The Bill Comes Due
Will there be repercussions for Trump and his acolytes for trying to steal an election?
Donald Trump survived his second impeachment trial — which came as a surprise to no one since he always had the Republican votes to be acquitted.
In the end, that vote was 57-43 in favor of acquittal, 10 short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Seven Republicans, however, did join Democrats in finding Trump guilty of “incitement of insurrection,” making the impeachment the most bipartisan in history.
While Democrats did not succeed in their mission to punish the former president for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol — and purge him from politics — in many ways they notched victories that many had not anticipated.
For starters, their audience was not the Republican senators who were never going to vote to convict anyway. Their audience was mostly the American public and the annals of history, and in that sense, they succeeded in ensuring that the events of Jan. 6 would not be soon forgotten.
The House impeachment managers’ case over the span of just several days was a visceral reminder of the insurrection that threatened not only the foundations of American democracy, but also the lives of police officers, members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — and even the vice president.
Previously unseen footage of protesters attacking police and hunting down members of Congress — coupled with video of Mike Pence being evacuated while he was within 100 feet of a rabid mob calling for his hanging — visibly shook several Republican senators.
Rep. Jamie Raskin’s (D-Md.) impassioned speech the first day of the trial was also a powerful gut punch. Raskin, who had just lost his son to suicide, visibly choked up as recounted the traumatic events of Jan. 6.
He spoke of police officers who suffered brain damage, had their eyes gouged, one who lost several fingers and another who was pummeled by rioters with an American flag pole. Two officers committed suicide after the siege.
Raskin described his daughter and son-in-law, who were visiting the Capitol, sending farewell texts to loved ones — as did many others barricaded inside the building. “They thought they were going to die,” he said.
Afterward, Raskin told his daughter that it wouldn’t be like this the next time she visited the Capitol. She replied that she wouldn’t be back.
“Of all the terrible, brutal things I saw and heard on the day and since then, that one hit me the hardest,” Raskin said, pleading with his colleagues that “this cannot be the future of America.”
A Tale of Two Cases
But Democrats were wise not to overly rely on emotion or partisan finger-pointing. Rather, they presented a straightforward case that effectively connected the dots between the Jan. 6 insurrection and months of baseless claims of voter fraud, incendiary rhetoric and false hope peddled by Trump and his team.
The “stop the steal” charade culminated in a fiery speech by the former president on the day Congress was to certify the Electoral College results. Two hours before the Capitol was stormed, Trump warned thousands of his supporters that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more” and urged them to join him on a march to the Capitol (the one he never joined).
Meanwhile, Trump’s defense team alternated between meandering speeches, forceful (and familiar) denunciations of partisan witch hunts and outright falsehoods.
Among the dubious claims: that Trump’s first tweet urged his followers to remain peaceful. Not true. The first tweet, in fact, slammed Vice President Mike Pence for lacking the courage to “protect the country” (because he refused to violate his constitutional oath and illegally overturn an election).
Attorney Mark van der Veen said the first rioter arrested was an Antifa leader. Not true. Another claim: Trump told his supporters to respect the Electoral College results. Very not true.
One lawyer accused Democrats of manipulating video evidence — and then showed a selectively edited montage of Democrats using the word “fight” to suggest that they, too, were guilty of incitement — an assertion that elicited laughter even among a few Republicans.
Likewise, accusing Democrats of “hatred” and “lies” raised a few eyebrows, considering the actions of their client over the last four years. Also hard to swallow was the defense team’s insistence that Trump, who had access to the best intelligence in the world, could not have predicted the violence that anyone who had basic access to social media could’ve predicted.
None of that mattered, though, because the defense team’s central argument was always going to work: that the impeachment of a former president is unconstitutional.
The question of constitutionality was indeed an untested one. The Constitution is vague on the matter, although hundreds of legal scholars agree that it does allow for the impeachment and disqualification of former officers, including presidents.
The senators themselves effectively settled the matter on the first day of the trial when they voted 56-44 that the Senate does have the jurisdiction to try Trump.
But the technical arguments gave Republicans cover to acquit Trump while condemning his actions.
Perhaps no one performed this high-wire act better than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said, “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day” — yet still voted to acquit on constitutional grounds.
While Democrats accused McConnell of having his cake and eating it too, the shrewd political veteran was not about to go down the route of Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who was almost booted from her leadership position in the House because she voted to impeach Trump.
McConnell also hedged his bets by pointing out that Trump “didn’t get away with anything yet” because the former president could still face criminal charges.
From the Senate to the Courtroom
Indeed, the prospect of criminal and civil charges has been steadily growing.
Investigators in Georgia may bring charges against Trump for pressuring election officials to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in that state.
There’s also been talk of D.C.’s attorney general pursuing charges for Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 riot.
Most recently, the NAACP, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a civil rights law firm announced they were suing Trump — along with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and the far-right extremist groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — for conspiring to incite the Capitol riot in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying the Electoral College results.
The federal lawsuit, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, is based on the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act that was created to protect newly freed slaves and lawmakers from white supremacist terrorism.
And, of course, the Justice Department under Attorney General Merrick Garland could potentially pursue charges as well.
But unlike a Senate impeachment that deals with political offenses, proving criminal incitement in a courtroom is a much higher legal bar to clear. Also, the Supreme Court has generally upheld the notion that a president enjoys expansive immunity for actions taken while in office.
Moreover, even if Trump is convicted in Georgia, for example, election fraud charges at the state level often only amount to misdemeanors.
Lying Has a Price
Trump’s personal finances are likely to be a bigger legal headache, as New York prosecutors intensify their criminal investigations into loans related to his various properties in Manhattan. That could finally lead to the revelation of Trump’s taxes, which he has fought to conceal for years.
The former president now finds himself dogged not only by possible criminal charges of alleged insurance and bank fraud, but also by plummeting revenues at his properties and hundreds of millions of dollars in loans coming due.
The bill may also be coming due for two of Trump’s most prominent defenders: Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.
Both attorneys have been hit with multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits by two voting companies for perpetuating a relentless “disinformation campaign.” (Dominion Voting Systems is suing each for $1.3 billion while Smartmatic is suing them for $2.7 billion).
Given that for months, Powell and Giuliani very publicly slammed both companies with allegations that had been widely discredited, the legal odds are not in their favor.
Others who could potentially find themselves in the companies’ legal crosshairs include MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, conservative news outlets Newsmax, One America News, Fox News and The Epoch Times, as well as media personalities like Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo.
Dominion also has not ruled out suing Trump himself.
In this way, corporations — not Congress — may be the ones to finally hold those who tried to overturn the election accountable for their actions.
There is a certain reassurance that influential people cannot blatantly and repeatedly lie without paying some sort of price.
After all, never underestimate the power of money to force a reckoning with the truth.
At the same time, never underestimate the power of Trump to outwit and outlast his opponents, especially the courts.
The real estate mogul and TV star has always had an impressive knack for staying out of legal trouble by dragging out proceedings with appeals and counter lawsuits or by deflecting blame onto others. (If Trump left his own vice president at the mercy of a mob, Giuliani — whom Trump has already disowned as his personal attorney — and Powell should prepare to be thrown under the bus as well.)
And while Trump is rarely at a loss for words, he often couches his incendiary rhetoric in plausible deniability. For months, he rallied his supporters to fight for the very survival of their country against mortal enemies who were stealing his “landslide victory.” But as his lawyers correctly pointed out, Trump never explicitly told his followers to commit violence, even though he did everything short of doing so.
Indeed, for decades, Trump has had an uncanny ability to defy the odds, whether it’s profiting from bankruptcy or winning the presidency.
The Real Smoking Gun?
But congressional Democrats aren’t done with Trump. They recently moved to establish an independent 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Theoretically, the commission could answer one of the biggest questions left unanswered after the impeachment trial: What did Trump know and when did he know it?
That to me has always been one of the most shocking — and overlooked — elements of the Capitol siege: Did Trump know that hundreds of people, including his own vice president, were in physical danger but refused to step in and help because he was pleased rioters were trying overthrow the election?
Trump’s lawyers mostly dodged this question during the impeachment, but it’s finally getting the attention it deserves.
There’s a concerted effort now to establish a clear timeline of what Trump did — and didn’t do — during the afternoon of Jan. 6. For example, did he tweet that Pence lacked the courage to overturn the election all while knowing that a mob was hunting for his vice president?
Trump’s claim that he didn’t know Pence was in danger is belied by a phone call he made to Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who said he told Trump that the vice president was being evacuated.
In fact, the reported purpose of that call was to get Tuberville to delay the counting of the Electoral College votes, even as a riot was raging inside the Capitol — a clear sign of what the president was really worried about at the time.
Another damning revelation was the existence of a profanity-laced phone call — first reported by CNN and confirmed by Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state — that Trump had with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in which McCarthy allegedly begged the president to call off the rioters.
For his part, Trump blamed Antifa for the riots and then completely contradicted himself by reportedly telling McCarthy that the rioters “are more upset about the election than you are.” (It’s doubtful Trump would heap such praise on a group of far-left fascists.)
Regardless of the phone calls and tweets, common sense dictates that Trump was well aware of what was happening and how serious it was.
For one thing, his security detail and aides would’ve kept him abreast of the situation.
Not to mention the fact that the riots were plastered all over TV. Are we to believe that Trump, who has been glued to a television set practically every day for the last four years, all of a sudden wasn’t paying attention to one?
The claim by Trump’s defense attorneys that he was “horrified” by the violence also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Trump did not take “immediate steps” to end the riot. It took him hours to urge his supporters to go home (while still repeating the lie that the election had been stolen) — and he reportedly only did so after immense pressure by his advisors to finally speak up.
To the contrary, most reports indicate that Trump was thrilled rioters had stormed the Capitol — and baffled as to why more people weren’t as happy as he was.
Above all, there’s one inescapable fact: At any point, Trump had the power to stop the riot — not just with his words, but with his actions. He alone could’ve stepped in as different security agencies were squabbling and scrambling to respond by directly calling in the military to quell the violence. But he didn’t.
“It was so obvious that only President Trump could end this. He was the only one,” McConnell said.
“Trump allowing the violence to go on for hours without any clear directive or demand for peace — his intentional silence — cost Americans their lives,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted for impeachment.
But perhaps the most powerful verbal indictment came from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), one of the House impeachment managers, who said: “Senators, you’ve seen all the evidence so far. And this is clear. On January 6th, President Trump left everyone in this Capitol for dead.”
Trump’s inaction would constitute a dereliction of duty of such magnitude that it would put fabricated scandals like Benghazi to shame.
It also has the potential to resonate with the American public in a way that Trump’s first impeachment trial — which involved complex legal arguments over whether Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to dredge up dirt on Joe Biden — never could.
But even if Trump did just what Castro accused him of doing — leaving everyone for dead — will it matter to his base, which is convinced there is a deep state out to destroy Trump?
That goes double for QAnon quacks who think this deep state is comprised of cannibalistic, Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
Yet it also applies to average Republicans who don’t believe that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children and who do believe that school shootings and 9/11 were real — and therein lies the danger to democracy itself.
Countless polls have shown that most Republicans still think Trump won the election — despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, they refuse to believe hundreds of Republican election officials and conservative judges who’ve confirmed that Biden won by millions of votes.
How do you even debate someone who is convinced by a reality of their own creation?
Nothing Will Change
This is the bind Republican leaders like McConnell find themselves in. Trump is not popular with the majority of Americans, but he’s incredibly popular with the majority of Republicans.
The Republican Party would be committing suicide if it ignored the 75 million people who voted to re-elected Trump.
This is why, regardless of Jan. 6 and its fallout, the party’s political calculations won’t budge.
In the Feb. 15 edition of The Morning newsletter by The New York Times, David Leonhardt does an excellent job explaining why Republicans didn’t vote for impeachment given Trump’s low approval ratings. He does it better than I could so I copied is his response below:
There are two important parts to the answer.
The more obvious one is the short-term political danger for individual Republicans. Roughly 70 percent of Republican voters continue to support Trump strongly, polls suggest. A similar share say they would be less likely to vote for a Republican senator who voted to convict Trump, according to Li Zhou of Vox.
For Republican politicians, turning on Trump still brings a significant risk of being a career-ending move, as it was for Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator, and Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general. Of the seven Republican senators who voted for conviction, only one — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — faces re-election next year, Burgess Everett of Politico noted. And the seven are already facing blowback in their home states.
The second part of the answer is more subtle but no less important. Today’s Republican Party is less concerned with national public opinion than it used to be — or than today’s Democratic Party is.
The Republican Party of the past won elections by persuading most Americans that it would do a better job than Democrats of running the country. Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower each won at least 57 percent of the vote in their re-election campaigns. George W. Bush won 51 percent, largely by appealing to swing voters on national security, education, immigration and other issues. A party focused on rebuilding a national majority probably could not stay tethered to Trump.
But the modern Republican Party has found ways other than majority support to achieve its goals.
It benefits from a large built-in advantage in the Senate, which gives more power to rural and heavily white states. The filibuster also helps Republicans more than it does Democrats. In the House and state legislatures, both parties have gerrymandered, but Republicans have done more of it. In the courts, Republicans have been more aggressive about putting judges on the bench and blocking Democratic presidents from doing so. In the Electoral College, Democrats currently waste more votes than Republicans by running up large state-level victories.
All of this helps explain Trump’s second acquittal. The Republican Party is in the midst of the orst run that any party has endured — across American history — in the popular vote of presidential elections, having lost seven of the past eight. Yet the party has had a pretty good few decades, policy-wise. It has figured out how to succeed with minority support.
Republican-appointed justices dominate the Supreme Court. Republicans are optimistic they can retake control of both the House and the Senate next year (even if they win fewer votes nationwide). Taxes on the wealthy are near their lowest level in a century. Democrats have failed to enact many of their biggest priorities — on climate change, Medicare, the minimum wage, preschool, gun control, immigration and more.
Yes, Trump’s acquittal bucks public opinion. But it still might not cost the Republicans political power.
To the contrary, it would cost Republicans political power if they bucked Trump.
The former president may have lost his primary megaphone when he got booted off Twitter, but he’s not going anywhere.
If anything, his voice will only grow louder.
This is what I argued shortly after Jan. 6, when so many commentators were convinced that the storming of the U.S. Capitol would herald the demise of Donald Trump. After all, how can a president who started an insurrection survive it?
The answer is simple: The Republican Party has become the Party of Trump.