Opinion

Why Trump's 2nd impeachment could be different

A lot has changed since January 2020

Donald Trump has made history. He is the first president to be impeached twice. Of course, the second impeachment wouldn't have become necessary if the first one had succeeded — but conviction and removal from office takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate, and Republicans didn't go along with the initial effort. America was deprived of the privilege of a one-year presidential term for Mike Pence.

Democrats are about to take control of the upper chamber, but not by a wide enough margin to convict Trump on the charge of inciting last week's insurrection in the Capitol. They will need Republican votes, and there are a few reasons to believe the outcome could be different this time around.

First, Trump no longer has his social media megaphone. Whenever he has been in trouble in the past, this president fired up his iPhone. During the first impeachment trial — way back in the pre-pandemic days of early 2020 — Trump naturally used his Twitter account as a billy club. At one point in late January, he tweeted 131 times in a single day. Before that, he often used social media to rail against Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who investigated his campaign's 2016 links to Russia.

Trump doesn't have a Twitter account anymore. This will have several effects. For one thing, GOP senators who might be inclined to convict Trump no longer have to worry that they will immediately be lambasted by the president to his millions of followers. Yes, they still have to face the wrath of Trumpist Republicans — hopefully at the polls, instead of in some more violent encounter. But they will have some added buffer against the backlash simply because Trump can't auto-generate it like he could even just a week ago.

Neither will Trump be able to use Twitter to distract mainstream media outlets in TV, print, and digital. He no longer has the power to sidetrack attention from his misdeeds by sparking some new online conflagration.

Second, Trump's legal team is much diminished. During the first impeachment trial, Trump was represented by a team led by lawyers Pat Cipollone and Jay Sekulow. Both are legal heavyweights — Cipollone, before serving as White House counsel, served such clients as Bechtel, Sony Entertainment Group, and the Recording Industry of America, while Sekulow had argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court.

It is tough to believe that Trump will be getting the old band back together, though. Cipollone has reportedly become so frustrated with the president's antics — falsely claiming he lost the election, summoning the crowd that went on to invade the Capitol — that he nearly resigned his position, only to stay at the urging of other highly placed officials. Sekulow, meanwhile, has argued publicly against the newest impeachment, but he has also criticized the president's supporters for creating "quasi-anarchy" and weighed in against Trump's notion that Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the Electoral College results. And neither man, despite being core members of the president's legal team, went anywhere near his campaign's court challenges to state election tallies. Maybe one or both would show up for a new impeachment trial, but that is looking dubious right now.

Who does that leave? Alan Dershowitz? Possibly. Rudy Giuliani? Maybe. But Giuliani might face his own troubles for urging a "trial by combat" at Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally before the insurrection, and in any case Trump has reportedly told his staff not to pay the former mayor's legal fees for his failed work to challenge the election. There will always be somebody willing to take on Trump as a client — for a buck, or for the notoriety — but his legal bench is looking pretty thin right now.

Finally, there aren't many elected Republicans who are defending the president's actions, either. During the House impeachment debate on Wednesday, GOP members explained their votes against impeachment citing a variety of reasons. It would be bad for national unity, they said. Trump is already on his way out of office. A few suggested the process was being rushed, while others said Democrats had no standing to criticize the president after some of last summer's Black Lives Matter protests turned violent. But nobody really tried to defend Trump on the merits. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy even offered up the possibility of censuring the president. During the first impeachment, more than a few members of the GOP were willing to defend the president against charges he abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family. Now, to an unprecedented degree, Republicans have acknowledged that their party's president is guilty of wrongdoing.

We still may not see conviction this time around. The trial probably will not start before Jan. 19, which means that Trump — who leaves office at noon the next day — will be comfortably settled at Mar-a-Lago before a verdict can be reached. Some Republicans argue that any impeachment conviction would be unconstitutional once President-elect Biden is inaugurated. A few GOP senators probably will use that as an excuse to vote against impeachment, so as to duck alienating Trump supporters even if they believe he is guilty of incitement.

Getting 67 votes for an impeachment conviction in the Senate will still be an extraordinary challenge. No president has ever been convicted at impeachment trial — but then again, this will only be the fourth such trial in American history. But the political landscape has changed dramatically since Trump was impeached a year ago. Will the results change, too?

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