During former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, even when Republicans insisted that the assault on the Capitol was an unfortunate consequence of heated rhetoric, most did not attempt to defend Trump’s conduct on the merits. Instead, they relied on the absurd technicality that the president was no longer in office, and therefore could not be convicted.
That was the rationale of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who accused Trump of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and afterward voted to acquit. McConnell then suggested that Trump could be criminally prosecuted, comfortable in the suspicion that would never happen.
Other Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, insisted that seeking accountability for an attempted coup would be “incredibly divisive,” and was therefore not worth doing. “The notion that we’re going to spend a week or two weeks on a trial on somebody who’s not even in office—it sounds to me like a waste of time,” Rubio told Politico in 2021.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas offered a more affirmative defense. After voting to acquit, Cruz said, “Donald Trump used heated language, but he did not urge anyone to commit acts of violence.” Whether they based their decision on the flimsy excuse that he was no longer president, or on the idea that he never meant to inspire the violence that followed his incitement, Trump’s defenders have always insisted that the former president acted recklessly but not deliberately.
I do not recall these excuses simply to point out how pathetic they seem in hindsight, given the gravity of the allegations and the clarity we now have about Trump’s conduct. I raise them because the thinness of the Republican rationales for acquittal is strong evidence that any justification, no matter how strained, would have sufficed, and yesterday’s revelations are unlikely to change the minds of many Republican legislators now. It is nevertheless crucial to establish for posterity what happened and why. But make no mistake: If those who collaborated with Trump’s attack on American democracy escape accountability, the calculus of high-ranking administration officials next time will be that there is a greater price to pay for opposing a coup than supporting one.
Yesterday’s sworn testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, before the January 6 committee, if sustained, would leave Trump’s enablers without even a pathetic sliver of an excuse for refusing to punish an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order. Hutchinson is just one person, and her testimony could be contested by future witnesses or revelations. A certain level of caution is warranted; it is not unheard of for people to lie under oath. With that said, the picture Hutchinson painted is shocking, if not surprising. According to Hutchinson, not only did Trump understand his own conduct as encouraging acts of violence, but he hoped to make it easier for the mob to reach its targets equipped to carry out those acts.
The extent of Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election has been clear since long before the Hutchinson testimony. The mob was Trump’s last resort, not his first. In the aftermath of his loss, Trump pressured GOP secretaries of state to not certify the election results; he pressed Republican state legislatures to overturn the election results; he demanded that the courts invalidate the results; and he tried to coerce Vice President Mike Pence to declare him the winner during a ceremonial counting of the votes. When all of that failed, Trump encouraged the mob that sacked the Capitol by telling its members they could “fight” to overturn the results, and that they had to do so, because “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The justification for this was baseless allegations of voter fraud that both the president and his entourage knew to be false, even as they inundated their supporters with them.
These actions amount to attempts to forcibly remain in power, and alone would have been sufficient reason to impeach him and bar him from office forever.
Hutchinson’s appearance before the committee adds to these already damning facts insight into the former president’s personal motives and behavior, which were so pivotal to Republican senators’ weak rationales for acquittal. She testified that Trump believed the mob would turn violent, knew it was armed, and urged the Secret Service to allow the mob through with its weapons. In short, Hutchinson’s testimony indicates that Trump was not merely irresponsible or foolish at the rally; he deliberately riled up the mob with falsehoods of a rigged election in the hopes that it would successfully overturn the election results by force. Trump then refused to call off the mob, because he wanted it to complete its mission. Hutchinson also testified that she heard from a colleague that Trump physically assaulted a Secret Service agent in an attempt to get him to drive them toward the Capitol; the Secret Service later told the press that it would dispute that aspect of her testimony under oath.
Whether or not that outburst occurred, the more significant aspect of Hutchinson’s testimony was Trump’s awareness of the mob’s capacity for violence and its intentions. “I was in the vicinity of a conversation where I overheard the president say something to the effect of, ‘You know, I don’t even care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,’” Hutchinson testified. When the mob began to chant “Hang Mike Pence,” Hutchinson recalled, she overheard Meadows tell White House Counsel Pat Cipollone that “he thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” Trump understood that the people the mob wanted to hurt were standing between him and power, and therefore did not want the mob sworn to place Donald Trump in power impeded by those who had sworn to defend the Constitution. As my colleague David Graham wrote, Trump’s allies’ defense of his conduct “has never been especially plausible, but Hutchinson’s testimony demolishes it.”
Even without this information, the Senate should have convicted Trump. The plain facts are that the former president attempted to violently overthrow the government of the United States, and Senate Republicans ensured that he would face no consequences for doing so by acquitting him during his second impeachment. Their rationales for refusing to hold Trump accountable are laughable in hindsight, but also disturbing in their frailty, because history suggests that when attempts to seize power by force are not punished, they are both more likely to reoccur and more likely to succeed when they do. Attempting to seize power by violence was not sufficient to turn Republican senators against Trump when his influence was at its ebb; now that he has reasserted his grip on the party, there is little chance they will discover a reserve of courage. The only Republicans in elected office who were punished by the party in connection with Trump’s overthrow attempt were those such as Representative Liz Cheney, who was censured for speaking out against it.
Hutchinson’s testimony provoked the now tired ritual of Republicans soliciting favorable coverage from reporters by privately expressing their horror while publicly defending Trump; at this point, no one should be fooled by this. The truth is that Hutchinson’s testimony, had it been given at Trump’s second impeachment trial, may not have changed a single vote. Joining with Democrats to hold Trump accountable would have done too much damage to the party. Better to erode the foundations of American democracy than risk giving the rival party any advantage.
This is cowardice, but also ideology: Since liberals are not Real Americans, it is no sin to deprive them of power by undemocratic means. In this view, Trump’s behavior might be misguided, but his heart remains in the right place, in that his mob sought to ensure that only those worthy to participate in American democracy can hold the reins of power, regardless of whom the voters actually choose.
Although seven Republican senators broke ranks and voted to convict Trump, most of the caucus remained loyal to a man who attempted to bring down the republic, because in the end, they would have been content to rule over the ruins.