average representative. And the Senate, as designed and described by the Founding Fathers, is supposed to be the more sober, thoughtful and measured of the two chambers. I am sure many — if not most — senators are asking: If Trump’s conduct isn’t impeachable, then what is?
Republican Senators, 17 of whom would be required to convict Trump — if all 50 Democrats do as well — must tackle three questions: Can political violence and a direct assault on the Constitution and Congress go unpunished? Is it worth it (or allowable) to convict Trump after he leaves office? And, if the Republican Party has reached the political limits of Trumpism, is conviction a good way of separating the GOP from Trump? The answers aren’t so simple, as we’ve seen in the mixed signals from Senators so far.
Even aside from from last Wednesday’s shameful events, Republicans know there’s a limit to what Trump can do politically. In two national elections, he received a smaller percentage of the vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and Republicans aren’t in control of anything in Washington as Trump leaves town. One of Trump’s final acts was to sabotage Republican chances in the Georgia Senate runoffs, costing the GOP its majority.
If a Senator believes Trump to be the wrong person to lead the Republican Party moving forward, and/or that he must be punished for subversive actions, the question then becomes: Does convicting him make him go away faster or does it make him a martyr? I’ve seen persuasive arguments on both sides of this question.
Even before last Wednesday, Republican leaders were wondering what to do with Trump (or, perhaps, what he would do to them). Trump was defeated, fair and square, but has clearly been a source of new people and new money for the Republican Party, even as he’s also a source for the disastrous lie that he won in a landslide.
He is also the single greatest motivator for new Democratic voters and money, driving up their turnout more than his own. He clearly doesn’t intend to retire from politics, and grassroots Republicans remain grateful that he smashed the Clintons and routinely smashes the media. He has also caused a great many Republicans to buy into the magical thinking that he — and he alone — possesses some secret political sauce that delivered him the presidency in 2016 against all odds, and would have in 2020 had he not been “cheated.”
And perhaps most disturbingly, he has signaled a future where extra-constitutional, extra-procedural and extra-legal measures can and will be taken when political outcomes don’t go his way. The call to the Georgia Secretary of State, the vulgar harassment of Mike Pence, the organization of the deadly mob — all of it stems from an unwillingness not just to accept the results of the election and a desire to subvert the legislative branch of government, but also to ignore the finality of decisions made by the judicial branch.
No matter what Republicans do with Trump, I fear we’ve entered a political period when far too many on the right and left are willing to tolerate political violence and rule breaking. For a solid year, many on the left have tolerated riots and mobs in major American cities (along with the flouting of Covid-19 safety measures) with the explanation that as long as the cause is righteous you can do what you want. One could make the argument that Trump’s supporters have simply adopted that frame of mind; we know that Trump didn’t win, but they don’t.
Mind you, none of this is good, helpful or in adherence with American democratic norms, nor should it be tolerated. But it exists as part of our reality, so we must deal honestly with it.
The second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump will be the first true reckoning on the question of what our political class intends to do about it.