The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A moment of truth’? After years of Trump’s lies, amplified by MAGA media, that proved impossible for most Republicans

Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial ended Saturday with his acquittal. (U.S. Senate TV via Reuters)

The words spoken on the Senate floor over the past few days were almost innumerable. But the ones that stayed with me through the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump were among the very first ones uttered.

“Democracy needs a ground to stand upon — and that ground is the truth,” lead House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin said in his opening statement, quoting his father, the political activist Marcus Raskin.

This Senate trial would not be a contest among lawyers, or between political parties, said the Maryland Democrat, who led the prosecuting team trying to make the case that the 45th president had incited the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

No, the trial would be, and should be, “a moment of truth for America.”

Former president Donald Trump's legal team argued House managers took Trump's remarks out of context and shared misleading videos of their own. (Video: Adriana Usero, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

As it turned out, truth was perfectly well served in the trial, at least on one side. Raskin and the other House managers made an irrefutable case. It was so irrefutable that even the former president’s greatest enabler, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, admitted what the facts were: that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the insurrection.

4 final takeaways from Trump’s impeachment trial

But the truth wasn’t enough.

It should be no surprise. After all, one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration — along with a penchant for cruelty and an endless font of self-dealing — was the lying.

House managers argue former president Trump incited an insurrection in a dramatic and swift Senate impeachment trial. (Video: The Washington Post)

From Day One’s “alternative facts” about the size of the 2017 inaugural crowd, Trumpian falsehoods became nothing short of routine. They were generously ladled out by a president, his spokespeople and his administration — and then repeated and amplified by his many helpers in the MAGA mediasphere, led by those at Fox News.

There were tens of thousands of these falsehoods, so many that last October, shortly before the election, the indefatigable Washington Post’s Fact Checker team threw up its hands.

“As President Trump entered the final stretch of the election season, he began making more than 50 false or misleading claims a day. It’s only gotten worse — so much so that the Fact Checker team cannot keep up,” they wrote. (They did go on to complete the job.)

This onslaught culminated in the Big Lie that undergirded the Jan. 6 insurrection: That the election was rigged — stolen, in fact. And that something had to be done about it.

It was this pervasive culture of lying that made it politically untenable for so many Republican senators, in the end, to vote their underdeveloped consciences. The muscles had atrophied, if they ever existed.

For if they voted to convict, their constituents — far from giving them credit for doing their patriotic duty — would turn on them. Perhaps viciously. Perhaps violently. And with the incitement, no doubt, of the twice-impeached president.

Days before the verdict, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) forecast the inevitable. He said that Trump would be acquitted on a technicality, what he called “an easy gate out”: the misbegotten notion that it’s unconstitutional to hold an impeachment trial after a president has left office.

“Why did so many of my colleagues need this easy escape hatch?” he asked. “They needed it because their base has been listening to what President Trump called ‘Trump media . . .’ ”

Merkley aptly described to MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace a media bubble of far-right radio talk shows, cable television and social media feeds:

“They may think they’re getting a full spectrum of opinion, but, really, they’re getting one opinion reverberating. And it’s so disconnected from reality.”

So disconnected from reality that when reality manages to intrude — in the form of undeniable facts, timelines, videos and presidential tweets — there’s nothing to do but deny it as outrageous and either look for an escape hatch or go on the attack.

That happened in the trial itself, as Trump’s defense lawyers channeled him with repeated false claims, including that President Biden never condemned the violence that accompanied some of the (largely peaceful) racial-justice protests last summer.

The Jan. 6 images were already disturbing. The impeachment-trial video makes them terrifying.

And then there was this whopper offered by defense lawyer Michael van der Veen, who said the Jan. 6 insurrection was “premeditated by ‘fringe left and right groups.’ ”

That’s nonsense, CNN’s Daniel Dale wrote on Twitter: “It was an insurrection of Trump supporters, including far-right groups. Some participants have oddball political pasts, but no evidence left-fringe groups planned anything.”

Where does this all leave us?

I’m hopeful enough to think that the sheer amount of truth that was hammered home over the days of the trial will matter. (How can anyone watch the video compilation that opened the House managers’ presentation and not get it?)

I’m optimistic enough to wonder whether McConnell’s post-trial statements, self-serving and hypocritical as they were, might sink in with some Americans.

And I’m still idealistic enough to think that the courage of the seven Republican senators who did overcome partisanship to vote their consciences could make a difference.

Maybe, even though the truth didn’t prevail, some of it managed to see the light of day. Enough, perhaps, to give America’s democracy some ground to stand on.

For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit