Back in the first months of 2020 — before COVID, before the economy collapsed, before George Floyd was murdered, and before the ugly mess of a presidential campaign — the United States Senate held an impeachment trial to decide whether President Trump had abused the powers of his office, and whether he should thus be removed from that office. It all seems a million years ago at this point, but it remains important.
Trump was acquitted, but not exactly exonerated.
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Instead, a few Republicans argued that, yes, the president had done something "inappropriate" when he pressured Ukraine officials to announce an investigation into the business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, but that, especially in an election year, it should be left to voters to decide Trump's fate.
"The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in late January, just before the presidential primaries and caucuses began. "I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday."
The president's lawyers made this case, as well. Pat Cipollone told the Senate it was important "to respect and defend the sacred right of every American to vote and to choose their president. The election is only months away. The American people are entitled to choose their president."
Republicans benefited from this argument in two ways. It allowed them to appear to be in touch with reality; Trump really did abuse his power by pressuring Ukraine. But they also got to let the president off the hook — and thus avoid getting in trouble with their Trump-loving supporters — while dressing up their failure in noble, democratic language.
They didn't mean it, though.
The voters have now spoken. It is clear they rejected Trump, and chose to replace him with President-elect Joe Biden. But Trump is not conceding anything — instead, he is claiming victory, falsely alleging that Biden's victory depended on voter fraud, and sending signals that he intends to serve a second term, no matter what.
GOP members of Congress, with some exceptions, are going along with it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is among those leading the pack. "President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options," he told the Senate on Monday. Others, like the conservative radio commentator Mark Levin, are suggesting that state legislatures should usurp the results entirely and send only Trump votes to the Electoral College.
All of which suggests that Trump's impeachment acquittal — like so much having to do with this corrupt president — was a con. By saying "let the people decide" during the trial, Republicans made an implicit promise to the American voters: They would actually let the people decide. That promise is going unkept.
Then again, that promise always rested on the shaky notion that Trump and his allies would ever respect America's democratic processes.
The very crime for which he was impeached was an attempt to use the power of government to undermine a political opponent, and to manipulate voters via international bullying. And as many observers have pointed out this week, Trump has never acknowledged an electoral loss during his political career. He claimed the 2016 Iowa caucuses were rigged against him when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won, and later that year he falsely alleged that millions of undocumented migrants were allowed to vote for Hillary Clinton when she defeated him in the popular vote while he won the Electoral College. Trump is doing what he always does — and any reasonable observer could have predicted this back when the GOP decided to let him go unpunished.
Now, as during impeachment, the president's Republican allies are claiming democratic purity to justify his unwillingness to concede. "Every legal vote must be counted," they say — implying, once again falsely, that there is some significant number of illegal votes to be subtracted from Biden's total that will somehow turn the race in Trump's favor. Rather than "let the people decide," Trump's allies are going along with a process designed to cut a large number of voters out of the actual decision-making. It probably won't work, but real damage has been done.
Republicans failed to do their Constitutional duty during the impeachment process. Now they're failing their responsibilities to democracy.
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