Meanwhile, the House managers presented a learned case, based in history, establishing that the authors of the state and federal constitutions of the 1780s agreed that an impeachment begun when an official held office could be continued if it was not yet finished before that official left. The House managers quoted the debate over Belknap, and other precedents, all underscoring the words of former President John Quincy Adams: “I hold myself, so long as I have the breath of life in my body, amenable to impeachment by this House for everything I did during the time I held any public office.”
When today’s passions subside, and the law professors of the future review the record, the decision will be unanimous that the House managers easily won the day—especially because the Trump team acted as if it did not know what day it was.
From the point of view of vote counting, the Trump team’s ineptitude will not much matter. Most Republicans in the Senate will vote for anything to protect Trump; only one, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, switched his vote to affirm that a former president could be tried, joining the five other Republican senators who had voted that way on the earlier measure.
From other points of view, however, the Trump team’s ineptitude will matter very much. Almost no matter what happens in the trial, at least 34 Republicans will vote to acquit Trump, but most would prefer not to look like utter hacks and fools in the process. Give us something to make our votes look decent, they must wish—but their wish today was refused.
In humiliating themselves, Trump’s lawyers humiliated the senators who will ultimately have to approve of their work and adopt it as their own point of view.
The goal of McConnell and the other less Trump-y Senate Republicans is to begin at once to put maximum distance between themselves and the least popular one-term president in the history of polling. Trump cost his party its majority in the House in 2018, its hold on the presidency in November 2020, and its majority in the Senate in January 2021. Trump was unpopular through his presidency, and he is becoming more unpopular in retrospect as the Biden administration manages the pandemic better than Trump did. Trump’s unpopularity explains why senators such as Marco Rubio express such resentment and bitterness at being entrapped into defending him.
But Trump won’t allow himself to be distanced. His team’s sorry defense at the impeachment trial binds Republican senators more closely to Trump. The constitutional argument promised by Trump’s advocates was smashed to pieces by the superior argument and evidence of the House managers.
Having lost that round, Trump’s lawyers and the Republican senators must now confront the actual damning proof of Trump’s culpability for the attack on the Capitol January 6. They will try to close their eyes to that too. But the 56 percent majority that wants Trump convicted—that majority of the country will see it all.