Donald Trump's first impeachment seemed abstract, but his second trial feels like a visceral reckoning

At issue in the Senate chamber will be many of the fundamental aspects that defined Trump’s years in power: relentless assaults on truth, deliberate efforts to foment divisions, shattering of norms and undermining of a democratic election

The New York Times February 10, 2021 18:05:57 IST
Donald Trump's first impeachment seemed abstract, but his second trial feels like a visceral reckoning

File image of Donald Trump. By Anna Moneymaker © 2020 The New York Times

This was no phone call transcript, no dry words on a page open to interpretation. This was a horde of extremists pushing over barricades and beating police officers. This was a mob smashing windows and pounding on doors. This was a mass of marauders setting up a gallows and shouting, “Take the building!” and “Fight for Trump!”

As the United States Senate opened an unprecedented second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Tuesday amid the echoes of history, the House managers prosecuting him played powerful video images of last month’s deadly assault on the Capitol that made abundantly clear how different this proceeding will be from the first.

Where the case against Trump a year ago turned on what might have seemed like an abstract or narrow argument about his behind-the-scenes interactions with a far-off country, Ukraine, the case this year turns on an eruption of violence that Americans saw on television with their own eyes — and that the senators serving as jurors experienced personally when they fled for their lives.

Rather than a judgment of where foreign policy turns into political excess, this sequel trial amounts to a reckoning over Trump’s very presidency. At issue in the Senate chamber over the coming days will be many of the fundamental aspects that defined Trump’s four years in power: his relentless assaults on truth, his deliberate efforts to foment divisions in society, his shattering of norms and his undermining of a democratic election.

Still, this trial may end up with the same verdict as the last one. On a test vote on the constitutionality of prosecuting a president after he leaves office, 44 Republicans on Tuesday stood by Trump, a measure of his enduring sway within his party and a signal that he most likely will win the 34 votes he needs for acquittal given the two-thirds supermajority required for conviction.

But if the six Republicans who voted to proceed also vote to convict him for inciting an insurrection, it will be the most senators to break from a president of their own party in any impeachment trial in US history.

“I would not have thought it when I was sitting on the Senate floor trying the first impeachment — it turns out that was just the opening act,” said Norman L Eisen, a lawyer for House Democrats during last year’s trial on Trump’s pressure on Ukraine for political help. “The second one crystallizes all the anti-democratic elements that characterised Trump’s tenure and his Ukraine high crimes but brings them to an even higher pitch.”

The emotional punch of this case was evident on the Senate floor Tuesday.

 

Sitting in what amounted to the crime scene, the same chamber they evacuated just a month ago moments before Trump’s supporters stormed in, some of the senators watched raptly as the scenes of violence played out on the screens before them. Others turned away.

The lead House manager, Represntative Jamie Raskin, choked up as he recounted bringing his daughter and son-in-law to the Capitol that day, just a day after burying his 25-year-old son, only to have them sending farewell texts and making whispered goodbye phone calls because “they thought they were going to die.”

“Make no mistake about it, as you think about that day, things could have been much worse,” said Representative David Cicilline, another of the managers. “As one senator said, they could have killed all of us.”

Trump’s defence team recognised the power of the other side’s presentation, with one of his lawyers, Bruce L Castor Jr., admitting that the managers had done a good job in offering their case and even acknowledging that voters rejected Trump.

But they complained that the House team was playing to emotions rather than law or reason, trying to rile up senators with inflammatory images and then twisting his words to unfairly blame the violence on Trump.

David I Schoen, another of the former president’s lawyers, said the videotape was “designed by experts to chill and horrify you and our fellow Americans” as if an impeachment trial “were some sort of blood sport.”

“It is again for pure, raw, misguided partisanship,” Schoen added. “They do not need to show you movies to show you that the riot happened here. We will stipulate that it happened and you know all about it.”

There is, of course, a certain paradox in a lawyer for a reality-show president complaining about the power of visual images. The longtime star of “The Apprentice” appreciates better than most how to tell a story on television.

There was no compelling video in the Ukraine case, just recordings of people testifying to events the viewers could not watch themselves. None of the senators who rendered last year’s verdict felt physically threatened by Trump’s telephone call with Ukraine’s president seeking help smearing his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

“This impeachment is a more of a made-for-television event, which is something the former president surely understands,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “Where the previous one involved many narrative strands, a long span of time and very little action, this one offers a compact story with escalating tensions and a violent conclusion.”

It also raises a broader indictment of Trump, one that may not seem quite so removed to everyday Americans who had little interest in Ukraine or saw Trump’s interventions there as politics as usual.

When House Democrats moved to impeach Trump the first time, they debated whether to advance as many as 10 articles of impeachment charging him with all sorts of crimes, including obstructing the Russia investigation, authorising hush money for women to cover up sexual affairs, illegally diverting money to his border wall and profiting personally from his office.

Instead, they opted for the more circumscribed case involving Ukraine because they thought it was easiest to prove.

Even some Republican senators agreed by the end of last year’s trial that Democrats had proved the case — they just did not deem it significant enough to merit conviction and removal from office.

As a result, Trump emerged emboldened by his acquittal.

This time, other than his staunchest allies, most Republican lawmakers are not defending Trump’s actions nor arguing that they were not impeachable. Instead, they have focused on process or politics, maintaining that it is unconstitutional to try a former president or a distraction from serious issues like fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

But the case that will play out over the next week will put the most aberrant elements of Trump’s presidency on display. For four years, he played to the crowd, stirring anger, whipping up us-against-them conflicts and at times encouraging violence. He peddled dishonest versions of reality to suit his political needs and told supporters not to believe anyone but him. He undercut faith in democratic institutions and pushed boundaries other presidents would not have.

All of which played out in the months that led to the election on 3 November and the Capitol siege on 6 January and will now be scrutinised — how he promoted flagrantly bogus fraud complaints to try to cling to power even after voters rejected him, how he pressured state and local officials to subvert election results in his favour, how he revved up supporters to march on the Capitol by telling them their country was at stake.

Michael W McConnell, a conservative former appeals court judge and author of “The President Who Would Not Be King,” said the impeachment articles in the Ukraine case were weak. The abuse of power charge “stated a plausible ground” for removal but was “not so compelling,” while the obstruction of Congress article “was not legally sound” on its face.

“This time, although the articles of impeachment were badly drafted, the charges are significantly more serious, unquestionably amounting to high crimes and misdemeanors,” he said. “I suspect that is why Mr Trump’s defenders are desperately searching for a rationale for voting not to convict that is not based on defending or excusing what he did.”

Trump benefits from the tribal nature of today’s politics. Much as they may not like him, most Republican lawmakers have stuck to their side of the fence — criticising Trump’s actions was one thing, but joining hands with Democrats in a politically charged up-or-down verdict on his presidency is another.

Similarly, polls show broad condemnation of Trump’s actions but only somewhat more support for conviction this time than last time.

That is why Trump’s defense team played its own videos Tuesday showing some Democrats calling for his impeachment almost from the minute he took office, arguing that their current drive is just the latest chapter in a campaign of retribution, a point intended to rally Republicans behind him again.

And so while the Trump presidency is over, the struggle over the Trump presidency is not. For the next week, it will play out in gritty, angry, ugly words and images until its destined denouement.

Peter Baker c.2021 The New York Times Company

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