What did the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump accomplish? He was acquitted, and his standing in the polls among Republican voters is right back to where it was before the January 6 attack on Congress. Commentary’s Noah Rothman writes that, by failing to call witnesses and leaving some factual questions unanswered, the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump left an “open wound.” That’s certainly true. But the impeachment trial did succeed in accomplishing at least two important things.
First, it stopped Trump from further escalation during his final two weeks in office. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times wrote on Twitter over the weekend that Mitch McConnell’s signaling openness to voting to convict was one of the few things that stopped Trump from making things worse on his way out the door.
Second, even with some questions unanswered, the trial proved in a public forum that Trump’s wrongdoing was an essential cause of the January 6 attack on Congress.
Trump’s defense lawyers and his online apologists have suggested what he did was no worse than many Democrats have done in the past, but the trial made it clear that Trump’s post-election misbehavior — both in its totality and in several distinct respects — was unprecedented.
Trump lost the 2020 election by the same number of electoral votes as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Trump’s 2020 loss came down to 43,000 individual votes across three states; Clinton’s 2016 loss came down to 78,000 votes across three states. Clinton conceded the morning after Election Day. Trump, by contrast, sought to overturn the results. He didn’t merely seek recounts and file lawsuits (as Al Gore did when the election came down to mere hundreds of votes in one state). He spread wild lies and conspiracy theories — about voting machines switching the vote and 139 percent voter-turnout in Detroit, for example — and he illicitly pressured election officials to come up with the votes to hand him victory.
As injurious as those efforts were to legal and democratic norms, Trump’s lies, conspiracy theories, and illicit pressure campaign wouldn’t have resulted in the attack on Congress if he had simply accepted the results of the Electoral College on December 14. But Trump became the first president in history to reject the results of the Electoral College. He then summoned a large crowd to Washington for a “wild” event to pressure Congress to reject the results of the Electoral College on January 6. He stoked the crowd’s anger with more wild lies and conspiracies. He told the crowd his vice president had the sole authority to reject Electoral College votes, and he ordered the vice president to commit this blatantly unconstitutional act.
As one man who was armed with a knife and broke into the Senate chamber later said in a video: “Once we found out Pence turned on us and that they had stolen the election, like officially, the crowd went crazy. I mean, it became a mob. We crossed the gate.”
More than an hour after the mob began clashing with police outside the Capitol — and ten minutes after the mob had broken into the Capitol and Pence had fled from the Senate floor for his safety — Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
We don’t know what Trump had been told by aides and Secret Service at that time, but he was reportedly glued to television that day. Chuck Todd reported on MSNBC ten minutes before Trump rage-tweeted about Pence that Pence had left the Senate. Many reporters tweeted the news of Pence’s departure in real time. It was widely reported that the building was under assault and other buildings in the Capitol complex had been evacuated.
And this is why the tu quoque defenses of Trump fail. Trump’s defense lawyers could point to instances where Democrats, such as Maxine Waters and Chuck Schumer, had used abhorrent and incendiary rhetoric that is worthy of condemnation and censure at the very least. What they could not demonstrate is that the rhetoric of Waters and Schumer caused violence. Barbara Boxer’s objection to the certification of electoral votes in 2004 was deplorable, but it was not done in the context of John Kerry’s rejecting the results and telling his supporters that the greatest political crime of all time had just been committed — and it did not cause violence. Trump’s lawyers could point to horrific acts of left-wing political violence — such as the mass-assassination attempt by a Bernie Sanders supporter who shot Steve Scalise and three others — but what they could not do was make the case that wrongdoing by Sanders was an essential cause of that attack.
But Trump’s post-election wrongdoing — which was without parallel or precedent in its totality — was an essential cause of the January 6 attack on Congress. The impeachment trial made that truth plain, and that’s no small thing.