Citizens need testimony and documentation that painstakingly lays out the theory of the case: how Trump planned to claim fraud well before the election and how he followed through afterward, using false statements and frivolous lawsuits to deceive his followers into believing that he hadn’t really lost; how his political team helped bring the angriest and most extreme of those followers to D.C. on the day the results were being certified and whipped the crowd into a rage; how Trump himself then pointed that mob at Congress; and how the president both demonstrated and magnified his complicity by refusing to intervene for long hours as his supporters rampaged through the U.S. Capitol.
Yet as I write, opening arguments have begun in Trump’s Senate trial, and Democrats aren’t even sure whether they’re going to call witnesses.
Despite the gravity of the charges, already the situation looks similar to what happened in Trump’s first Senate trial: Democrats accuse Trump of outrage after outrage, and Republicans call this a frivolous political witch hunt, until finally proceedings end in a mostly party-line vote that Trump will use to claim persecution. The only difference is that this time a few more brave Republicans may vote to convict.
Of course, Democrats might justly point out that there’s no chance of things ending any other way; too many Republicans will stand behind Trump no matter what the evidence shows. So there’s no real potential gain in taking weeks to lay out painstaking detail that will be ignored. There is, however, considerable political cost for Democrats, who would waste priceless legislative time prosecuting an unwinnable case during the crucial early days of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Unfortunately, I agree that even the most meticulous case is unlikely to sway the 17 Republican senators that Democrats would need to convict Trump. Many of those senators will not be moved by the evidence nor by polls showing a majority of voters say Trump should be punished. They are focused on the risk of a primary challenge from Trump’s most hardcore supporters — those who cannot be swayed, no matter what proof is mustered or arguments made, because fundamentally they don’t care what Trump does; they care only that he makes the right enemies. Too many Republican senators will capitulate to those people, no matter what oaths they have sworn to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Why, then, do I think that meticulous case must nonetheless be made, even if it takes weeks and means losing momentum for other items on the Biden agenda?
One reason is to put the powerful people who colluded with Trump on the record, under penalty of perjury. People who made baseless claims of election fraud, or helped assemble that volatile mob on the day of the certification, are more responsible for what happened than the deluded fanatics who followed their lead; they should be more accountable. Force them to acknowledge what they did, or let history record their refusal to do so.
More important is to lay out the entire case before the large number of Americans who haven’t understood exactly how the events of Jan. 6 unfolded or how much Trump and his allies did to foment that insurrection. That is, those Americans who support impeachment, but weakly, should be left in no doubt that they are on the right side. And Republicans who support Trump, but weakly, should be given every chance to change their minds.
Most Republicans aren’t QAnon fanatics or even hardcore Trump supporters — remember, Trump didn’t even secure a majority in the 2016 primaries. They’re people who don’t think that QAnon or Trump are as big a problem as whatever the left is getting up to. Some of them could be moved on this point, and, with a clear enough case, they might be persuaded to support impeachment. Others could at least be convinced that it’s dangerous for the party to nominate Trump again.
That’s not as morally satisfying as a clean conviction, of course. But it’s still better for the country than the alternative: a hasty trial and a fast acquittal that changes no minds. And what America needs most right now is some politicians who demonstrate what it looks like to do the right thing for the nation even at some personal political cost.