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Opinion Trump’s pathetic defense reminds us why conviction is needed

Pro-Trump protesters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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Joyce White Vance, a former federal prosecutor, persuasively makes the case that “Republicans have never delivered on holding [former President Donald] Trump accountable. … And if Senate Republicans do fail to hold him accountable, it will be up to the American people to do it at the ballot box.” In other words, if Republicans cannot bring themselves to convict on a fact scenario as appalling as this, then the “trial” moves to the 2022 elections, when voters have the opportunity to render a final verdict on the insurrection and Republican lawmakers’ role in it.

The utter failure of Republicans to uphold their constitutional responsibilities would be made all the more obvious by the weakness of the former president’s response to the impeachment — or, more accurately, the lack thereof. His lawyers’ argument, that Trump’s lies about the election were protected by the First Amendment, is utterly misplaced. In the context of an impeachment, Trump’s conduct must be held to a standard appropriate to his oath. (He has a legal right to root for international foes to defeat the United States, but it is nevertheless impeachable conduct for the commander in chief to do so.) Furthermore, the First Amendment is inapplicable when it comes to inciting violence.

As for the factual argument, the president’s brief itself is another galling attempt at gaslighting. His lawyers claim Trump never sought to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to change the vote count when we have a tape proving exactly that. His lawyers insist the ex-president never “intended to interfere with the counting of Electoral votes,” when we know that for weeks he sought to do just that — in court, in tweets, in phone calls, in calls for Vice President Mike Pence to change the electoral count, in a meeting with Michigan state lawmakers and ultimately at the rally to incite the crowd. Trump is daring the Republicans in the Senate — as he has all along — to condone his patently false narrative in which he is the victim, his actions are perfect and he is responsible for nothing.

The absence of a plausible legal or factual defense will make it all the more embarrassing for Senate Republicans, at least those still capable of being shamed, to ride to his defense. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is on record saying, "The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.” Now Trump is demanding that Republicans buy into the lies again and give the mob more reason to feel aggrieved. If Republicans once more double down on the Big Lie and refuse to hold Trump accountable for his own conduct, they will, according to McConnell’s own analysis, be feeding more lies and provoking further insurrections.

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If the ex-president’s lawyers cannot come up with even one excuse for his conduct, how will Senate Republicans avoid the impression that they are hopeless flunkies for a disgraced, seditious president? Indeed, Trump’s defense strategy makes it all the more critical for someone — the Senate, a criminal jury, the voters — to definitively reject the Big Lie that the election was stolen. We need a “verdict” that acts as deterrence to future presidents, and we need some closure regarding Republicans’ own responsibility for the violent insurrection. If not in the Senate, it will be up to a jury or the voters.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Trump’s Senate impeachment trial won’t be a waste of time

William P. Marshall: Trump’s second impeachment succeeded. But a Senate trial could backfire

Philip Bobbitt and Richard Danzig: Is impeachment the right instrument to punish Donald Trump?

George F. Will: It still doesn’t make sense to impeach and convict Donald Trump

Max Boot: It’s not just Trump on trial. It’s the whole Republican Party.

Henry Olsen: Liz Cheney already has a primary challenge. For the GOP’s sake, she must soundly defeat it.