There Is No Defense—Only Complicity

Republican senators are shrinking before the eyes of the whole country.

Senator Marco Rubio
Greg Nash / Getty

To understand what was at issue in the impeachment proceedings today, it helps to look at a video released yesterday by Senator Marco Rubio.

Few Republican officials have more reason to hate former President Donald Trump than the defeated rival Trump so memorably nicknamed “Liddle Marco.” Trump brutally bullied Rubio throughout the presidential primary campaign in 2015 and 2016. Over the five years since, Trump imposed one humiliation after another upon Rubio. Now it’s rumored that Ivanka Trump intends to challenge Rubio for his Senate seat in 2022.

But Rubio knows that Republican senators who defy Trump have a way of ending up as ex-senators. And so he abases himself again and again to defend Trump. He appeared on Fox News Sunday on January 24 to denounce this second impeachment trial as “stupid.” And in his February 9 video, a senator who often speaks out against authoritarian corruption in China, Cuba, and Venezuela positioned himself as its apologist here at home—dismissing accountability for the January 6 attacks as a “waste of our time.”

But here’s the important thing, the big reveal: As he delivered his message, Rubio looked absolutely miserable. Watch it yourself and see what I mean. Rubio looked equally miserable on Fox News Sunday.

Unlike so many of his fellow senators, Rubio has no double face. He has no guile and no game. His face displays his feelings. And he is feeling this.

Those feelings are not leading Rubio to do the right thing. He has already committed to do the wrong thing, as will so many other Senate Republicans. But he’s not happy about it. He’s angry about it. He knows he’s being inscribed as one of the villains of American history, one of the saps and weaklings of the American present. Trapped, helpless, and embarrassed, he seethes with resentment about a predicament he cannot see a way to escape.

And he is not finding it.

There is no escape for him, and no escape for the other Republican senators in that same predicament.

Today the House impeachment managers made that predicament more inescapable and more agonizing.

Over almost eight hours, the House managers presented a detailed timeline of Trump’s culpability for the January 6 attack. They showed how Trump started arguing in mid-summer 2020 that any result other than his own reelection should be treated as a “fraud” and a “steal.” They showed the intensifying violence of his rhetoric on TV and Twitter through November and December. And they itemized how Trump repeatedly and forcefully summoned supporters to Washington on January 6 to stop the final certification of the vote in Congress.

Then they played a minute-by-minute juxtaposition of Trump’s words of incitement on the day of the attack with videos of the violence of supporters who told cameras again and again that they acted on Trump’s orders, at Trump’s wishes. They showed how Trump went silent as the assault unfolded, how he ignored supporters who pleaded with him to call off the attack or call out the National Guard. They quoted Trump praising and thanking the insurrectionists even after he knew they had wounded police officers, and repeating the big lie that had set the insurrection in motion, the big lie that he had somehow won an election that he had actually lost by 7 million votes.

The remorseless, crushing power of the House managers’ evidence, all backed by horrifying real-time audio and video recordings, shuttered any good-faith defense of Trump on the merits of the case. The constitutional defense—that it’s impossible to convict a president if he leaves office between his impeachment and his trial—was rejected by 56 senators yesterday, not least because it defies a quarter millennium of federal and state precedents.

There is no defense. There is only complicity, whether motivated by weakness and fear or by shared guilt. And the House managers forced every Republican senator to feel that complicity from the inside out.

That feeling of complicity will not change the final outcome of this Senate trial. The weak will be no less weak for being shamed by their weakness; those who share Trump’s guilt will not cease to share it, because that guilt has been blazed to the world. But at least the House case can restrict the personal and political options of the weak and the guilty. If a senator like Marco Rubio did not feel his world tightening around him, he would not look so haunted. The Republican senators are shrinking before the eyes of the whole country. They are all becoming “liddle.” They know it. They feel it. They hate it. But they cannot stop it.