It defies all logic, good sense, morality, and even rational political calculation that there should be any debate over Donald Trump’s possible conviction in the Senate. In the 1950s, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for doing a tiny fraction of what Trump had done even before his attempted coup. Richard Nixon was forced out of office for doing a small fraction of what Trump did. So was Spiro Agnew.
At the risk of repeating and overstating the obvious, let me point out that what Donald Trump did—incite a coup with an eye to overturning the 2020 election results—is the most serious crime a U.S. President can be guilty of. As that flaming socialist, Chris Christie, pointed out shortly after the coup attempt, if such an act isn’t worthy of conviction and removal from office, what is? Utah’s Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, said pretty much the same thing. And various other Republicans, including not just Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for impeachment, but GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy, who did not, admitted that Trump did indeed incite the attempted coup. Given the fact, the next step should be obvious. No nation which permits such acts to pass unpunished is likely to survive for very long.
Earlier this week, Senate Republicans attempted to evade their constitutional responsibility by supporting a motion, introduced by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, to the effect that a trial conducted after an official had left office would be unconstitutional. Never mind that such “after the fact” trials have been held in the past. Never mind that most constitutional experts are quite OK with such trials. The measure nonetheless garnered considerable support—support from 90% of the Republican Senate caucus, in fact. Only five Senate Republicans joined all 50 Senate Democrats in opposing Paul’s motion, which suggests that Trump’s conviction by the Senate is quite unlikely, since it would require at least 17 Republicans to join all 50 Democrats in supporting conviction.
Well-meaning people, including at least a few liberals, have suggested that the Senate would do better to turn the page on Trump and get back to the normal business of governance. Their argument appears to be that since Trump’s removal is now moot, there’s little point in holding a trial, which would serve only to exacerbate already serious political division in the country.
I must respectfully disagree. In doing so, I would suggest that a trial held after the end of an official’s term in office serves a totally different purpose than a trial held with the primary objective of removing that official. The former type of trial differs from the latter not in degree, but in kind. The rationale for holding a Senate trial of Trump now is twofold: to disqualify him from ever holding public office again, and to send a signal to the American public that there is some behaviour that is so heinous, so contrary to everything that is decent and honourable and humane that it is necessary to condemn such behaviour in the strongest terms. I’m sure that few Republicans have thought of the trial in such terms. Frankly, I’m not even sure that all Democrats have.
Perhaps a simple analogy will help in explaining the situation. Trump’s Senate trial, at this point, is less like a “conventional” impeachment trial aimed at removing the official in question, and more like a professional association’s disbarment proceeding against a wayward member of the profession. What conviction would mean is that Trump would, effectively, never again be able to practice politics in the U.S.
Once again, the case should be open and shut. The verdict should be unanimous. Suppose that instead of being President of the U.S., Trump had been a lawyer. He flouted the law and Constitution throughout his time in office, expressing outright contempt for restrictions the Constitution imposed on his freedom to do exactly as he pleased. This even before the coup attempt, for which I continue to have no words, even three weeks after the event.
Suppose he had been a doctor (bearing in mind, now, his bizarre recommendation that people drink disinfectant or inject bleach to ward off COVID—a recommendation that filled emergency rooms across the U.S., and led to actual loss of life). The Hippocratic phrase “Do no harm” comes rather quickly to mind here. Suppose he’d been an accountant. Just how much does this man owe in back taxes, in how many jurisdictions? Maybe we shouldn’t even try to go there.
It is, indeed, impossible to imagine a single profession from which Trump would not long since have been expelled for doing even half of what he did during his time in office. Why should the profession of politics be any different? This isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, any sort of partisan matter, any more than a disbarment hearing from the legal profession would be. It is a question of maintaining a certain, very minimal standard of morality and decency for those wishing to continue practicing politics in the U.S. “If you’re going to do politics in this country, you can’t participate in coups or incite others to do so” is a pretty low bar. Anyone who can’t meet this minimal standard belongs not in the White House or House of Representatives, but the house of correction.
As horrific as Trump’s actions have been, one might see some rationale for the Republicans’ condoning them if they appeared likely to help their party brand. But clearly they have not, and will not. Trump’s bizarre challenge to Georgia’s presidential election results, which included an hour-long phone call to the state’s Republican Secretary of State in which he attempted to induce him to change the results, arguably cost the Republicans the two Georgia Senate seats that went to a runoff election—and therefore control of the Senate. And this was before the coup attempt. If the same Senate elections were held now as were held in November, God knows how many seats Trump would cost the party.
By failing to convict Trump, and therefore disqualify him from further participation in the political arena, Senate Republicans are saying that in their view it is perfectly OK for a politician to incite a coup against the federal government. To say that this is not a winning strategy is to understate matters considerably. By failing to convict Trump, Senate Republicans would allow Democrats to hang the “seditionist traitor” label on Republican Congressional candidates for at least a generation to come, thus ensuring that they remain a minority party for the foreseeable future.
Any Republican Senate leader capable of taking the long view would immediately see that if all, or nearly all Republican Senators voted to convict Trump, the ex-President would be left helpless. He couldn’t possibly turn on all 40-50 Senators voting to convict. Blocked from further political participation, and without even an appreciable number of allies in the Senate, Trump would have no choice but to slink away and go rot on his golf course. A Senate conviction, preferably by a near-unanimous margin, would ensure that Trump would remain a spent force. For Senate Republicans not to convict him suggests that they, as a party, have a strong death wish.
If only the Republicans had a Senate leader capable of taking the long view.
Copyright © 2021, Gatineau, Quebec