The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Senate Republicans, suffering from Mar-a-Lago syndrome, voted their fears

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) departs following speaking on the Senate floor on Saturday. (Alexander Drago/Reuters)

There is, it turns out, a psychological force far more powerful than Stockholm syndrome, the tendency of hostages to identify with their captors. It is Mar-a-Lago syndrome, the powerful, inescapable hold that Donald Trump continues to exert over Republican lawmakers.

What must it have felt like for Republican senators, victims of the high crime with which Trump was charged, to sit in judgment over the former president in the very scene of the violence that he helped unleash against them?

To watch the harrowing video of their chamber being desecrated, of the mob hunting them down, of the officers entrusted with ensuring their safety being assaulted. To understand how close they came to danger, and how close our democracy came to destruction.

To know that but for Trump, the insurrection would never have happened. But for his relentless, baseless refusal to accept the election results, even after the courts ruled and ruled and ruled against him, even after state after state certified that he had lost.

On Feb. 13, the Senate voted to acquit former president Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. Here are key moments from the closing arguments. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

But for the predicate he laid, even before Election Day, that if he lost it would be because the system was rigged against him. But for the frenzy he whipped up after the election that it was being stolen from him. But for the mob he summoned to Washington on the day the results were to be certified, that he inflamed, and that he then directed to the Capitol.

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But for his behavior after the entirely foreseeable violence erupted — not simply his studied silence as the insurrectionists breached the Capitol, although that failure to act was bad enough, but his further inflaming, with tweets assailing the vice president who he knew had been hustled off the Senate floor to flee the rioters.

On the morning of Jan. 6, there were signs of the violence to come even before thousands of former president Donald Trump loyalists besieged the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

The evidence presented by the House managers during Trump’s second impeachment trial was more powerful, and more sickening, than could have been anticipated. In the face of all this, all but seven Republican senators grasped for every conceivable escape hatch to avoid holding Trump responsible for the injury he inflicted on our democracy, for his effort to subvert the results of the election that he decisively lost.

They seized on a single soothing phrase in a long, inciting speech, and an even longer, inciting course of conduct, to claim that he had merely advocated peaceful protest. They whatabouted Trump’s inflammatory language and its predictable consequences, citing Democratic lawmakers who had used similar words (“fight”) without comparable consequences.

They claimed that the important free-speech protections that would pose a substantial obstacle to prosecuting Trump for criminal incitement apply to shield him in the context of impeachment. This is a perversion of the First Amendment. It protects Nazis marching in the streets of Skokie, Ill., or Charlottesville, Va. It would protect a president spouting Nazi propaganda from being prosecuted for his statements. It would not shield him from being impeached for them.

And they sought refuge, most of all, in the argument that the Constitution prevents impeachment from being pursued against a former president. This proved a tempting constitutional life raft for Republican senators so fearful for their political futures that they would seize on any excuse to avoid a decision on the merits, or lack thereof, of Trump’s behavior.

This is a complex constitutional question, and although the weight of the scholarly assessment comes down on the side of continued jurisdiction over a departed official, there is an entirely plausible argument to the contrary. I would be more sympathetic to Republican senators’ jurisdictional scruples if it weren’t so obvious that many are acting more out of political cowardice than constitutional conviction.

It’s what passes for Republican bravery these days that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered an unsparing account of Trump’s irresponsible behavior — after casting his not-guilty vote on the jurisdictional grounds. Trump, he said, engaged in a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.” The violence “was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”

This would be easier to praise if McConnell hadn’t stayed so silent for so long as Trump spouted his false statements about the election; if he hadn’t made it impossible to hold the trial while Trump was in office; if he had managed to state flatly that he would have voted to convict Trump absent the supposed constitutional bar; and if he endorsed some other measure, like censure, against Trump now.

McConnell’s colleagues know in their hearts that Trump’s behavior was as dangerous as their leader described. They know, in short, better than their votes suggested. Mar-a-Lago syndrome does not mean they identify with their captor but that they cower in fear of him. Out of office, even off Twitter, Trump retains the power to destroy careers. He can summon his followers, deploy his mailing list and open his campaign checkbook to defeat those who dare defy him.

This is a good moment to pause to praise the Republicans who voted to convict: Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mitt Romney (Utah), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.).

This small band — too few — is still more than has ever voted to convict a president of their own party. It offers another measure of Trump’s enduring infamy.

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