The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 gave Republicans in Congress a perfect opportunity to renounce President Trump and the “Big Lie” (that the election was stolen from him). Instead they waited a few days for the dust to settle and poll results to come in. When poll numbers indicated Trump still had support from a majority of Republicans, they reembraced Trump as their golden boy and prepared to defend him until the end, regardless of his guilt or culpability.
In December 2019, Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. During the Senate trial, Trump’s defense team did not refute the basic facts of the case: that (then) President Donald Trump attempted to pressure Ukraine into providing scandalous and damaging narratives about (then) presidential candidate Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter.
On February 5, 2020, the Senate acquitted Trump on both impeachment articles. Fifty-two Republican senators voted against the charge of abuse of power, and all 53 voted against the charge of obstruction of Congress. They did not refute the basic fact that Trump had misused his high office for personal, political gain. Rather, they contended that that misdeed was not sufficiently serious to warrant Trump’s removal from office.
Well, okay—it’s not like he killed anybody, right? It’s not like anybody died—so, okay, we’ll let that one slide. So went the popular thinking at that time—
Trump was impeached a second time by the House of Representatives on January 13, 2021. There was a single article of impeachment: incitement of insurrection. It addressed Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election—from his false claims of election fraud to his incendiary speech on January 6, when Trump held a “Save America” rally on the National Mall and urged thousands of his fanatical followers to march on Congress, (which had convened to certify Joe Biden’s win).
“You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore,” Trump told the mob of angry supporters. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
At the onset of the impeachment trial, Senator (R-KY) Rand Paul forced a vote to dismiss the impeachment charge on the basis that it was unconstitutional. That motion was defeated in a 55-45 vote, but the Republicans had established a seemingly acceptable reason for voting to acquit Donald Trump—that the trial itself was unconstitutional, so it didn’t really matter if Trump were guilty or not; they would vote to acquit, regardless.
On February 13, 2021, Trump was acquitted by the Senate, with 57 senators voting to convict and 43 voting to acquit. Seven Republican senators voted for conviction along with the entire Democratic Caucus. It was the most bipartisan impeachment conviction vote ever, just 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for a conviction.
In a surprising speech from the Senate floor, Sen. (R-KY) Mitch McConnell—who only hours earlier had cast a “Not Guilty” vote—admitted Trump was guilty in no uncertain terms.
“There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” said McConnell. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.
“These criminals were carrying his [Trump’s] banners. Hanging his flags and screaming their loyalty to him. It was obvious that only President Trump could end this...Former aides publicly begged him to do so. Loyal allies frantically called the administration. The president did not act swiftly. He did not do his job...Instead, according to public reports, he watched television happily as the chaos unfolded, kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election,” McConnell continued.
According to Newsweek reporter Christine Zhao (2/13/2021), “McConnell emphasized that the Senate does not endorse Trump’s actions with its decision not to convict and argued that he voted to acquit because the matter fell outside the upper chamber’s jurisdiction.
“It simply says that senators did what the former president failed to do. We put our constitutional duty first,” McConnell said. “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise.”
Remember Rand Paul’s claim that the trial was unconstitutional? That’s the poor and flimsy excuse McConnell and other Republicans fell back on to justify their “Not Guilty” votes. In short, they voted to acquit Trump because of a technicality—the spurious argument that the trial itself was and had been unconstitutional.
Vox reporter Ian Millhiser (2/8/2021) attempted to answer the question, “Is it constitutional to hold an impeachment trial for a former president?”
“To be sure, there is a bevy of legal scholarship discussing this question. And, as a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service notes, ‘most scholars who have closely examined the question have concluded that Congress has authority to extend the impeachment process to officials who are no longer in office.’ ”
So, according to “most scholars,” the trial was constitutional. Moreover, the Senate voted 55-45 that the trial was constitutional—therefore it should have proceeded accordingly.
John Dalberg-Acton, an English historian and politician, famously wrote in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Practically every Republican in politics was corrupted by the absolute power of Trump—his uncanny and unholy ability to say or do practically anything and never lose the support of his base.
Trump has inspired at least a few wannabes, but the language and tactics that worked for Trump do not work well for others. For example, try as he might, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) will never come close to having Trump’s charisma, prestige and power.
According to a Pew study of party identification, “In 1996, Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to have a four-year degree. Today college graduates make up 41% of Democrats, compared with 30% of Republicans.”
Under the leadership of President Trump, Republicans have allied themselves with white supremacists, white nationalists, QAnon, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, misguided militias, crazy evangelical Christians, various and sundry conspiracy theorists and gun-toting white trailer trash—while losing more educated and sophisticated voters. And it isn’t winning elections for them.
We’ve all heard the story of the monkey trap. Hunters put a banana inside a glass jar tied to a stake. A monkey reaches inside and grabs the food, and its hand becomes a fist. It cannot pull its clenched fist from the jar without first releasing the banana. But the monkey won’t let go, so it is trapped.
Republicans in Congress who voted to acquit Trump will be on the wrong side of history forever. Maybe not the “Benedict Arnold” wrong side, but the “Richard Nixon” wrong side, for sure. There is nothing they can ever do to change that.
Still it’s never too late to do the right thing. Republicans need to let go of the banana. They need to renounce Donald Trump and the “Big Lie.”
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.