Donald Trump had acquittal in his second impeachment trial all teed up. If there was any doubt that the necessary 17 Republican senators would never convict the former president, it was dispelled when 45 of 50 voted to essentially declare the entire proceeding unconstitutional.

But Trump couldn’t just take the win. He’s determined to use the trial as one more forum to air his absurd lie about how the 2020 election was stolen from him — the lie he used to drive his violent supporters to rampage through the Capitol, the very thing that has him on trial in the first place.

Which means those Republican senators will once again have to publicly help him continue spreading that lie, with all the damaging ramifications that flow from that. They want to hide behind procedural objections — acquitting based on the idea that a former president can’t be convicted — but Trump isn’t letting them: He’s forcing them to be full participants in his continuing efforts to wreck American democracy.

The news from the former president’s defense is truly remarkable. At first unable to find anyone in the white-shoe Republican legal establishment in Washington who would defend him, Trump located a South Carolina attorney named Butch Bowers to lead the team. But then this weekend, Bowers and his colleagues dropped out. Here’s why:

Trump’s lawyers had initially planned to center their strategy on the question of whether the proceedings were constitutional and on the definition of incitement, according to one of the people, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal conversations.
But the former president repeatedly said he wanted to litigate the voter fraud allegations and the 2020 race — and was seeking a more public defense of his actions. Bowers told Trump he couldn’t mount the defense that Trump wanted, the person said.

It’s as if someone charged with murder in a drug deal gone bad wants to say, “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you’re darn right I killed him, because he tried to short me on the cocaine I was buying from him. I rest my case.”

We’ve seen this many times: Despite the presence of a more reasonable course of action, Trump desperately wants to do the most corrupt and depraved thing instead. When people around him plead with him to take the saner path, he gets rid of them and looks around instead for someone who will validate his worst instincts. It’s how he operated in business and how he acted as president.

Many Republicans who will vote to acquit Trump — I’m guessing it will be all except Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and maybe one or two others, but probably just Romney — will insist they’re doing so only because he’s no longer president, and under one dubious interpretation of the Constitution, he can’t be impeached. But Trump doesn’t want them to get away with that, and the rest of us shouldn’t either.

When they vote to acquit, they’ll be voting to validate Trump’s lie about a stolen election. They’ll be telling their party’s most deranged and deluded supporters, “You were right, and Trump was right.” They’ll even be saying indirectly that the attack on the Capitol was justified.

That is how Trump and his most ardent fans will interpret the result. He’ll say triumphantly that the trial proved he was totally and completely exonerated, a claim that will reverberate through the conservative media. They’ll take it as proof that the election was a fraud. The toxic idea Trump continues to propagate — that the American political system is inherently corrupt and any loss by Republicans justifies extralegal actions to redress it — will only be strengthened.

Those same Republicans who for so long said in effect, “I’m just here for the tax cuts,” as they helped Trump carry out his assault on our government will once again be giving him the support he needs. He’s offering them a justification to finally do the right thing, but they won’t take it.

Given Trump’s repulsive defense, they could say, “For all the questions I had about this impeachment, I can no longer support this attack on our democracy. I wish Trump hadn’t lost, but continuing to deny it only promotes the sort of destabilization and violence we saw on Jan. 6. Therefore, to break with the poisonous lie of the stolen election, I’m voting to convict.”

They could say that, but they won’t. For some it’s because they’re so consumed with ambition they’ll do anything they think will help them in future elections. For some it’s pure cynicism; they’ll take any momentary advantage for their party, no matter how much long-term damage it does to the country.

And for the rest it’s simple cowardice. Most of those Republican senators know perfectly well how corrosive the past four years have been and how malignant a presence Trump continues to be. But they’re afraid of him and afraid of his supporters.

So once again, they’ll knuckle under and do Trump’s bidding. And even though he’s not president anymore, it won’t be the last time.

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