The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats risk committing a serious blunder at Trump’s impeachment trial

Several Democratic lawmakers on Feb. 4 described their experiences during the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol in an effort to personalize the trauma. (Video: The Washington Post)
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It’s one of the most consequential questions confronting Democrats in the post-Trump era: Is the party prepared to accept and act upon the full implications of the GOP’s worsening radicalization?

Which raises a related question: Can Democrats communicate the true nature of this radicalization — in which large swaths of the GOP proved willing to participate in the overturning of American democracy, and are now expanding their weaponization of anti-democratic tactics — to the public?

Former president Donald Trump’s Senate trial this week provides a good occasion to dramatize this radicalization. But Democrats may be opting for a strategy that will make that harder to accomplish, not easier.

The New York Times reports that the House impeachment managers’ trial presentation will employ video to illustrate the express motive of the rioters — to disrupt the conclusion of the election with intimidation and violence — and the former president’s explicit direction that they do just that.

But the Times also reports this:

Several people familiar with the preparations said the managers were wary of saying anything that might implicate Republican lawmakers who echoed or entertained the president’s baseless claims of election fraud. To have any chance of making an effective case, the managers believe, they must make clear it is Mr. Trump who is on trial, not his party.

That seems questionable. Insulating the GOP from its extensive entanglement in Trump’s effort to subvert our democracy — at exactly the moment when Congress is focusing maximum public attention on it — would seem like a missed opportunity.

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Remember, while Trump will be tried for “incitement of insurrection,” the case against him is much broader. As the House managers’ report details, it includes a pattern of extraordinarily corrupt misconduct that went on for months.

That involved spreading extensive disinformation about the election’s illegitimacy, pressuring state officials to help reverse the outcome and months of mobilizing supporters to go to war over the results.

Republicans are deeply implicated in much of it. Many supported Trump throughout, and propped up his lies about the election for a large chunk of that period, even joining a lawsuit to overturn millions of votes in four states based on the same set of fictions.

Many voted to invalidate Joe Biden’s electors — after the assault Trump unleashed on Congress. In short, large swaths of the GOP were fully prepared to help Trump remain in power illegitimately.

Some of those Republicans will be sitting on the Senate jury this week. The most notable are Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, who led Trump’s effort in Congress.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory for weeks, all to keep the GOP base energized for the Georgia runoffs. Such deceptions, by persuading millions that the outcome was in doubt and could be reversed, likely helped inspire the insurrection.

The Democratic strategy

The Democrats’ fear appears to be that if the full GOP is implicated, that makes conviction less likely. To be fair, there are genuine complexities here: Trump is the one on trial, and drawing out the GOP’s role might be challenging (though hardly undoable) in a trial context.

Calling out the GOP might also give GOP senators a (bad faith) way to scream that Democrats politicized the trial, giving them cover to acquit.

But the idea that refraining from this will make it more plausible that 17 Republican senators will vote to convict is at odds with everything we know. Republicans are publicly saying in every which way that acquitting Trump is key to their party’s future, so he’ll keep the voters he brought into politics in the GOP coalition.

So acquittal is a foregone conclusion. If anything, Democrats need to make it as politically uncomfortable for Republicans as possible to acquit — and to extract a political price for it among the suburban moderates whom the GOP continues to alienate with its ongoing QAnon-ification.

It’s hard to see how insulating the GOP from Trump’s effort to overturn U.S. democracy helps accomplish that.

The debate over witnesses

Separately, Politico reports that some of the impeachment managers want witnesses at the trial, and that some Senate Democrats are leaning against it.

This is more complex than it appears: A person familiar with ongoing talks over the trial structure between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and McConnell tells me there will be a vote on whether to have witnesses, if the managers want them.

So this is up to the managers. And it’s still unclear whether the managers do or do not want witnesses. Many of their aides declined to tell me.

The case for witnesses is strong. There’s a lot we don’t know about Trump’s behind-the-scenes conduct during the rampage: He reportedly refused entreaties to call off the mob, even from terrified lawmakers under siege, because he was enjoying watching it on TV.

People like former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who is now spinning away Trump’s culpability, should be forced to testify to what Trump was doing during that time. A trial with witnesses could also probe the role of some House Republicans in the “Stop the Steal” movement leading to the insurrection, and any of Trump’s communications with them.

A full accounting is critical. Republicans on the state level are racing forward with new voter-suppression efforts, and Democrats have proposed national reforms that expand voting rights and curb counter-majoritarian tactics. They must be prepared to nix the filibuster to make these reforms law.

A big political battle is coming over all this as well. Democrats must fully dramatize the GOP’s continuing radicalization when it comes to embracing such tactics, so the public understands the stakes of what will be nothing less than a full-scale war over the future of our democracy.

That won’t be helped by any failure to create a full record of the most sustained effort to overturn an election and our democracy in modern times, including via intimidation and violence, or any failure to implicate the GOP in it.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The Senate must convict Donald Trump

Michael W. McConnell and Ken Gormley: Yes, the Senate has the power to try Trump. He was impeached in office.

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s pathetic defense reminds us why conviction is needed

Max Boot: Trump is far worse than Marjorie Taylor Greene. Yet the GOP still won’t renounce him.

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.