Guilty but acquitted

The US Senate voted 57–43 in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. 57 votes to convict, short of the two-thirds necessary. I’m disappointed that I’m not surprised.

I had been harboring a hope, a pipe-dream, that the Republican Party (as represented by those 50 Senators) would choose to repudiate the growing Trump Party within its ranks, and return to its role as a mature party representing rational conservative points of view. Sadly, 43 Senators said “No, we really are the Trump Party, not the Republican Party.”

The other disappointing-but-not-surprising facet of the proceedings was that so few Senators (if any) actually sat as impartial jurors, judging the trial solely on the cases presented to them (I watched it all; I found the argument for conviction to be convincing).

But after the vote, after the impeachment trial adjourned, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke (saying very little of surprise), and then Senator Mitch McConnell spoke. His speech was a surprise. McConnell spoke for probably fifteen minutes, and his words (in my mind) boil down to “Donald Trump was guilty of the crime imputed to him, but the Senate couldn’t convict because impeachment is accuse-try-convict-remove from office, and since he’s a former President, we couldn’t remove him from office. But some other court should definitely try him.” Those words resonate with me.

But Mitch McConnell has lost all credibility with me. Starting with his February 2016 statement that the Senate could not consider a Supreme Court nominee during an election year, and then completely reversing himself with his October 2020 rush to confirm a Supreme Court nominee days before an election, he has proven himself to be nothing more than a political opportunist, blowing whichever way the wind takes him. And let’s not forget, it was McConnell himself who determined the Senate could not be in session to receive the impeachment article from the House before the end of President Trump’s term. The trial lasted five days. The article of impeachment was adopted by the House on January 13. Had McConnell chosen to receive it, and held the trial in a timely manner, it would have concluded before the end of Donald Trump’s term. So McConnell “had” to vote to acquit based on a technicality, but it’s a technicality he himself caused.

So I want to believe what he said, but because he said it, I can’t. But it certainly does seem that there is emphatic evidence of Donald Trump’s guilt in inciting an insurrection.

Mitch McConnell can, but maybe we don’t want to convict Donald Trump. Not guilty by reason of…

A lot of the talking heads on my television news programs are handicapping the upcoming impeachment trial of Donald Trump. The prevailing comments seem to be that the Republican Senators are going to try to avoid taking any position because they fear what Trump and the Trump Party may do to them. They’re expressing incredulity that seventeen Republican Senators could possibly vote to convict.

But what seems to be missing in these analyses are, first, that this is (or at least ought to be) a trial in which the Senators, sitting as jurors, really ought to be deciding on their vote (verdict) based on the evidence which will be presented at the trial (I was pleased to hear Senator Toomey say just that today on CNN). We didn’t get a lot of that in the last three presidential impeachment trials, and we probably won’t see much of it this time around, but just think how refreshing it would be.

The other thing that is missing is the potential for Mitch McConnell to grow a backbone. McConnell is a smart politician, who has ruled his faction in the Senate for quite a while. He appears to be the leader of the entire Republican party today (except for Trump and his insanity). The time appears to be ripe for him to wrest control of the Republican name back, and to marginalize the aberration that is the Trump Party. By convicting former President Trump of inciting an insurrection, and by barring him from ever holding office again, the Republicans in the Senate would be clearly telling their party members that the insanity is done; that it is time to go back to being members of a government, rather than a bullying, rampaging mob of divisive haters.

Donald Trump managed to grab the White House, and drew out of the woodwork a gang of passionate thugs, but even Mitch McConnell, in his more lucid moments, must realize that Donald Trump’s Presidency was bad for the country. Now, McConnell has a few days to spread the word among his forty-nine Senate colleagues that they can retake the party, that they can once again look like mature adults in the government.

Of course, it wouldn’t be so simple as casting the vote (and convincing a few other Senators to do the same). If McConnell and other rational Republicans really want to regain control of the runaway train the Trump has turned their party into, it’s going to take effort. They’re going to have to speak about what they’re doing and why. They’re going to have to educate their party members, pointing out the lies and misdirection Trump spews as naturally as breathing. In short, they’re going to have to work to get there, and it won’t be easy. But nothing worth doing ever is easy.

Mind you, while I’m expressing hope that Mitch McConnell can work for the good of the country, I really don’t repose that much trust in him. Especially not after watching his actions of the last few years. In 2016, he said the Senate could not consider a Supreme Court nominee during an election year. In 2020, he said it was fine to do so, since the same party controlled the Senate and the White House. He has shown himself to be completely untrustworthy (so I am continually amazed that anyone is willing to negotiate with him). He is apparently not a Senator serving the nation, but a political opportunist seeking out any avenue to accumulate more power for himself and his cronies. In other words, I don’t hold out much hope that he will lead his party to convict Trump and blossom as a high-minded collection of political leaders. But I can continue to hope.

I wrote the above a few days ago, but then let it sit before posting it. I still think it’s valid reasoning, and that if they want to remain relevant, the Republican Party will have to repudiate the Trump Party and Donald Trump. But I’ve also started wondering if conviction in the Senate is necessary for that, or if it even is the best possible outcome.

Consider this alternative: what if the United States Senate, sitting as the jury in the impeachment trial of now-former-President Donald Trump, determines he is not guilty by reason of mental defect or diminished capacity (or some other such synonym)? Indeed, that may be why the House managers asked him to testify. If they can get Donald Trump on the stand to publicly state that he still believes he won the election, despite all evidence to the contrary, it becomes easier to find that he is out of touch with reality. Casting his actions in that light puts the onus on Congress to strengthen the 25th Amendment, and on future Cabinets to keep a better watch on their Presidents. It gives the Republican Senators—fearful of fringe party nut-jobs—an out of not voting to convict. And it means that, even without a separate finding that Donald Trump is ineligible to hold office in the future, he’s done.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the evidence is overwhelming that he did incite a mob to insurrection that resulted in damage, death, and the disruption of the normal functioning of the United States government. The impeachment was completely warranted, because he was the President when it was voted. But now we need to temper our need for vengeance with our need to try to bring his followers back into the fold of decent human beings. Convicting Donald Trump, at this point, will not change any minds, will not convince the rest of the Trump Party that he is wrong. But recognizing his diminished capacities might be a step toward allowing them an out from their own descents into madness.

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