February 18, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Impeachment trial #2: Trump is acquitted again!

In the days immediately following the January 6 insurrection, there seemed to be a very real chance that then-President Trump might be convicted on impeachment charges. The House of Representatives wasted no time in impeaching Trump, exactly one week after the assault took place: January 13. That left exactly one week before the scheduled inauguration of Joe Biden, but in light of Trump's clear determination to exhaust all options to stay in office, anything was possible. The question became whether [to] hold a Senate trial immediately to ensure that Trump would be removed from office, or to wait until after the inauguration, in which case the only sanction would be to ban Trump from ever running for president (or any other public office) again.

As with my January 19 blog post on the election and insurrection, in what follows below I have incorporated lengthy passages from posts I made on Facebook in recent months.

On February 10, I summarized in specific terms what fundamental points were being addressed by the Senate trial:

In this impeachment trial, the U.S. Senate must answer three questions:

1) Was what happened on Jan. 6 an "insurrection"? (My dictionary definition leaves no doubt.)

2) If so, was it spontaneous, or was it incited by someone?

3) If it was incited, who did the inciting?

Pretty simple.

From Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition (1988):

insurrection : a rising up against established authority; rebellion; revolt

The objective of the rioters on January 6 was very clear and undeniable: to stop the counting of the electoral votes by Congress, and to pressure members of Congress to not recognize the ballots cast by the four states that Trump supporters were disputing: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Somehow Trump supporters seemed to think that the January 6 violence was little different from the various riots committed [by leftists] in Portland, Oregon, Richmond, Virginia, or other cities across the country. It boggles my mind that they cannot see that the January 6 violence was a literal battle for control of the U.S. government itself.

Did Trump want an insurrection?

The key to proving that Trump really did incite the mob into violent action is looking at the background. Ever since last summer, and even before, he has been deliberately undermining public confidence in the election system, providing his supporters with a reason to revolt. It might help to review what happened in the days and weeks following the November 3 election, starting with this Facebook post I made on November 6:

If our republic and its democratic institutions survive this election dispute, it will be thanks to the (few) honest politicians such as Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) who spoke out at the critical moment. On the Today show he flatly repudiated Pres. Trump's baseless claims of widespread fraud, while also pinning some of the blame on his state's supreme court, which allowed votes that arrived in the mail *after* election day to be counted. That was wrong, but at least they have kept the late ballots separate in case the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the case (again) and rules against counting them. In any case, it's not "fraud." The sooner Republican politicians and pundits step up and disavow the President's reckless and subversive words, the better off we'll all be.

In the days that followed, Trump refused to commit to leaving office, raising fears that the democratic transfer of power might be in jeopardy. My November 12 post on Facebook elicited a variety of sharp comments from both sides:

Thus far I've refrained from commenting much on the election results, preferring to wait until all the votes are counted. But it must be acknowledged that President Trump has continued to undermine American democracy with his allegations of fraud and abrupt leadership changed at the Pentagon. What does it all portend? No one but Trump really knows, and as Margaret Sullivan points out in "How to cover a coup -- or whatever it is Trump is attempting" (Washington Post), his actions are consistent with a variety of possible survival strategies. It's hard to understand how any intelligent person could accept (or even support) such anti-democratic actions. I hope they're correct that indulging Trump's refusal to admit defeat poses little risk. But whatever he does, as Sullivan states, the damage to our democracy is likely to be substantial and long-lasting.

... (Me responding to others' comments) Chances of an overt coup are almost nil, but he may be trying to incite leftist violence to justify martial law, etc. His public statements and tweets are unlikely to influence any court, so the remaining rational (?) explanation is rallying his "troops" to undermine the Biden administration's ability to govern.

... (Bruce Elder) [*] When Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, he insisted, against all evidence, that there was voter fraud on a massive scale. This triggered a massive investigation in all 50 states at taxpayer expense by a Republican led commission. The results are easily found in a simple web search. Before anyone comments further about a "stolen election", please read about this last investigation.

* Bruce Elder, a prominent local businessman and former Staunton city councilman who ran [against] Chris Saxman for the House of Delegates in 2005. His words are shaded to distinguish them from my own words. Sadly, he passed away in early February after a battle with cancer.

Throughout the controversy, I tried to keep an open mind and consider what sort of nefarious plots that might actually have occurred, possibly creating a reason for a legitimate protest to occur. Aside from various isolated cases of election irregularities, however, I learned of no such thing. On November 20 I cited the National Review article "Americans Deserve the Truth, Even If It's Unpleasant." This sparked a few angry retorts by pro-Trump folks who brought up the alleged vote tampering in machines made by Dominion, and other conspiracy theories.

Key excerpt: "Ask yourself, if what Giuliani and Powell are claiming is true, why is the Trump campaign not even making the accusation in court? Why are they not presenting evidence?" To be perfectly blunt, the only reason the election is still disputed is the mass delusion of paranoid pseudo-conservatives who have come to dominate the Republican Party, aided and abetted by well-paid purveyors of red-meat rhetoric aimed at the Trumpster base. How long can they sustain the Big Con?

January 6 insurrection chronology

This chronology of the January 6 insurrection is based primarily on the January 10 edition of the Washington Post (link below). Retracing the timeline and watching videos of Trump's speech and the violent aftermath leave very little doubt about cause and effect.

8:17 AM Pres. Trump tweets that V.P. Pence needs to send electoral votes back to the states, "AND WE WIN."
Noon Trump begins speech near Ellipse, urging "peaceful protest" but also "never give up" and "fight like hell."
1:00 PM First wave of Pro-Trump protesters storm barricades on west side of Capitol.
1:05 After senators and V.P. Pence enter House chambers, joint session begins.
1:10 Trump ends his speech saying "We're going to the Capitol" to get Republicans to "take back our country."
1:30 More protesters arrive, overwhelming police and climbing steps outside Capitol. Pipe bombs are found.
2:15 Rioters force their way into Capitol; House and Senate quickly adjourn and evacuate.
2:24 Trump tweets that V.P. Pence failed to protect U.S. from "fraudulent" election.
2:26 Trump phones Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) who tells him Pence is in danger.
2:38 Trump tweets in support of police, ending with "Stay peaceful." (He was reluctant to include the last part.)*
3:10-3:15 Ashli Babbitt is fatally shot by Capitol Police while trying to force entry into Speaker's Lobby.
4:17 In a recorded video, Trump asks his supporters to go home, still insisting the election was stolen.
4:18 Maryland and Virginia send National Guard troops into Washington.
5:40 Police begin to clear the Capitol, and the interior is secured.
6:01 As D.C. curfew takes effect, Trump tweets that violence resulted from the election being stolen.
7:00 Facebook and Twitter delete Trump's posts because they encourage violence.
8:06 V.P. Pence reopens the Senate session
9:00 Speaker Pelosi brings the House back into session, vowing that "justice will be done."
Jan. 7
3:40 AM
After challenges to the Arizona and Pennsylvania elections were voted down, V.P. Pence announced Joe Biden's election victory.

SOURCE: Washington Post, January 10, 2021.
* First-hand sources provided this information about Trump; Feb. 14, 2021, p. A10.

US Capitol west pan small

It is important to understand that the killing of Ashli Babbitt just before 3:15 was probably what stopped the assault. Up until that time, they had been hell bent on smashing windows and breaking down doors in pursuit of Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and other top leaders. God only knows what they would have done if they had not been stopped by the use of deadly force by the Capitol Police. At 6:37 PM on January 6, as the Capitol building was being cleared of the insurrectionists, I posted the above photo (a larger version, actually) of the U.S. Capitol which I had taken the previous June, and wrote:

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.

January 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.

Did those words register with anybody on the pro-Trump side? I don't think so. Instead, based on all the Facebook exchanges that day and in the six weeks since then, they have almost without exception dug in their heels, refused to acknolwedge what is obvious about Trump and about what happened on January 6. Some of them say that it wasn't really an insurrection, others say it was no different than what leftist rioters have done over the past year, and others say the the main perpetrators of violence on January 6 were members of Antifa. These are people who are so blinded by hyperpartisanship that there is simply no possibility of rational discourse. Some of them may be gullible minions, others may be too cynical to care an earnest search for the truth, but in either case, they are collectively a symptom of America in decline.

Trump's dysfunctional cabinet

Aside from impeachment, the other option for removing Trump from office after January 6 was getting the cabinet to vote to invoke the 25th Amendment, which provides for the vice president to assume the responsibilities of chief executive whenever the president is deemed incapable of carrying out his duties. Vice President Pence signaled that he was not considering that, however, and the matter was dropped. Part of the problem was that there were so many acting secretaries in the cabinet, due to a series of resignations over the preceding year. This was standard operating procedure in the Trump administration. Given his penchant for stirring up strife and blaming underlings when things go wrong (You're fired!), it is no surprise at all that President Trump's cabinet underwent so much turmoil and change in personnel. Over time, the proportion of professionals declined, as the cabinet came to be dominated by Trump's minions. (See the Executive branch leaders page.)

A prime example of tumultuous cabinet changes was when Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at the President's request, immediately after the November 6, 2018 election. Matt Whitaker then served as acting Attorney General until early 2019, when William Barr was confirmed by the Senate. (Barr had previously served in this capacity under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s.) Barr had a solid reputation for professionalism, but he turned out to be one of Trump's strongest defenders. His loyalty had limits, however, and in mid-December 2020, it was announced that Barr had resigned as Attorney General, two weeks after publicly disputing President Trump's claims that the election had been stolen. He was soon replaced by Jeffrey Rosen on an acting basis. Barr has yet to explain his motivations [for departing early], but as head lawyer in the administration, it is quite possible that he felt uneasy about Trump's continued efforts to undermine legal processes in order to stay in office.

As Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo was probably the strongest Trump loyalist in the cabinet. He replaced Rex Tillerson in that position in April 2018. Pompeo had [previously] been serving as Director of the CIA, and was replaced by Gina Haspel.

[Another] such incident was when Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis resigned in December 2019 to protest the President's decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Patrick Shanahan then served as acting Secretary of Defense until the summer, when Mark Esper was confirmed as Secretary of Defense. Although not well known previously, Esper was a combat veteran of Desert Storm, and had a Ph.D., two very strong qualifications. But after the public relations stunt last summer in which Trump posed with high military officials and others in front of St. John's Church near the White House, Esper resigned. His replacement, Christopher Miller, only served in an acting capacity, however.

The final "top four" cabinet member was Steven Mnuchin. He served as Secretary of Treasury for Trump's entire four-year term, one of the relatively few cabinet officials to enjoy Trump's confidence. None of the other prominent cabinet members spoke up during January. In sum, we'll never know whether there was enough support in the cabinet to temporarily remove Trump...

The Senate impeachment trial

There was some doubt about the constitutionality of holding an impeachment trial for an ex-president, since the penalty of removal from office was moot after January 20. But as explained by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and other House impeachment managers, the provisions in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution do not have to be applied jointly:

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.

(For a detailed explanation of these provisions, see Cornell.edu.)

On Tuesday, February 9 the Senate voted 56 - 44 in favor of going ahead with the trial, with six Republicans joining the 48 Democrats and two independents. The trial per se began on Wednesday, and the House impeachment managers made a very persuasive case using a series of graphic and ugly videos of the riot taking place in and around the Capitol. All senators were obliged to be present throughout the trial, since they were serving in effect as a jury. There were frequently several absences, however, and some observers noticed that some of the Republican senators were not paying much attention. Some of them, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), derided the entire proceeding as a farce, and he didn't even pretend to take his duties seriously. It was disclosed that Republican senators actually met with the Trump defense team in the evenings after the sessions were adjourned, evidently to plot strategy. Although not technically illegal, it further undermined the trial.

On Friday the defense began, and there really wasn't much they had to say. The preliminary arguments made by lead defense counsel were embarrassingly weak, but it really didn't matter. Parenthetically, I did pick up on one of their points:

It's not really relevant to the impeachment trial, but the Trump defense team is at least raising a valid point that many people would rather forget: When it comes to affirming the legitimacy of elections they lost, Democrats have a bad record. Likewise for abiding by the rule of law and repudiating mob violence. Partisan blindness afflicts both sides.

The main defense seemed to be that Democrats have used the phrase "fight like hell" on many occasions, just as President Trump did on January 6, so there was no reason to construe those words as an incitement to engage in violence. That might be true if the context in which the words were spoken were ignored; in fact, however, Donald Trump has a long history of urging his supports to get violent (e.g., "knock some heads") and his words to the right-wing Proud Boys militant group during one of the presidential debates ("stand back and stand by") clearly implied that he wanted them on hand for a showdown. My rather sarcastic response on Facebook:

"FIGHT LIKE HELL!" I am shocked -- SHOCKED -- that Democrats have used the same words many times! But in any of those cases was a large, angry crowd present? Did they involve an attempt to overturn an election result? It all boils down to a common-sense interpretation of what then-Pres. Trump meant. This in turn raises the question of whether we should take Trump (and his words) literally or seriously, or neither or both. Ingesting Clorox? Obviously not. Should his habitual ambiguity in speaking let him off the hook? Not if the question is whether he should be allowed to serve in public office again.

It seemed almost certain that Trump would retain enough Republican supporters to thwart the conviction, but a big surprise on the morning of Saturday, February 13 altered the situation. The Senate voted to hear witnesses, after the revelation that an aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had overheard some damning words from President Trump, in response to McCarthy's plea in a telephone call for Trump to call off his supporters as the Capitol was being invaded by a mob calling for Vice President Pence to be hanged [on January 6].

"Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are."

This quote, relayed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), made it clear that Trump was aware of the physical threat posed by the invaders, and of their motivation for engaging in violence, to which he himself had contributed. If it wasn't an open-and-shut case already, that quote made it so. But after the would-be star witness said that she had nothing more to say beyond what had already been made public, the senators huddled and quickly reversed the decision to hold witnesses. And so I wrote in the early afternoon of February 13:

As the Senate impeachment trial nears an end, many people may either be cheered or dismayed (depending on their political affiliation or belief about Trump's culpability) by the likely verdict not to convict. Perhaps some people don't really grasp what is at stake beyond the possibility that Trump may be able to run for president again in 2024. It is, rather, whether the United States has irrevocably crossed the fateful threshold dividing normal politics from a state of civil war.

To illustrate this, consider the likelihood that what motivates those who vote not to convict is not ordinary partisan blindness and stubbornness, but rather the fear of reprisals from an authoritarian network of power that tolerates no dissent. Senators such as Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz who were formal rivals of Trumps have all been assimilated into the Trumpista cabal. Seeing them make statements they know to be false is sad, and almost pathetic. (If they have been blackmailed or if they genuinely fear for their families' well-being, I can understand why they might cave in to pressure.) As long as the pro-Trump faction is assured of keeping at least 34 senators on board, the cost of voting one's conscience far outweighs the benefits.

So now the Senate will decide whether someone will be held accountable for the tragedy of January 6 -- which even Trump's defense attorneys agree WAS a "violent insurrection." If not, such violence will become normalized, and we can expect the same thing to happen over and over again in the future, perhaps escalating beyond what any of us can imagine. The gung-ho Confederate sympathizers who have been aching for a repeat of 1861, advocating secession of "red" states or other such nonsense, will get what they wanted.

May God bless America, and forgive us all for failing to govern ourselves peacefully.

A few hours later, the Senate voted 57 - 43 in favor of convicting Donald Trump, but that was ten votes short of the two-thirds needed for a conviction. All 48 Democrats, two independents, and seven Republicans voted to convict. The Republicans were:

Thus, Trump was acquitted and is therefore eligible to run for president again in 2024, unlikely as that may seem. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell then made a ten-minute speech in which he excoriating Trump for having committed a "disgraceful dereliction of duty." Watch it at youtube.com.

While most Trump supporters are celebrating their "victory," nobody really won, and indeed nobody could have "won," no matter what the verdict was. America is as divided as it has ever been, with partisans on opposite sides holding utterly different views of reality, with very little chance of narrowing the divisions any time soon. Whether most Republicans heed Mitch McConnell's words and eventually engage in some serious rethinking about whether Donald Trump had a positive or negative impact on the country remains to be seen. In the mean time, things are going to be very ugly.

Originally posted: 18 Feb 2021, 9: 05 AM; minor editing at 8:57 PM.