Run-up to the Impeachment Trial February 9th

Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson continues her dialogue “Letters from an American” with coverage of events leading up to the Senate trial of a former president and the passage of a much needed economic rescue of the nation’s citizens caught up in an epidemic.

“Historians are fond of saying that the past doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes.

To understand the present, we have to understand how we got here.”

The news today centers on the Senate impeachment trial for the former president, which begins tomorrow, and the Democrats’ maneuvering to pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Both of these issues deal with vital immediate questions. Will there be consequences for Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, a refusal that led to a coup attempt? And will the government help out those suffering from the economic dislocation caused by the pandemic? Behind those immediate questions, though, is a larger question: what direction will the nation take in the years to come?

In both of these issues, Trump supporters on the one hand, and Democrats on the other, appear to be very aware they will be making an appeal to voters in the future based on their actions today. Trump’s lawyers are teeing up the idea that the former president is a victim of Democratic obsession and that the Democrats are wastrels. The Democrats are setting up the idea that the Republicans are a danger to the nation and its people.

Today Trump’s lawyers submitted a 78-page trial brief to the Senate, arguing that it is unconstitutional to try a former president on articles of impeachment, that Trump’s speech at the January 6 rally urging his supporters to “fight” was rhetorical, and that the former president was well within his First Amendment rights to speak as he did. It blames the attack on the Capitol not on Trump’s incitement of violence over time—as the article of impeachment does—but on “a small group of criminals.”

The document seems designed to appeal to an audience of one: Trump himself. It repeatedly uses “Democrat” as a derogatory adjective, accusing “Democrat members” of Congress of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It calls the House impeachment managers intellectually dishonest and fact free. Curiously, in what is perhaps a nod either to his vanity or to the QAnon believers who think Trump is still president, it never acknowledges him as a former president, repeatedly referring to him simply as “the 45th President.”

Trump’s lawyers throw Trump’s supporters under the bus, saying “the people who criminally breached the Capitol did so of their own accord and for their own reason,” and that their actions “were utterly inexcusable and deserve robust and swift investigation and prosecution.”

They examine Trump’s words at the rally, noting that he used the word “fight” “little more than a handful of times and each time in the figurative sense that has long been accepted in public discourse when urging people to stand and use their voices to be heard on matters important to them: it was not and could not be construed to encourage acts of violence.” “He simply called on those gathered to peacefully and patriotically use their voices” [italics and boldface in original].

The document blames House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her allies for trying “to callously harness the chaos of the moment for their own political gain.” Democrats, it says, are “never willing to allow a ‘good crisis’ to go to waste.”

This document tries to rewrite what we all saw with our own eyes. It will not convince anyone who has been paying attention to what happened on January 6, but that’s clearly not its purpose. Instead, it reinforces the narrative that Trump has been persecuted by his enemies, and that he was not responsible for the most serious attack on Congress and on our democracy in our history. That attack was simply the bad actions of “a small group of criminals.”

This account will please Trump and those of his supporters it does not throw under the bus, but it puts Republican senators who are not aligned with Trump in a perilous position.

The Democrats, who are famous for their measured attempts to argue about policy, appear recently to have adopted the Republicans’ advertising tactics, pushing a single, strong narrative theme.

What if Republican senators vote to acquit Trump, only to have more information drop that associates him even more closely with the insurrection? Today, Georgia’s secretary of state’s office began an investigation into Trump’s phone call pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn Georgia’s election results, a call mentioned in the House’s impeachment article.

Also today, Proud Boy Ethan Nordean, under arrest for his role in the January 6 riot, was transferred from the state of Washington to Washington, D.C., to face federal charges. It seems likely that arrests will continue and information will continue to come in. It is unclear how many people will be swept into this story, but it is not impossible that people close to the former president, and even the former president himself, will find themselves in jeopardy.

If this happens after senators vote to acquit, the Democratic ads in 2022 and 2024 will virtually write themselves.

Republican senators clearly see this peril. Tonight, conservative writer Bill Kristol noted: “All the Trump supporters saying the outcome’s pre-ordained and that the presentations, evidence and witnesses couldn’t make a difference, seems to be an attempt to make sure Republican senators pay no attention to the presentations, evidence, or witnesses. But what if they do?”

While the impeachment trial approaches, the Democrats are preparing to write a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure along the lines that President Biden has requested. The new coronavirus measure is very popular, despite Republican attempts to argue that it is unnecessary. Since at least 1893, Republicans have insisted that Democrats are bad at managing the nation’s finances, but that myth is suddenly under attack as recent articles, including a New York Times piece by David Leonhardt, have noted that the U.S. economy historically fares much better under Democratic presidents than under Republicans.

And yet, as of right now, no Republicans have signed on to the coronavirus measure. After four years of endorsing Trump’s explosion of the deficit and the national debt, right on cue, the Republican Party has rediscovered the beauty of reducing the deficit.

This sudden austerity, too, will not look good in advertisements in 2022, should Democrats choose to point out that Republicans supported Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, and then voted against a coronavirus relief bill designed to help ordinary Americans survive the pandemic.

So while we are looking at the short-term effects of these two major issues—an impeachment trial and a coronavirus relief package—we are also looking at both parties making a case to the American people for why their own approach to the future is the best one.

The Trump campaign continues to offer only a fierce resentment of those who are trying to hold the former president to account for his refusal to accept the results of an election, which led to the unprecedented attack on the Capitol. The Democrats are offering to make the former president accountable for the fact “he willfully incited violent insurrection against the government,” and offering a way forward for the nation as a whole.

Over the course of the next week or so, the Republican senators who are not aligned with the Trump wing must choose between these two visions, knowing that in 2022 and 2024, there will be no escaping the consequences of their choices. Democrats will broadcast them to voters relentlessly.