Opinion

Future presidents will remember Trump's impunity

The Constitution was attacked. We should not be surprised when it is attacked again.

The Constitution is broken.

As expected, the Senate on Saturday failed to deliver the required 67 votes necessary to convict former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The 43 votes against conviction came entirely from Senate Republicans. (There were a few honorable exceptions.) The result was no shock — the verdict had been obvious for weeks — but it was still dispiriting. A terrible crime was committed. We know who did it and how. But there will be no penalty. Trump, who has spent a lifetime successfully evading the consequences of his actions, got away with it. Again.

There are plenty of reasons to be angry. For one, Democrats should have called witnesses to testify — particularly Rep. Jaime Herrera Butler (R-Wash.), instead of simply reading into the record her testimony about Trump's indifference to the riot. It might not have changed the verdict, but it would have had the benefit of giving the Trump-supporting Republicans a reason to squirm, at least. Instead, a bombshell revelation in the impeachment trial's final hours became a dreary piece of bookkeeping, a loose end to be tied up by clerks wanting to get out of town. After a week of brilliant prosecution, Democrats got to the goal line and failed. That can't be wiped away.

But mostly, there are reasons to mourn. The riot was a direct assault on the Constitution itself — an attempt to intimidate Congress from doing its duty to certify the presidential results. The acquittal of Trump is a failure, then, to defend the Constitution. It also represents functional disembowelment of the Constitution's impeachment provisions. If the Senate cannot punish a president for inspiring an attack on their own place of work, it will not punish the president for anything.

Future presidents will remember this.

Saturday's vote is now a ticking time bomb for American democracy. If the threat of impeachment can be so easily ignored, it will be ignored, and by a president armed with more competence than Trump. It is only a matter of time. The danger to the democratic system has receded for now. It will emerge again. Bet on it.

This is not just Trump's fault though. He was enabled by a Republican apparatus that decided, time and time again, that it was worth it to go along with his actions — they didn't break with him after the Access Hollywood tape, they didn't break with him after Charlottesville, they didn't break with him after the Ukraine phone call that led to his first impeachment, and now we see they didn't break with him even after the insurrection.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should be singled out for opprobrium here. There were moments in the last few weeks that it appeared he was ready to finally take action against Trump — he voted to certify the presidential results, and he made a speech or two blaming Trump for the insurrection. He even did it again on Saturday, after the verdict, telling the Senate that "there's no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day."

He nevertheless voted to acquit.

McConnell's reasoning: "While a close call, I am persuaded that impeachments are a tool primarily of removal and we therefore lack jurisdiction," he said in a note to GOP colleagues. But of course, it was McConnell who refused to let the Senate hold an impeachment trial before Trump left office. And of course, he did spend weeks in November giving Trump support to baselessly challenge election results. Forget the speeches blaming Trump for wrongdoing — McConnell is the guy who drove the getaway car while reciting the Ten Commandments. If you pay attention to what McConnell did, instead of what he said, his own culpability in events is clear.

If there is a small reason for hope, it is that Trump is no longer in office to once again punish his enemies in the wake of a failed impeachment effort. He is relatively powerless for the moment. And if America is at all lucky, he will be too consumed by his failing businesses and defending against litigation over the next few years to seriously consider running for president again. Then again, we all remember what Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said after the first impeachment — that Trump had learned his lesson. Trump never learns his lessons. Collins, at least, learned hers: She voted for conviction this time.

That may not matter. The Constitution was attacked. It was not meaningfully defended. We should not be surprised when it is attacked again. The question now is: How long can it stand against such assaults?

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