Letter from Washington: A hurried impeachment
Impeachment was a chance for Congress to reassert its primacy. Senators chose not to
The Senate trial of Donald Trump for his involvement in the events of January 6 was conducted in a hurry: an afternoon debating the constitutionality of trying a former president, a few days for the House managers to make the case against Trump and for his lawyers to respond, some Senatorial grandstanding via written questions, a panicked kerfuffle over calling witnesses before deciding against it, and then the vote.
The Senators reached their verdict — 57 votes for guilty, 43 for not guilty, the 67-vote threshold needed to convict not met — after just five days. Their deliberations over what members of both parties have called the most serious breach of the oath of office by any American president in history amounted to the fastest impeachment trial on record.
We got a short trial because it suited both sides. For obvious reasons, Republicans didn’t want to linger on the events of January 6. Democrats worried that using weeks of the Senate’s time to weigh the actions of a former President wouldn’t go down well with voters waiting for more pandemic relief and a White House eager to get appointees confirmed and press on with its own legislative agenda.
The political convenience of a quick trial is easy enough to understand. That the trial’s outcome was more or less a foregone conclusion added to the pressure not to dilly-dally. But Democrats must square hurried proceedings with their (correct) insistence of the seriousness of what happened last month. The foundational claim of the Biden era is that Trump took America to the brink of something very, very dangerous. Can the Biden-led Democrats not spare more time to examine what happened at the most perilous moment? If it can’t, how seriously should we take calls for a vital new fight back against domestic terrorism?
A need for speed also undermined the impeachment before the start of the Senate trial. The rushed House choice of just one article of impeachment, narrowly constructed and legalistically focused on Trump’s January 6 culpability rather than on his post-election behaviour more generally, made conviction less likely. As did the apparent failure to include any House Republicans in the process.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, other than a few new camera angles from Capitol CCTV, the entire impeachment process uncovered no new information about the attack on the legislature or the president’s actions that day. Both the House managers’ case against Trump and his lawyers’ defence were smorgasbords of already public information. It was compelling viewing; the case against Trump was overwhelming, the defence embarrassingly thin. But the House managers’ presentations bore too close a resemblance to a highlight reel of recent events.
For a few hours on Saturday, it looked like we might have got a more serious trial. The Senate voted 55-45 to call witnesses after Republican congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler confirmed what CNN reported on Friday: that House minority leader Kevin McCarthy had told her he called Trump to ask for help during the riot, and that the president responded by saying: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” A few hours after their vote to extend impeachment, Senators baulked, agreed to have Herrera Beutler’s statement read into the official record and moved on to closing arguments and the verdict. “The jury is ready to vote. People want to get home for Valentine’s Day,” Chris Coons, a Democratic Senator from Delaware, reportedly told House impeachment managers. The cars were outside, ready to whisk the legislators to the airport.
One response to my complaint of excessive brevity might be that Senators already knew more than enough to convict Trump. That is true. You can assemble an irrefutable set of facts that amount to a president falling a long way short of his promise to protect and defend the constitution of the United States. But the maddening thing is just how much we still don’t know. We don’t know what Trump did when he saw that his supporters had breached the Capitol. The exact circumstances of the death of Officer Brian Sicknick remain unclear. Exactly who called the National Guard and when is not known. Taking the events of January 6 seriously involves trying to establish exactly what happened. Senators could have supported a process that actually tried to do that, deposing key individuals under oath and creating a fuller picture of an important day. They chose not to.
By deciding against a more thorough impeachment, the Senate has also passed on an opportunity to respond to an attack on its legitimacy with a reassertion of Congress’s constitutional primacy. Senators are actually quite powerful, not that you would know it from this week’s proceedings. In the coming months, Democrats are going to do a lot of complaining about the ways in which a majority of Senators are unfairly hamstrung by arcane and outdated rules. When they do, don’t forget how reluctant Senators are to use the already considerable powers granted to them.
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