By Jules Witcover
The Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump may turn out to be an empty gesture, given the likelihood that nothing close to a conviction by the required two-thirds vote will occur. The 50 Republican senators have already signaled in preliminary head counts that they wish only that the whole matter would go away.
Nevertheless, history and the reputation of the world’s greatest democracy demand that Trump’s open incitement of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 must be thoroughly reexamined and documented. The evidence of how our government could have been so imperiled by wrongheaded would-be patriots must be presented.
The outrageous assault has been vividly captured in many hours of video by the press, and with the body cameras of overwhelmed Capitol police and National Guardsmen. Reams of testimony from eyewitness members of Congress and staffers will attest to the unprecedented acts of treason on that afternoon a month ago.
Likewise, there is filmed evidence of Trump rallying the mob from outside the White House that morning, including his direct call for the mob to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to storm the people’s house. He even told the crowd he would lead them there himself.
Instead, after sending the mob off, he retreated to the safety of the White House, where he watched with great satisfaction as hundreds of his supporters engaged in hand-to-hand battles with overwhelmed law-enforcement officers. One Capitol policeman and four other people were killed in the mayhem, as Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of both houses of Congress were hurried into safe havens within the Capitol complex.
More than 150 rioters have been arrested and charged for being involved in the assault. The House managers of the impeachment trial are said to have conducted many inquiries that may shed light on any other role Trump may have played, directly or indirectly, in encouraging participation in the open rebellion.
The House impeachment managers have invited the former president to testify, but he has declined. In any event, the inquiry will restore to Donald Trump the national spotlight in a manner certainly not of the sort he has sought so hungrily over his adult life.
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead Democratic trial manager, has told Trump “we reserve any and all rights, including the right to establish at trial that your refusal to testify supports a strong adverse inference regarding your actions (and inaction) on January 6, 2021.”
As for the Republican Party to which Trump clings in his hour of deepest humiliation, it appears to be at its lowest ebb. The party’s two leaders now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are facing sharp criticism from within.
McConnell has openly denounced many of Trump’s words and actions, but he has stopped short of disowning him. McCarthy has been chastised for rushing to the deposed president’s Mar-a-Lago resort to confer with him on party matters. Talk of the Grand Old Party’s survival in the wake of the demise of the Trump presidency is already rampant and will be further fueled by the impeachment trial spectacle.
The anticipated “acquittal,” with enough Republican votes to save Trump, would thus enable him to seek the presidency again in 2024, as he has hinted he may attempt. Nevertheless, his twin impeachments will remain on the record as a dark stain on his place in history, and that of the party that so willingly fell into his hands.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.