With the 57-43 vote—the first time since 1868 that a majority of the Senate has convicted a president—Donald J. Trump has successfully weathered his second impeachment trial. The only thing that briefly injected any doubt into the weeklong proceedings about the ultimate verdict was the maladroit performance of Trump’s lawyers, which may have prompted senators such as Richard Burr to vote guilty. But it was the speech of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell after the verdict that really represented the surprise of the trial.
As he excoriated Trump for his “unconscionable behavior” after the November election and stated that he was criminally liable for his behavior, McConnell almost sounded as if he had jumped over the political aisle to become a House impeachment manager. Actually, he was even harsher than them, calling the former president “practically and morally responsible” for the violence of January 6. McConnell pointed to the rhetoric that Democrats indulged in this past summer during racial protests but said that Trump had taken it to another dimension entirely. Rep. Jamie Raskin attacked Trump; McConnell flayed him. In essence, McConnell, who voted to acquit Trump on narrow constitutional grounds that has Democrats crying pettifoggery, sought to rip the band-aid off the GOP. He depicted Trump as a failed leader and dangerous demagogue who should be relegated to political ignominy.
Whether that will occur is an open question. Trump only weathered the impeachment trial because he retains the fervent support of the Republican base. But he also faces a welter of problems, ranging from financial to political investigations that could hamstring him in coming months. In Georgia, a local prosecutor is investigating Trump’s attempts to browbeat state election officials into submission to “find,” as he put it, 11,000 votes for him. The Justice Department investigation of January 6 may further tie Trump to his more impassioned followers: Jonathan Zucker, a lawyer for one of the Proud Boys, is declaring to the New York Times, “If this was a conspiracy, Trump was the leader. He was the one calling the shots.” There is also much talk about a 9/11-style commission to chronicle with exactitude what took place in January. Then there are Trump’s financial difficulties. New York prosecutors are examining $280 million in loans Trump received from Ladder Capital Corp. on four Manhattan properties, including Trump Tower. At the same time, his tax returns may also be released by the Treasury Department.
This is why Democrats quickly punted on attempting to summon witnesses. For a brief moment, it looked as though the House managers would try to depose witnesses to Trump’s actions and behavior on January 6. Within a few hours, however, they acceded to a deal in which Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler written testimony about a telephone call between House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump was admitted into evidence. McCarthy apparently implored Trump to call off the rioters, but the president indicated that he felt they were more interested in overturning the election results than McCarthy. Had the House managers embarked upon summoning witnesses, the impeachment trial could easily have devolved into a months-long debacle that would have created insuperable obstacles to pushing the Biden agenda.
Instead, the quick terminus to the impeachment trial means that the Biden White House got its wish. President Joe Biden, who wants to put Trump as firmly as possible in the rear-view mirror, is focused on passing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that could prove pivotal not only for the economy, but also the political fortunes of Biden and the Democrats. Trump will continue to flirt with a run in 2024 even as the GOP, as well as Democrats, eye him uneasily. But other than Trump, no one is probably jubilant that the impeachment trial has come to an end than Biden.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.