January 19, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Trump loses re-election, incites riot, gets impeached

Well, I've got a lot of political news to catch up on since last summer, when I wrote about the Black Lives Matter protests. Hardly anyone expected that President Donald Trump would leave office quietly, and those who enjoy shaking up the political "establishment" in Washington got their fill last week. On the day that the U.S. Congress met in a joint session to complete the formalities of counting the electoral votes that were cast on December 12, supporters of President Trump staged a coordinated assault on the Capitol building in an apparent attempt to overturn the election results in favor of the incumbent. In response, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, and with just hours to go before he is due to leave office, the matter is in the hands of the U.S. Senate. The current situation goes beyond the scenarios invented in such daring political thrillers as Seven Days in May or The Manchurian Candidate. "Truth is stranger than fiction."

What follows are brief summaries of the major episodes leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden as president at noon tomorrow, beginning with the fall campaign and the November 3rd election and immediate aftermath. Then I will describe what happened on January 6, interpreting the events in terms of Trump's political objectives, and finally I will briefly touch on the impeachment process. Several passages are taken from Facebook posts I made during the last six months of the year.

2020 campaign: wild & crazy

At the end of July, President Trump seriously proposed delaying the November election in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for doing so, and trying to get the 50 states to cooperate on some kind of modified schedule would be next to impossible. This was in the context of his denunciation of mail-in voting, which several states announced. (See Washington Post.) I asked rhetorically on Facebook that if he were re-elected, "would he continue saying absurd, inflammatory things that are not meant to be taken seriously (such as this), or would he become more calm and reasonable?"

In early September, Trump escalated his broad-brushed accusations that the November elections were going to be rigged against him, urging his supporters at a rally in North Carolina to vote twice. He seemed determined to spread as much mayhem and confusion as possible during the final two months of the election. It may have been that he merely wanted them to "test the system" to see if mail-in ballots have been properly tabulated, but that was obviously the wrong way to do it. In the context of his warning about widespread voting fraud, it constituted another blatant bad-faith assault on our democratic institutions. It was inexcusable, but few Republicans stepped up to criticize him. (apple.news)

Trump's first debate performance with Joe Biden last October was yet another first-class outrage, filled with constant interruptions and rude put-downs. [Fox News reporter Chris Wallace] was caught off guard, and simply could not maintain any kind of order. When NBC reporter Kristen Welker moderated the second (and last) debate, things went somewhat more smoothly, and Trump impressed enough people that he probably picked up some votes.

But when asked later that month whether he would commit to abiding by the November election results, Trump simply refused to do so. Did that mean he might refuse to leave office and declare an emergency to stay in power? While it would be easy to dismiss such remarks as more of the same provocative nonsense, doing so would further desensitize ourselves to the appalling erosion of democratic norms and values in this country. For some local official to say such things would be subversive but of little consequence; for the President of the United States to say them constituted (yet another) direct attack on the institutions that make our republic strong. The failure of Republican politicians to sharply disavow his lack of respect for electoral processes was absolutely inexcusable.

In my online interactions with Trump supporters last fall, I acknowledged that there have been tainted election wins by Democrats in the past (former Sen. Al Franken's election [by a 312-vote margin in 2008] was often mentioned), and that more such irregularities were possible. I tried my best to point out that our local boards of election are bipartisan and transparent, and the likelihood of widespread orchestrated fraud such as Trump suggests is almost zero. If he were sincere in seeking to prevent such fraud, he would call for existing safeguards to be strengthened. Instead, he chose to sow more doubt, making it almost inevitable that whichever side that loses will refuse to accept the results, ending in prolonged violent turmoil. It didn't have to end that way, but that is exactly what has happened.

Campaign montage 2020

A montage of signs and flags from the 2020 campaign, mostly in Staunton. The Trump flag and Gadsden flag ("Don't tread on me") were seen about a mile west of Natural Chimneys, in northern Augusta County.

Trump defeats himself, while GOP holds on

The November 3 election turned out pretty much the way I expected, with Joe Biden defeating President Trump by a small but clear margin. Unlike the 2016 election, when it was fairly clear by midnight in the east that Donald Trump had won, this time we stayed up into the wee hours of the morning without knowing for sure who was the winner. In the early hours, Trump had a large lead in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but those vote totals reflected people who had voted that day. Because of delays in counting all the early ballots and mail-in ballots that were allowed in several states* due to the coronavirus, there was no clear winner until four days later, Saturday afternoon. The headline in Sunday's Washington Post was "Trump defeats Biden," but it would be more accurate to say that Trump defeated himself.

* The Trump campaign objected to counting ballots that were cast early on the grounds that state law in Pennsylvania specifies when votes may be cast, and that state officials did not have the authority to make changes to accommodate the situation. There may be some merit to that, but most legal scholars allow for slight variations in emergencies (such as the covid-19 pandemic) when it is impractical to convene the legislature to make the necessary changes.

In spite of his unpredictable behavior, autocratic tendencies, and frequent lapses of basic decency when referring to his political adversaries, President Trump had several advantages as the incumbent candidate in the 2020 race. If he were more rational and had played his cards right, he might have won. But any hope held by fence-sitting voters that Trump might change his ways and act more normally had largely vanished before January 2020 when the campaign got underway. Of course the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic in March hurt his chances, but once again, he made things worse by alternately dismissing the threat and then blaming it on outside forces. Calling it the "Wuhan virus" or the "Kung flu" probably didn't change the vote totals very much, but repeatedly insulting medical authorities such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and suggesting absurd remedies such as ingesting bleach were just too much for many voters to swallow.

It took weeks to finish the vote count, and partisan disputes in Pennsylvania were the most egregious example of the needless delay. Both parties deserve part of the blame there. The Democrats pushed for excessively loose standards, so that anyone could vote several weeks before the official November 3rd election day, and all those votes had to be carefully stored and then counted separately from the normal "same-day" votes. Then the decided to allow the counting of mail-in ballots that arrived after election day, supposedly requiring a properly dated postmark, but that wasn't clear. My understanding is that the late-arriving ballots were treated as "provisional" and thus not included in the official vote totals, but I need to check on that. In any case, there weren't enough of them to affect the outcome in Pennsylvania. Republican legislators in that state made things even worse by refusing to allow election officials to begin counting the early votes until November 3rd.

In the end, Biden won five battleground states that Trump had won in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia. Biden amassed the exact same number of electoral votes (306) that Trump had won back then, and 7,058,637 more popular votes nationwide. My Presidency and Virginia politics pages have been updated.

2020 Pres. Election

Roll your mouse over the map to compare my election night forecast (as of 9:00 PM) to the actual results. I got 47 out of 50 states correct.

Candidate Party Electoral votes Popular votes Percent of
popular votes
Joe Biden Democrat 306 81,281,888 51.4%
Donald Trump Republican 232 74,223,251 46.9%

SOURCE: Apple News Spotlight

Legal appeals, Electoral College

Throughout late November and early December, Trump kept up his rejection of the election results, claiming that if you only counted the legal ballots, he would have had a clear majority of the nationwide popular votes. That was just absurd. But in an ironic twist to what had happened four years earlier, Trump's habit of accusing his opponents of resorting to vote fraud paved the way for those opponents to (in essence) accuse him of doing! The disputes in late November and early December 2016 were related to the revelation that Russia had interfered in the campaign, possibly rigging election results in favor of Trump. Nothing much came of those accusations, but at the time they were the basis for a serious effort to upend the Electoral College by persuading individual electors to switch their votes. Several actually did, but about the same number of Trump electors "defected" as Hillary Clinton electors did, so it really didn't matter.

This time, however, the losing candidate mounted a much more determine effort to get the Electoral College to defy the popular vote mandates in several states. This took subversion of democracy to a whole new level, but in the end nothing came of it. Numerous lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign were rejected in various federal courts, and the President's lawyer Rudy Giuliani made himself a fool by making incoherent, implausible arguments in court. Other Trump lawyers such as Lin Wood (a man) and Sidney Powell (a woman) earned notoriety for spreading preposterous rumors about the connection between the Chinese Communist government, the Venezuelan socialist government, and the Dominion company which manufactures voting machines, among other things. When Fox News began casting doubt on these challenges, it was a sign that it was all over for Trump. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Trump's appeal, which left the results intact. As the electors met in the 50 state capitals (and D.C.) on December 12, there was high drama and intrigue. Every single one of the 538 electors cast their votes as they were obliged to do: 306 for Biden, and 232 for Trump.

"I just want to find 11,780 votes"

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the story: a clear and unequivocal decision by the people -- verified by the judicial system -- in favor of Joe Biden. But toward the end of December, Trump tried to force election officials in Georgia to alter the results in his favor, as a way to get an alternate slate of electors approved by Congress when they met to count the electoral votes on January 6. In extraordinary hour-long telephone conference call, President Trump pressured Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to "recalculate" the vote in his favor. This topped the already-outrageous acts of subversion committed by Trump, showing that he would stop at nothing to stay in power. In a recording of that call obtained by The Washington Post, Trump alternately berated, begged and [made threats to try to] overturn President-elect Joe Biden's win in the state.

So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.
(SOURCE: Washington Post)

That's it. Prima facie proof that the President of the United States had committed an impeachable offense, if not a criminal act. Notwithstanding the fact that all 50 states had duly certified their election results and that the members of the Electoral College have rendered their decision, the President of the United States continued to abuse the power of his office by exerting illegal pressure on state officials to reverse the outcome in his favor. Even for Trump, this is hard to believe. Listen to the recording for yourself. Members of Congress who try to stall or interfere with the official counting of electoral votes on Wednesday will be held accountable by We the People.

After that call was divulged to the public, there was no longer any question about Trump. Politicians who aligned themselves with him will forever be regarded as subversive opportunists. The party that sold its collective soul to Trump will likewise be known for its sedition. Veteran conservative columnist George Will did not mince words in his column denouncing Trump's flagrant act of subversion. On January 3 Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) explained very clearly why there was absolutely NO legal basis for trying to change the electoral vote count, as some in the Republican Party were plotting to do three days hence.

Is it clear to everyone now why Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing his base of support?

When putsch came to shove:
Trump followers invade U.S. Capitol building

A joint session of Congress convened on January 6, with Vice President Mike Pence presiding over the counting of the electoral votes. As the largely ceremonial function began, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Senate Majority Leader, soon to be Minority Leader) implored to everyone that the endless cycle of partisan vengeance must end. As an ultra-pragmatic, partisan manipulator of great renown, those words might have struck some people as less than sincere. But I happen to think that Old Mitch was having a change of heart, because he had an inkling of what was brewing outside the hallowed chambers on Capitol Hill: civil war!

I was watching on live TV the events taking place inside and outside the Capitol building, and I was moved to tears by the diabolical spectacle that was unfolding while the whole world was watching. At a rally south of the White House Ellipse, President Trump made an impassioned speech in which he urged the thousands of supporters to march to the Capitol and "fight like hell" or else the country they loved would be lost forever. Did he specifically tell them to break into the Capitol and threaten members of Congress? No. Is that what he wanted them to do? Probably. But is there any point in quibbling over exactly what he meant? He plainly incited a riot, with the obvious intent of thwarting the constitutional process of certifying the election results. Anyone who cannot draw the obvious connection between his words and their actions is simply blind to reality. I posted the following two paragraphs on Facebook, hoping that it just might be received in the earnest way it was intended by some of my Trump-supporting friends.

This beautiful building, originally built in 1800, and expanded several times over the past two centuries, has long been known as a temple of democratic self-government. Today it was assaulted by fascist mobs who had assembled near the White House at a rally led by President Trump. Apparently, my warnings about where this country was headed with Trump in the White House were not taken seriously by many people. Since his election four years ago, I have endeavored to be restrained in my characterizations of him and his supporters. Why? As a principled conservative (yes, we exist!), I have fancied myself some kind of bridge between the opposing sides in the escalating civil strife, but it is time to acknowledge quite frankly that my efforts have been of little use.

February 6, 2021 will be remembered as a day of infamy not unlike Pearl Harbor or 9/11, and all of us will be held accountable for how we reacted to it. I want to make it clear that anyone who excuses or rationalizes what happened in Washington today, and who fails to draw the obvious lessons from it, simply lacks the political judgment to engage in constructive discourse. Sadly, this applies to many of my Facebook friends who consider themselves loyal Republicans. Abraham Lincoln would be mortified by what has become of the party that he helped to launch. In the Gettysburg Address he described the Civil War as a test of whether government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" could survive in the United States. I will no longer tolerate repeated insults, and I will call out the propagation of falsehoods, and I will not waste my time arguing with idiots and panderers.

Sadly, I don't think what I wrote made any difference with Trump supporters. With few exceptions, they seem wrapped up in an alternate reality spun by right-wing fringe "news" organizations such as NewsMax and One America News. These days, even Fox News is too mainstream for their tastes. I won't repeat the hundreds of words in the ensuing back-and-forth, a true low point in my years of Facebook activity. Suffice it to say that, for those on the right who decry "hypocrisy" of people who have denounced the January 6 riots (on the grounds that they allegedly excused the violence connected to last summer's Black Lives Matter protests), I think what I wrote in my July 1 blog post indicates a great deal of ethical consistency on my part:

For me, failure to unequivocally condemn rampant street violence as utterly unjustified is a sign of moral bankruptcy, and the current situation puts moderate Democrats (especially Joe Biden) and civil rights leaders in a very tight spot. I am extremely skeptical of any movement with ties to extremist ideologies, and based on what I know, I fear that Black Lives Matter is liable to do more harm than good.
U.S. Capitol west, June 2020

The west side of the U.S. Capitol, on June 24, 2020, as I was headed to observe the Black Lives Matter protest near the White House. (See July 1.) This is where the platform on which Joe Biden will soon take the presidential oath of office is located, and it was on those steps that the mob of Trump supporters launched their loathesome assault on the bastion of American democracy.

Trump is impeached again

Exactly one week after the newest "day of infamy" in American history, on Wednesday, January 13, President Trump achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the only U.S. president ever to be impeached twice. All 222 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted in favor of the single article of impeachment, for "incitement of insurrection." Among the Republicans was Rep. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Even though Trump will no longer be president in a matter of hours, the U.S. Senate will probably go ahead with an impeachment trial. Why? Because under Article I Section 3 Clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution,

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

The underlined portion above indicates why this is important. As incoming Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said, Donald Trump must never be allowed to hold public office again. Some people say that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment (disqualifying from public office anyone who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same") would suffice for that purpose, and that may well be the case. But with someone as dangerous as Trump, we just can't take chances. Besides, if inciting a violent insurrection to overturn an election is not an impeachable offense, then what is???