The GOP Stands in Judgment of Trump — and Its Own Future

On Aug. 7, 1974, Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate investigation, met in the White House with three senior Republican legislators. Led by Senator Barry Goldwater, the group told Nixon that evidence of his wrongdoing unearthed in the probe had turned Republican supporters against him, and he was certain to be impeached and convicted. Nixon resigned the next day.

How quaint. The leader of the free world had abused his powers, and members of his own party put the interests of the country ahead of politics and pride.

It’s easy to romanticize bipartisanship and tempting to find virtues in the past that may not have been as steadfast as they appear in retrospect. Honor ages well. But the GOP of today is clearly a different animal than it was in Nixon’s day. Today, the Republican Party is so fueled by propaganda and disinformation, so in thrall to the cult of Donald Trump, that it’s unable to accept objective facts, weigh evidence, and uphold the Constitution. Power for power’s sake outweighs everything else, as Trump’s impeachment trial seems well on its way to demonstrating.

On Thursday, Democrats from the House of Representatives finished presenting their damning case to the Senate. Much of what the legislators offered wasn’t new, but it was for the first time woven into an air-tight narrative, and illustrated with fresh, harrowing video footage of violence during the Capitol siege.

What have senators seen and heard during the trial?

  • Trump spent months amplifying his “big lie” that the 2020 election was rigged. After scores of legal challenges to the vote belly-flopped, he spent weeks inviting supporters to rally in Washington on Jan. 6, the day the vote was to be certified. “When they were primed and angry and ready to fight, he escalated and channeled their rage with a call to arms,” said Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat. “Show up on January 6th.”
  • Trump fomented an insurrection when he told his supporters that day that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” This wasn’t a one-off appeal. As the case managers made clear, Trump had ample reason to believe his mob would take his words literally. He’d spent years cultivating their devotion, shaping them into a political force. He’d encouraged them to act violently before — and they had. “These tactics were road-tested,” noted Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat.
  •  The insurrectionists believed they were acting under Trump’s direction and in his interests, as boatloads of disturbing evidence demonstrated. “The defense argued in briefs, and argued again here yesterday, that the insurrectionists were acting on their own," said Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, on Thursday. “But that’s not what the insurrectionists have actually said. They said they came because the president instructed them to do so.” DeGette cited video from the siege. “Our president wants us here,” an insurrectionist said in one segment. “We wait and take orders from our president.”
  • The insurrectionists were methodical and deliberate, communicating with one another before, during and after the siege, and their intentions were bloody. They wanted to kill former Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, because Trump had taken aim at them. “President Trump put a target on their backs,” said Stacey Plaskett, a Virgin Islands Democrat. On the afternoon of Jan. 6, Trump was apparently told that Pence was in grave danger. Minutes later, he responded by tweeting that Pence lacked “the courage” to help overturn the election. “He further incites the mob against his own vice president, whose life was being threatened,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat.
  • Trump started a conflagration during his presidency and specifically on Jan. 6 that has spread across the country. Violent mobs have targeted state officials, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and myriad election supervisors from both parties. The case managers showed video of New Mexico County Commissioner Couy Griffin, a Republican, saying the “only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (comments that Trump re-tweeted). In the wake of the Jan. 6 siege, Griffin promised that another Capitol rally might follow that would result in “blood running out of that building.”
  • Trump’s primary defense, beyond asserting that he didn’t incite an insurrection, has nothing to do with the facts of the case. His attorneys, thus far clownish and poorly prepared, have argued that Trump couldn’t be impeached because he no longer held office. The case managers noted, however, that Trump was charged while still in office. “As a matter of history and original understanding, there is no merit to President Trump’s claim that he can incite an insurrection and then insist weeks later that the Senate lacks the power to even hear evidence at a trial, to even hold a trial,” said Raskin. Trump’s lawyers have also argued that he was merely exercising free speech on Jan. 6. The case managers handily demolished that one, pointing out that that speech that incites violence isn’t protected. All that matters are the facts. “The evidence is clear and it is overwhelming,” said Representative Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat. Trump “assembled the mob, summoned the mob and incited the mob. He must be held accountable.”

Will Senate Republicans hold Trump accountable? Trump’s lawyers are expected to wrap up their defense by Friday night, and there may be a verdict before the weekend is over.

“What if President Trump had been successful? What if he had succeed in overturning the will of the people and our constitutional processes?” asked Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat. “Who among us is willing to risk that outcome by letting Trump's constitutional crimes go unanswered?"

We may already know.

Prominent Republicans in the Senate, including Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, slagged the trial before it even began and were openly disdainful once it started. Graham, in an Orwellian twist, said the evidence presented was persuading more Republicans to acquit Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while encouraging his caucus to consider a conviction as a “vote of conscience,” still voted against the trial as unconstitutional the day it began.

These senators’ decisions are calculated. They’re wagers on the future of their broken party. And what they’re doing is a warning, so pay attention — because the whole country is going to have to live with it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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