EDITORIAL: Where does Washington go from here?
If the compellingly strong case put on by House managers during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and the 57-43 bipartisan vote to convict were moral victories for Democrats, the ultimate acquittal is an immoral victory for the disgraced ex-president and the obsequious Senate Republicans who engineered it.
Using the argument that convicting an impeached president who has left office is unconstitutional — despite that assertion having been voted on and rejected by the full Senate — the infamous 43 once again failed to hold history’s most unlawful, unethical American president to full account.
Their refusal to acknowledge the painful facts — that the president planted the seeds for the violent insurrection through repeated lies about “a stolen election,” called insurgents to Washington on Jan. 6, whipped them into a frenzy at a rally timed to coincide with congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, directed them to the U.S. Capitol, stoked their anger on Twitter while the violence was underway, and ignored calls for help for hours — is indefensible.
Their position required not only ignoring reality but working arm in arm with the president’s clearly overmatched defense attorneys and arguing against calling witnesses.
Despite all of this, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as much as declared Trump guilty in a fiery after-the-fact speech on the Senate floor. If, as McConnell so forcefully yet pointlessly insisted following the acquittal, Trump is “practically and morally responsible” for the deadly riot, then McConnell is “practically and morally responsible” for the disgraced president’s acquittal.
All 43 senators voting to acquit share this ignominy, but it is hard to imagine McConnell not altering the outcome of the vote had he made his views known prior to the roll call — or even refrained from publicly announcing he planned to vote for acquittal.
The Kentucky Republican, having just won another six-year term this past November, didn’t need much in the way of political spine to join seven GOP colleagues, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, who sided with all 48 Democrats and two Independents in voting for conviction. Alas, he doesn’t have much.
The silver lining to the disappointing if not preordained acquittal would be that Washington at last — finally! — could begin putting Trumpism in the rear-view mirror. That was at least part of the thinking behind Democrats’ about-face on calling witnesses after Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington publicized anew her knowledge of a mid-riot phone call between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump in which the president seemed to side with insurgents over besieged lawmakers.
That decision, made after a bipartisan vote to allow witnesses, was perhaps the only misstep in the Democrats’ prosecution of their case. The party’s willingness to give political ground when it has an advantage (recall the refusal to challenge White House officials like Kellyanne Conway when they ignored House subpoenas) is seldom returned in kind.
Nonetheless, it allowed the trial to quickly conclude, clearing the decks, in theory, to focus on Biden’s agenda, including still-pending Cabinet nominees and a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.
One potential problem: Trumpism isn’t even gone, let alone forgotten.
How will progress be possible on Capitol Hill when a sizable majority of the minority party continues to embrace fabrications about the election and question Biden’s clear-cut and overwhelming victory? How will a contrition-free Trump influence events through the maneuvers of his slavish congressional coterie? How will unity be attainable when three-quarters of registered Republicans, misinformed by fact-free conservative media, don’t believe Biden legitimately won the election?
In short, with Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities and Republicans split between Trump loyalists and more traditional conservatives, where does Washington go from here?
Whatever the direction, the journey is likely to be amid the baggage of Trumpism, rather than beyond it.