As if anyone was shocked (“Yes, shocked!” as Captain Renault exclaimed in Casa Blanca), former president Donald Trump was acquitted of incitement of insurrection charges by trial in the United States Senate Saturday.
The more progressive Democrats are wailing and gnashing their teeth over their disappointment that the House Impeachment Managers failed to call more witnesses. I say, “more witnesses,” because the Senators sitting in judgement were themselves eyewitnesses to the failed assault and coup attempt of January 6. More witnesses, they felt, might somehow have compelled a two-thirds majority vote of conviction.
Meanwhile, the Trump Republicans are crowing over the vindication of their party and leader-in-exile, spinning the most bi-partisan vote for conviction in the history of Presidential impeachments as a portend of electoral victory in 2022. Go figure.
Both are wrong because they did not understand the purpose of the Trump second impeachment in the first place.
The Framers of the Constitution placed the bar for impeachment and removal of a Federal officer, including the President of the United States, at the highest rung of difficulty to be found in the entire founding document, higher than the requirements to be satisfied in order to amend the Constitution itself. After all, the Constitution has been successfully amended 17 times since the original compact was ratified.
By comparison, no U.S. President has ever been convicted in a Senate trial despite four impeachments, although numerous Federal civil office holders have been successfully impeached and convicted, including current U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL20). More about former U.S. District Court Judge Hastings later.
Thus, only a fool would have believed that Donald Trump was going to be convicted in either of his two Senate trials.
Rather, the impeachment was intended to demonstrate the criminal acts, the failure to meet Constitutional duties and responsibilities, and the attempted subversion of a free and democratic election by a power-mad chief executive, and to demonstrate his malfeasance in full public display, live on national television. In this, the House Impeachment Managers successfully prosecuted their case, regardless of the irrelevant vote of the U.S. Senate.
How successful was the House prosecution? We can measure that by inference.
Newly demoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, only moments after his own vote for acquittal, felt obliged to rise on the floor of the Senate and castigate the unlawful and treasonous conduct of a president, one he had spent four years defending and enabling, in terms that were hardly less damning than those used by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to denounce the acquittal verdict itself.
The ever fickle and unpredictable Sen. Lindsay Graham was reduced to declaring victory on the premise of his assertion that “90 percent of Republicans” support Donald Trump and were opposed to the impeachment.
If we believe both Graham and the Gallup Poll, then that is 90 percent of 25 percent of the voters.
In other words, about 78 percent of the non-Republican voters do not necessarily support Donald Trump. Even if we add in the right-wing Independent vote, Trump’s approval rating rises only to 34 percent. This is nothing to brag about and it does not appear that Trump’s defense team of Dumb & Dumber moved the needle much at all in the court of public opinion, judging from the post-trial reactions of McConnell, Graham, et al.
As an aside, what possible good could come from an impeachment trial in which the punishment under the Constitution is to remove from office an offender who has already relinquished that office?
That brings us back to Congressman Alcee Hastings. Appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a Judge of the U.S. District Court for Southern Florida in 1979, he was caught in an FBI sting operation in 1981 soliciting bribes in exchange for lenient sentences. He was impeached and convicted in a Senate trial of bribery and perjury.
Although he was removed from judicial office, the Senate inexplicitly did not impose the other Constitutional penalty of disqualification from future Federal office. Today Hastings remains a member of the U.S. House of Representatives where he is Vice-Chairman of the House Rules Committee and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Budget. Really.
By acquittal, the Senate has similarly failed to prevent a return to high public office of an acknowledged lawbreaker, Donald Trump.
Will Donald Trump seek Federal office again now that the Senate declined to disqualify him? By his own public remarks and actions, including his formal establishment of The Office of the Former President (which sounds too much like a shadow government-in-waiting), and by the statements of his supporters, he most certainly will.
Trump has rarely, if ever, demonstrated that he is encumbered by the normal human conditions of shame or empathy. On the other hand, his motivators of greed and arrogance seem to be boundless.
So where does this outcome leave us today in our much-bemoaned political divisiveness? Pretty much where we were yesterday. Inextricably opposed and uncompromising even when the security of our fundamental institutions of representative democracy are at stake. Unable to accept any solution that does not occur at the expense of a great loss of power by the other side, regardless that they are our fellow Americans. They are the enemy. God is on our side and they represent the very embodiment of evil.
As Lindsay Graham just declared, fairness is unimportant. Only winning counts.
In this overall set of circumstances, a disgraced former president has escaped the rule of law (so far). Meanwhile, his minority followers dominate the controlling centers of power within the GOP as they mindlessly seek revenge on the more moderate and conscientious elected Republicans.
At this point, a schism could be anticipated that might launch a rarely viable third-party movement.
The problem, and the usual fatal flaw of most third-party movements, is that such a division of the existing voter base would doom both factions to second-class status and an interminable period of minority status. That is, if the Democratic Party remains a monolithic, unified major party. It is not now, and it probably will not become so in the near future.
President Biden was not the first choice of the Democrats either in 2016 or in 2020. He self-selected out of the 2016 campaign despite the entreaties of the Democratic establishment to serve as a foil to the Hillary Clinton PUMAs. He entered the 2020 campaign late as the only Anybody But Trump savior who could outpoll the incumbent President.
Biden’s very age serves to ensure that he will be a one-term chief executive and there is no Democratic succession plan for 2024. VP Harris commands no more support in the party than several of the other primary candidates from 2020, particularly Elizabeth Warren, and even the upstarts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In short, the White House is going to be an open seat in the Democratic Party in 2024 and the long knives are already out less than 30 days into the Biden Administration.
The Republican opposition in 2024 could very well be a gravely wounded primary survivor or even two Democratic candidates, each running independently of the other as the true standard bearer of the Party of Roosevelt. A Republican candidate without solid Trumplican backing just might be successful, attracting establishment Republicans, Independents, and significant numbers of Democrats.
Today is the day after yesterday, but tomorrow is a very new day, indeed.
Cover photo by Pete Souza, White House Archives