At some point in the next few weeks, Donald Trump will face his second Senate trial following an impeachment by the House of Representatives. Unlike the proceedings in late 2019 and early 2020, this time around — in the wake of the attempted coup on January 6 carried out by a violent mob inspired by Trump’s words to attack the U.S. Congress — the process has been swift. The House impeached Donald Trump after a debate that lasted a mere few hours. Given Trump’s inflammatory words on January 6, and the unwillingness of senior lawyers to rally to his defense, and given the fact that Mitch McConnell has now publicly laid blame for the violent events squarely on Trump’s shoulders, the disgraced ex-president’s trial in the Senate could be almost as rapid.
If there is any honor whatsoever among GOP senators — or for that matter, any ability to think long-term about their own political self-interest — he will become the first president in U.S. history to be convicted by that body. Of course, since he will have already left office, he won’t, alas, become the first president to be removed from power via an impeachment and trial process. That’s a shame, but it doesn’t make the process any less vital. If American democracy is to survive, if political decisions aren’t to be held hostage by gun-wielding fanatics, Trump’s effort to undermine the peaceful transfer of power following an election must face real consequences.
Conventional wisdom has it, however, that most GOP senators, no matter how personally distasteful they find Trump and how terrified they were by his unleashing of a mob against them on January 6, won’t want to antagonize their base by voting to convict. Conventional wisdom has it that, when push comes to shove, appeasement will win the day.
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But in this instance, might conventional wisdom be wrong? As Mitch McConnell seems now to have concluded, and as and many of his caucus likely soon will, having shamefully enabled Trump these past four years, they now have precious little incentive to waste political capital on a wounded and discredited ex-president, a man who has lost his hold on many independents as well as on a significant minority of GOP voters.
To the contrary, they have every incentive, as more and more evidence of his malfeasance surfaces, to utterly disempower this demagogue in order to ensure that he can’t rise from the political ashes to wreak vengeance on those in the GOP who didn’t help him in his coup attempts. Convict him, and they can then, in quick order, pass legislation barring him from ever running for public office again — a fate that, surely, no public figure in American history has so richly deserved, and one that must have McConnell and other GOP leadership figures in the Senate privately salivating in delight. True, this would alienate a not insignificant proportion of the GOP base; but in the long run that might well be less damaging than alienating the independents who are so central to creating a viable electoral coalition for both political parties.
Were the Senate to turn on Trump in this way, McConnell would risk fracturing his base; after all, 9 out of 10 Republicans still say that Trump’s four years on balance were a plus for the country, and only 11 percent of GOP voters hold Trump responsible for the attempted coup. But if McConnell and the GOP establishment don’t seize this particular bull by its horns they risk being reduced to an extremist party incapable of attracting anyone outside of their shrinking base. In the long run, backing the conviction of Trump might offer them a one-off chance to cauterize their party’s bleeding wound, and to sever its joined-at-the-hip connection to an authoritarian leader who stoked a mob bent on assassinating elected officials. This is a phrase I never thought I’d write, but… “If I were Mitch McConnell, I’d seize the moment and throw Trump as far under the bus as I could possibly manage.”
For here’s the thing: If McConnell doesn’t lend his support — and, by extension, many of the other GOP senators’ support — to conviction, it will only further erode GOP credibility among the broader electorate if, over the coming months, as seems increasingly likely, Trump is indicted in a number of state courts for his myriad crimes. The lower Trump’s legal fortunes sink, the worse the senate will look if it twice exonerated him for his actions despite a preponderance of evidence indicating his guilt.
How would voters react if McConnell, after acknowledging Trump’s culpability for triggering the attempted coup, then pushed to give the man a free pass for it, only to have Georgia show more spine by indicting him for threatening a public official and demanding votes “be found” to guarantee Trump a victory he hadn’t legitimately won? How would they react if New York State indicted Trump and miscellaneous family members for tax fraud, or campaign finance law violations, or possibly even money laundering, if some of the allegations surrounding his relationship to Russian mobsters turn out to have substance? How would they react if the Washington, D.C., attorney general filed incitement charges against Trump for his role in the events of January 6? How would they react if Maryland’s attorney general brought Trump into court to answer charges against him for violating the emoluments clause — essentially for pimping out his services to foreign governments and entities?
Trump is facing the likelihood of a barrage of criminal indictments when he leaves office on Wednesday. But, in addition, he is facing a number of high-profile civil lawsuits as well, including from women who allege he assaulted them in the years before he became president. Given the events of the past two weeks, he may well also face numerous other civil lawsuits, including damages claims from family members of the victims of the January 6 Capitol breach. In each of these trials, evidence will be presented — and the public will see and read that evidence — that will make Trump look more awful by the minute. The further out we get from the Trump era, chances are, the more clear the harm he inflicted will become.
Trump’s corporate backers realize this. Belatedly, he is being cut off from his go-to financing sources, including Deutsche Bank, which has said it will no longer do business with him. As a result, as his legal woes mount, he will likely have to resort to crowd-sourced, dodgy money-making schemes simply to get his gullible supporters to pony up cash to fund his defense attorneys.
Although the fates may have finally caught up with this grifter, the political firestorm he helped create remains. For as Trump leaves the White House, his far-right supporters won’t magically disappear. Trumpism and its toxic spin-offs — from QAnon to the Proud Boys — will remain a threat on the American political landscape for years to come. That, alas, is the sobering reality as a new presidency gets underway and as Donald Trump, from domestic exile in Mar-a-Lago, prepares for his second Senate trial.