‘The lack of a conviction for Trump sends a chilling message’
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, a 2020-21 Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, and author of Set the World on Fire and Until I Am Free.
The failure to convict former President Donald Trump is unfortunate but not surprising. In effect, it reveals that violence and white supremacy will continue to shape American politics—as they have since the nation’s founding. The invasion of the Capitol on January 6 connects to a long history of white supremacist violence and terror. Throughout the nation’s history, white people have often used violence and intimidation to retain power—the list is long and includes white militias in the Antebellum South, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and the Wilmington massacre of 1898. The insurrection of January 6 is only the most recent iteration of white supremacist violence cloaked under the guise of “political dissent.” The presence of racist symbols such as the Confederate flag and the noose underscore this point.
The Senate’s failure to hold Trump accountable—and in so doing, their failure to prevent him from running for office again—will have lasting, terrible consequences. The lack of a conviction for Trump sends a chilling message: Future presidents will face no accountability for inciting violence during and after an election. This outcome has now set a new and dangerous precedent, and aspiring Republican presidential candidates will likely attempt to follow in Trump’s footsteps.
‘We were left with a show trial’
Josh Blackman is a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, and the author of An Introduction to Constitutional Law: 100 Supreme Court Cases Everyone Should Know.
The impeachment largely didn’t matter to history. We were left with a show trial, which amounted to little more than political theater.
This proceeding could have made a definitive case that Donald Trump incited an insurrection. And I think that evidence could have shown conviction was warranted—especially concerning the official actions Trump took before and after the speech he made on January 6, the same day as the Capitol riot.
But this impeachment was rushed through, which ultimately made it ineffectual. The House approved a single article of impeachment one week after the incursion without developing any evidentiary record. The House did not hold any hearings, accept any sworn statements, subpoena former administration officials or request official documents. At the time, haste was understandable. The House insisted that Trump posed an existential threat, and he had to be removed immediately. But once January 20 passed, that existential threat disappeared.
Perhaps Trump may seek some future office in two or four years. But until then, there was no need to jam through a one-week hearing without any fact finding or oversight. After January 6, the House could have spent some time collecting testimony, documents and other evidence to build a case. But the House chose not to. Instead, it sent its managers to try Trump armed with newspaper clippings, surveillance footage, presidential tweets and Parler posts.
It’s no wonder the managers couldn’t prove Trump intended to incite an insurrection. They had no actual evidence that proved Trump’s state of mind. When the managers tried to introduce a second-hand account of Trump’s intent based on a conversation he had with Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Lee claimed it was inaccurate—and the managers ultimately had to withdraw the evidence. Still, the House managers could have called witnesses to build a record during the Senate trial, and even threatened to do so on Saturday. But they didn’t.
It seems the focus now will turn to President Joe Biden’s agenda. So be it. Priorities matter.
‘An act of rage and vengeance rather than sober deliberation.’
Ken Blackwell is senior fellow for human rights and constitutional governance at the Family Research Council. He has served as mayor of Cincinnati, secretary of state and treasurer of Ohio, and undersecretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among other offices.
This impeachment matters, but not in the ways many people would think. First, rushing through an impeachment with no due process, no witnesses, no hearings and no evidence of the crime alleged—incitement, which would require Donald Trump’s directly calling for physical violence, among other elements—will damage the impeachment process.
Second, this marks a new low in American politics, an act of rage and vengeance rather than sober deliberation.
Third, it illustrates how deeply cynical hypocrisy has become, in that Democrats cheered and laughed along with much more violent language coming from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Fourth, it shows that the cancel culture is infecting even our constitutional framework. And finally, the headline will be “Trump Acquitted”—which means that while Democrats might hate Donald Trump, he did not commit an impeachable offense.
‘Impeachment will almost inevitably produce a backlash’
Douglas E. Schoen is a Democratic pollster and strategist. He is the author of The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, From the Grass Roots to the White House.
The second impeachment of Donald Trump has the potential to lead to a number of unintended, adverse consequences. Though Trump deserves to be held accountable for his behavior and speech on January 6—and I support impeachment—the political impact of the Democrats doing so could well be deleterious to Democratic chances in 2022, and will likely carry other long-term consequences.
First, we can expect that the impeachment trial will further polarize an already divided electorate. To that end, voters are relatively split on the question of whether Trump should be convicted. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that 50 percent of Americans said the Senate should convict Trump, while 45 percent said they should acquit. To be sure, the first midterm for a presidential administration is always a difficult one for the incumbent party. Thus, coming out of the box initially with impeachment will make it more difficult rather than less difficult for Democrats to court Republican voters in 2022, and it will certainly make bipartisan cooperation in the legislature more challenging to achieve over the next few years.
In the long term, impeachment will almost inevitably produce a backlash that will continue long after the process is completed. In turn, the process will strengthen Trump’s standing with his already loyal base, and will further alienate these voters from the political mainstream, given that a number of more moderate Republicans have voiced their support for the process. Furthermore, in the long term, this second impeachment may also facilitate a greater likelihood that Republicans use impeachment against Democratic presidents, making it a more common tool, and less of an extraordinary option to express political opposition.
‘Trump was not exonerated’
Allan J. Lichtman is a history professor and author of The Case for Impeachment.
The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump has three distinct audiences: the senators, the American people and the incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland. The first audience was never the most important. The impeachment managers realized that no matter how powerful and compelling their case, most Republican senators had closed minds and would put party and personal political advantage above loyalty to country. Nonetheless, it is notable that for the first time in history, a bipartisan majority of both parties voted to convict an American president, even if the vote fell short of the two-thirds needed for conviction. Trump was not exonerated.
The managers pitched their presentation to the American people. If, as appears certain, Trump emerges diminished in the eyes of most Americans, his political career is over in practice, even if not formally in law. Already, a poll taken on the eve of the trial found that 53 percent of respondents opposed the idea of Trump running again, compared to just 37 percent who said they would support it. Trump also has much to deal with between now and 2024. His businesses, brand and approval ratings are tanking. He has $400+ million in loans coming due and faces an IRS audit. He has lost his Twitter account. He is under criminal investigation by district attorneys in New York and Georgia. He faces civil suits, including one by journalist E. Jean Carroll, who claims that Trump raped her in the 1990s and that she has DNA evidence.
Trump’s attorney Bruce Castor suggested, astonishingly, that the remedy for Trump’s alleged incitement is not impeachment, but prosecution. “After he’s out of office, you go and arrest him,” Castor said. “There is no opportunity where the president of the United States can run rampant in January at the end of his term and go away scot-free.” Garland will have before him a consequential decision about whether to take up Castor’s challenge and indict the former president on incitement or possible conspiracy charges. He will have to carefully weigh the strength of a potential criminal case against the distraction and uproar that would follow from the charging of a former president.
‘Congress must immediately pass legislation to shore up accountability’
Kimberly Wehle is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She is the author of How to Read the Constitution—and Why.
The Democrats had no choice but to pursue impeachment to properly condemn and hold leaders accountable for the horrors of January 6. It would have been much, much worse to walk away as if nothing happened. But there is now no question that the six references to impeachment in the Constitution—a whopping number that underscores how important the Framers considered this lever of accountability—are not going to produce real consequences absent a voting populace that demands fidelity to the rule of law from its lawmakers. For that, we need civic education and moral responsibility at all levels of our social order.
We also need new laws. What these two failed impeachments have shown is that Congress must immediately pass clarifying legislation to shore up accountability for the office of the presidency. Trump smashed a range of norms over the past four years, with the complicity of Congress. America dodged a bullet to the heart of democracy on November 4, and again on January 6, but we are far from out of the woods. We are already seeing voter suppression efforts raging back across the country on the false myth that voter fraud justifies politicians passing laws to keep people from being able to exercise their constitutional right to vote. That is the sad legacy of Trump, and it’s the regular American—not the politicians in Washington—who will pay the price with the right to self-governance.
‘Impeachment has a chance of remaining rare and principled’
Mary Frances Berry is professor of American social thought, history and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The two Donald Trump impeachments portray what appears to be a running battle between the congressional and executive branches. Unable to find ways to enact legislation to stop Trump’s policies, the House used its impeachment power to hobble the administration. Impeachment substituted for congressional action and helped to generate media coverage undermining Trump’s initiatives.
The second impeachment of Trump matters not just because we may be relieved of focusing on Trump. It also makes it unlikely that another president will be impeached after he has already left office and can no longer undermine government and policy, which the impeachment provisions served to prevent. Impeachment then has a chance of remaining rare and principled when it seems absolutely necessary to remove a president or other official from power, and not just another political exercise.
‘He exposed the fragility of the norms that undergird our political life.’
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.
Donald Trump’s second impeachment may, in the short term, seem to have had little practical effect, since no more than a handful of Senate Republicans voted to convict. Trump’s supporters predictably will dismiss the entire proceedings as a partisan circus and witch hunt. But the case that Trump did in fact incite and inflame the mob he had assembled, and that he bears principal responsibility for the desecration of American democracy that occurred on January 6, carries much greater moral and emotional resonance than any of his defenders’ excuses. Over time, the reputational stain of the second impeachment will deepen Trump’s exclusion from mainstream American politics. He will not be included in any of the symbolic or substantive or redemptive activities in which past former presidents (even Richard Nixon) participated. Growing numbers of Americans will view his entire presidency as a historical aberration.
That will be an excessively self-flattering verdict. Trump may not have known much about American history, but he authentically channeled many of the country’s darker impulses into his populism. These included not only McCarthyism’s conspiracy-minded hatred of elites as well as the isolationism and nativism of the America First Committee, but even reached back to the anti-government animus of the 18th-century Shays’ and Whiskey Rebellions. He exposed the fragility of the norms that undergird our political life (most derived from the worldview of long-dead gentlemanly elites) and the ricketiness of our obsolete constitutional-political structures. He also accelerated the decline of the country’s international power and prestige. The significance of Trump’s second impeachment ultimately will be determined by the future trajectory of the country, and whether we collectively choose the division and dysfunction that Trump personified or the pragmatism and progress that characterized much of what once was called the American Century.
‘This acquittal sends three dangerous messages to future presidents’
Catherine J. Ross is professor of law and Fred C. Stevenson research professor at The George Washington University Law School. She is also the author of the forthcoming A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, expected in 2021.
This acquittal sends at least three dangerous messages to future presidents. First, you can with impunity use every weapon in a relentless effort to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Some of these weapons are more legitimate, such as recounts and lawsuits, than others, such as pressuring state officials, ignoring 62 losses in court and seeking intervention by government officials. The acquittal also shows that a president can incite a violent, armed mob to overtake and ransack the Capitol in order to cut short the constitutionally mandated vote certification without accountability. And third, it is now almost impossible to imagine a presidential offense that would lead to conviction in the Senate.
The Supreme Court explained in Nixon v. Fitzgerald that congressional oversight backed by the “threat of impeachment” is the sole means the Constitution provides to “deter presidential abuses of office.” Because they had the aftermath of Watergate in mind—where Republican leaders prevailed on President Richard Nixon to resign—the justices, like the Founders, did not envision the hyperpartisanship that has undermined the impeachment process. For all practical purposes, the majority of Republican senators have vitiated the impeachment, conviction and removal mechanism, throwing our government of co-equal branches completely out of balance. Disabling the fail-safe remedy the Founders bequeathed to us puts the country at grave risk.
‘The exoneration of Trump will inevitably embolden those and their ilk who stormed the Capitol’
Alan I. Baron is former special impeachment counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Donald Trump was not convicted as a result of his unprecedented second impeachment, but neither was he exonerated. The shameless behavior of this grotesque narcissist is now an indelible part of our country’s history. That is no small achievement by the House impeachment managers, who did a superb job presenting the facts.
A second outcome of these proceedings was for all to see, for all times, the craven abdication by Republican senators who voted “not guilty” when called upon to judge Trump’s role in the insurrection. For them to hide behind an absurd interpretation of the Constitution that a former president can’t be impeached, rejected by constitutional scholars, was a cynical repudiation of their oath. If Diogenes, holding his lamp, were to seek an honest person in that group, the oil would be consumed before he succeeded.
Finally, the exoneration of Trump will inevitably embolden those and their ilk who stormed the Capitol. They are the point of the spear. It remains to be seen whether American democracy gets the shaft.
‘The fact that these impeachments happened is vitally important’
Beth Myers is principal at Buckminster Strategies, a public affairs and campaign consulting firm. She served as chief of staff to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and as campaign manager and senior adviser on Romney’s presidential campaigns.
The first impeachment trial of Donald Trump was about corrupting an election; the second about the attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power after an election. The fact that these impeachments happened is vitally important: Alleged crimes by a president in violation of the most fundamental acts necessary for a functioning American democracy can never be ignored. Poet Amanda Gorman brought that home in her Inauguration Day 2021 poem: “History has its eyes on us.”
The Senate failed to convict in either trial—despite the overwhelming evidence presented by the House impeachment managers in the second trial. But the actions of Trump, the cases made by his accusers and defenders, and the votes taken under oath by the senators to convict or acquit, are now a record for consideration by future historians. And that matters very much.
‘Trump owns the GOP still’
Rick Wilson is a Republican political strategist, media consultant and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.
The impeachment of Donald J. Trump, Part 2, ended with exoneration by a craven Senate GOP. Trump owns the GOP still, and even the party members who think he’s never going to run again. A Senate staffer told me, “If this was a secret vote it would be 80-20,” and they were right. Does it matter to Trump or the GOP? Of course not.
It does matter to history. It shows that the country lacks a functioning political party that can stand up against a man who attempted to subvert an election through violence. It’s a sad coda for a grim era.
‘Every senator who voted to acquit will be stained in history’
Norman Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Ten House Republicans, including a party leader, voted to impeach, and this impeachment trial will be the most bipartisan in American history. It is a hugely important step, even with acquittal. This impeachment and trial highlight the grossest and gravest abuse of power by a president in all of American history. And the process, with the House managers methodically and powerfully laying out the long history of Donald Trump lying about the election, exulting in violence, inciting Proud Boys and others, targeting his own vice president and trying to subvert the outcome of a free and fair election, will be a part of history. These examples were there for tens of millions of Americans to see what happened, and to realize we came within an eyelash of a violent coup that could easily have resulted in the assassination of our top national political leaders.
Trump is stained in history, even if acquitted. And every senator who votes to acquit will also be stained in history. And other vehicles, including applying the 14th Amendment to disqualify Trump from future office and censure, remain. As do criminal charges. The failure to move forward with this process would have been dereliction of duty by Congress.