After six weeks of high drama following the January 6 rioting on Capitol Hill and five days of intense proceedings in the trial of the former President Donald Trump, the United States Senate voted to acquit the 45th President on the sole charge of inciting insurrection.
Sixty-seven senators were needed to convict Trump; and in the end, only seven Republicans in the Chamber joined their Democratic colleagues, leaving the numbers well short. The expected closure to a sordid chapter in American history did have some suspense when by a 55 to 45 vote the Senate agreed to call in witnesses but was mercifully abandoned after an agreement was struck allowing a statement to be taken as a part of the proceedings.
And that had to do with a privy conversation between a senior leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, and President Trump on January 6 even as the rioting was in full swing. After initially denying that the folks out on Capitol Hill were his supporters, Trump is reported to have finally relented and said, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” Some in the Grand Old Party maintained that if Democrats were allowed to bring in witnesses they would have a list of their own that could include Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Vice President, Kamala Harris. This sparked an apprehension that the trial could be stretched to days, if not weeks and in the process impacting the political agenda of the Biden Presidency.
Trump may have been acquitted but he is still a part of American history and for different reasons: the first President to be impeached twice, the first President to be impeached while out of office, and for the first time seven Republicans bolted from their ranks and sided with Democrats. In the earlier impeachment of Trump that took place a little over a year ago, there was only a lone Senator from Utah, Mitt Romney, who voted to convict Trump; this time around Romney had six other colleagues who believed that Trump was responsible for the ugly turn of events on January 6 and in the process failed to live up to the Oath of Office to defend the Constitution.
The defence lawyers of Trump—billed as the C Team after the first two had pulled out—tried to put up a vigorous front arguing, among other things, that the former President’s words to his supporters ‘fight like hell’ was merely rhetorical. The defence even went to the extent of selectively picking out word/s like ‘fight’ and ‘fight like hell’ used by prominent Democratic leaders in the past, only deliberately forgetting the context in which the words were being used, which for the most part had to do with policy platforms and agendas—never in the context of inciting people to violence. Also, the defence argument that the process was flawed because the Senate had no constitutional basis to try a President after he left office had little traction as well.
The House managers prosecuting the trial in the Senate were hoping that their forceful presentation of facts could tilt the scales. And at some stage when one time top supporters like the former Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, came out against what President Trump did there was the small hope of a conviction. But senator McConnell and others only proved the point that being critical of Trump did not mean casting the conviction vote—and when the Kentucky Republican made this clear, the final proceedings soon wrapped up as Democrats knew that the magic number 67 was not going to come.
As mentioned in these columns before, a conviction of Trump was the last thing that was going to happen and not out of any great love for the former President. Even those not a part of Trump’ coattails knew of two things that were essential to their political fortunes in 2022 and 2024, Congressional or Presidential: the fact that some 74 million Americans voted for Trump; and in the campaign contributions that could be generated by tapping this huge chunk of the population. Trump may have lost the elections of November 3, 2020 and some 61 courts of law may have tossed out baseless and ludicrous arguments of massive voter fraud and of the election being ‘stolen,’ but the fact remains that about one-third of the Republican voter base staunchly believes even today that their Man had won.
Democrats had been hoping that a conviction of Trump could be followed by another vote on stripping him the chance to run for federal office that would have required only a simple majority; and if necessary Vice President Harris could have voted to break any tie. But this is not happening and from his home in Florida, the former President has given every indication that in course of time he will be back in political business. Thanking senators for the acquittal and condemning the process as ‘yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country,’ Trump pledged to continue the ‘incredible journey together’ to achieve greatness for all. “We have so much work ahead of us, and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant and limitless American future,” he said in a statement.
When the final moments of impeachment were playing out President Joseph Biden who stayed completely out of this high drama was at Camp David in Maryland. At no point were there indications that he played any role, but given his 44 years in the Senate Biden knew probably from the very beginning that a conviction is quite a long shot by any stretch of the imagination. When the dust slowly settles, Democrats have to quickly pick up the pieces and move on without harping on impeachment or Trump. President Biden has simply too much on his plate at this point of time: the raging pandemic, economic consequences of the coronavirus, issues of immigration, international politics and trade and above all healing the wounds of a deeply fractured nation, to mention a few.
- A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.