WASHINGTON The outcome may seem preordained in the unprecedented second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, but it still matters.
Democrats prosecuting the former president for inciting a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol will struggle to persuade at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump and bar him from office. Forty-five of the 50 Republican senators backed a bid last month to dismiss the trial, essentially telegraphing how the final vote will play out.
But the trial set to begin Tuesday is ultimately a test of whether a president, holding an office that many of the nation’s founders feared could become too powerful in the wrong hands, is above the law. Senators will be forced to listen to evidence and wrestle with elemental questions about American democracy. There will be visual, visceral evidence, and the American people will also be sitting in their own form of judgment as they watch.
The verdict and the process itself will be scrutinized for generations.
“For historians, what that trial does is to provide additional evidence and documentation under oath,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University. “It also gives us a sense of the strength, or the weakness, in American democracy as the senators are confronted with this evidence.”
That record is certain to be grisly, a reminder on a human level of the horror at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Senators will review Trump’s call that morning to “fight like hell” before the mob of loyalists showed up to Capitol Hill to do just that. Senators will be reminded of the rioters’ chants calling for then-Vice President Mike Pence’s hanging. House prosecutors could resurface the image of a police officer crushed between doors, blood trickling from his mouth, as the violent crowd moved in. There might be additional evidence of how another officer, Brian Sicknick, died defending the building.
If that’s not enough, senators will be reminded of their own vulnerability as they fled the mob entering their chamber in fear of their lives.
And then they’ll have to decide whether there should be consequences. But the potential of an acquittal doesn’t mean the trial should be abandoned before it begins, said Rep. Val Demings, who was an impeachment manager in Trump’s first trial.
“The jury not convicting is always a possibility,” the Florida Democrat said, recalling her previous career as the chief of the Orlando Police Department. “But decisions are never made solely on that.”
Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Trump bears at least a moderate amount of responsibility for the riot, according to a poll released last week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That includes half who say Trump bears a great deal of responsibility.
Most Republicans absolve him of guilt, but about 3 in 10 think he bears at least a measure of blame for the events.
Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, said a trial could be a “distraction” from larger priorities. He suggested censure could be a better use of time.
As much as the trial is about history, the implications are just as powerful in the present moment. Leaders in capitals across the world are watching what happens in Washington to assess whether the U.S. remains committed to democratic principles.
It’s telling that Republicans aren’t going into the trial with a robust defense of Trump. Few are publicly defending his behavior.
Instead, the GOP is narrowly focused on a more technical constitutional issue, arguing that a president can’t face an impeachment trial once out of office, a path they believe is easier to defend than trying to rationalize Trump’s actions.
Anticipating that posture, Democrats filed a pretrial brief noting there’s no “January exception” in the Constitution.
“Presidents do not get a free pass to commit high crimes and misdemeanors near the end of their term,” the House impeachment managers wrote.
The trial “really will only reinforce what we already know about American politics,” said Brendan Buck, a top adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “And in that, I mean we are so tribal and divided that there’s really no question where people will fall down on something that should generate thoughtful discourse and reflection about a fundamental democratic principle.”
ANALYSIS BY STEVEN SLOAN