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Opinion In choosing to acquit Trump, Republicans will convict themselves

House impeachment managers deliver an article of impeachment against former president Donald Trump to the Senate on Jan. 25. (Pool/Reuters)
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House impeachment managers on Tuesday submitted their brief in advance of the impeachment trial scheduled to begin next week. The brief begins with a statement of incontrovertible facts:

In a grievous betrayal of his Oath of Office, President Trump incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol during the Joint Session, thus impeding Congress’s confirmation of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. as the winner of the presidential election. As it stormed the Capitol, the mob yelled out “President Trump Sent Us,” “Hang Mike Pence,” and “Traitor Traitor Traitor.” The insurrectionists assaulted police officers with weapons and chemical agents. They seized control of the Senate chamber floor, the Office of the Speaker of the House, and major sections of the Capitol complex. Members and their staffs were trapped and terrorized. Many officials (including the Vice President himself) barely escaped the rioters. The line of succession to the Presidency was endangered. Our seat of government was violated, vandalized, and desecrated. Congress’s counting of electoral votes was delayed until nightfall and not completed until 4 AM. Hundreds of people were injured in the assault. Five people—including a Capitol Police officer—died.

The brief calls out the pattern of conduct designed to perpetrate the Big Lie that the election was stolen: “After losing the 2020 election, President Trump refused to accept the will of the American people. He spent months asserting, without evidence, that he won in a ‘landslide’ and that the election was ‘stolen.’” They might have added that in perpetuating the Big Lie, the ex-president was aided by members of the Senate who will now sit as jurors, a conflict of interest so glaring that only in the U.S. Senate could it be permitted.

The conclusion of the brief — that such behavior, if it is not punished, will be repeated — is so elementary and the conduct is so egregious that one is tempted to ask why a trial is even needed. The misconduct is indisputably a “high crime and misdemeanor” and the need for deterrence is so obvious that one is hard-pressed to think of any principled objection. As Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in her written statement supporting impeachment: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

But Republicans do object, and for that reason, the trial is necessary. It is necessary to remind the country of the Big Lie that Republicans embraced and the horrendous violence that ensued. It is necessary to force Republicans to make a choice: Support sedition, or support the Constitution.

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It is amusing that Republican apologists keep “warning” the impeachment managers not to put forward a factual case. Yes, the facts would be “prejudicial” — insofar as they leave no doubt as to the guilt of both the former president and his Republican enablers. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) “threatened” to call the FBI as witnesses if the Democrats brought forward witnesses. In fact, Democrats could call on FBI agents as part of their case, too.

Impeachment trials are exercises in public education and accountability, which is precisely why Republicans refused to allow a factual presentation at the first impeachment trial. Democrats do not want to repeat that travesty, but there is a way to avoid a lengthy factual case: Have the ex-president’s lawyers and the Senate as a whole stipulate to the facts set out in the brief. The stipulation should be specific (e.g., it should cite Donald Trump’s tweets and his speech that incited the violence), it should repudiate claims that the election was illegitimate, and it should include observations from members of Congress about the trauma inflicted that day.

Unanimous agreement as to the ex-president’s seditious conduct would be one way to “move on” and to instill “unity.” If Republicans still want to acquit after all that, they can do so — at the price of revealing their own fidelity to a disgraced leader and contempt for democracy.

Republicans want to escape responsibility by clinging to a patently ridiculous argument that the Senate cannot proceed with a trial now that Trump is out of office (after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to let a trial begin before Jan. 20). But as the managers write in their brief: “As a matter of constitutional text and structure—not to mention common sense—Article II, Section 2 strongly supports the conclusion that former officials remain subject to impeachment and trial for grievous abuses committed during their tenure in office.” The managers point to four cases that support the impeachment trial of an official who left office before the trial. The constitutional argument is no argument at all; it is a dodge by Republicans to avoid confronting their constitutional obligations.

“This is not a case where elections alone are a sufficient safeguard against future abuse; it is the electoral process itself that President Trump attacked and that must be protected from him and anyone else who would seek to mimic his behavior,” the brief concludes. “Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a case that more clearly evokes the reasons why the Framers wrote a disqualification power into the Constitution.” Failure to convict would “embolden future leaders,” they argue.

Let’s be clear: The vast majority of Republicans will refuse to convict because it would mean acknowledging their own complicity in riling up the MAGA base. It would mean acknowledging that their objections to the election results were specious and that their attempt to overthrow the election even after the mob was cleared from the Capitol was reprehensible. It would mean definitively standing up for the Constitution and democracy, instead of clinging to a seditious president’s fictitious version of events.

In choosing to acquit, Republicans will convict themselves, proving once and for all they are incapable of upholding their oaths and of putting defense of democracy over their own perceived advantage.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: The post-Trump fumigation takes an important new turn

Paul Waldman: How Trump is forcing Republicans to debase themselves one more time

Jennifer Rubin: Prosecuting Trump is more essential than ever

Matt Bai: Senators can try Trump. But should they?