After voting to acquit former President Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did something few were expecting.
He took to the Senate floor and explained why Trump was guilty.
"There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day," Mcconnell said. "The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth."
It was a forceful, clear, and powerful speech, one that would have fit well among the many widely praised performances by the House impeachment managers. But rather than mitigating McConnell's vote to acquit, it only aggravated the wrong he had done by covering, once again, for Trump. In attempting to strike a balance between voting in Trump's favor and verbally condemning him, McConnell only made it crystal clear that he's just as guilty as the former president.
"Former President Trump's actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty," McConnell said. That was true. But on Feb. 13, McConnell — along with many but not all of his Senate Republican colleagues, 43 of whom voted to acquit — were derelict in their own duties to hold Trump accountable.
McConnell's dereliction and betrayal of his office, however, was unique. The excuse he gave for voting to acquit Trump was based on a technicality that he personally engineered.
He claimed the former president is "constitutionally not eligible for conviction," citing the argument made by Trump's lawyers that because the Senate trial occurred after Trump left office, it was improperly held. And he blamed the House of Representatives for this fact: "Donald Trump was the President when the House voted, though not when the House chose to deliver the papers."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking after McConnell's remarks, eagerly rebutted this claim: "When this distinguished group of House managers were gathered on Jan. 15 to deliver the articles of impeachment, we're told it could not be received because Mitch McConnell had shut down the Senate. And was going to keep it shut down until the inauguration."
She added: "It is so pathetic that Senator McConnell kept the Senate shut down so that the Senate could not receive the article of impeachment and has used that as his excuse for not voting to convict Donald Trump."
McConnell even admitted as much in another part of his speech when he said: "The Senate was right not to entertain some light-speed sham process to try to outrun the loss of jurisdiction."
So he essentially acknowledged that it was his choice to force a situation in which he now claims that Trump can no longer be held accountable by Congress. His suggestion that it would've been a "light-speed sham process" to conduct a snap trial after the House passed the article of impeachment doesn't hold up. The House was able to vote quickly to approve the article on a bipartisan basis. McConnell himself said there is "no question" that Trump did what the House accused him of. In another portion of the speech, McConnell called the impeachment power an "intra-governmental safety valve" — an apt phrase. But the point is to use it, and it provides little safety if it can't be used swiftly in an emergency.
An impeachment trial is not a criminal proceeding, so it doesn't need to have the traditional level of due process usually afforded by the courts. Congress can adapt its procedures based on the seriousness of the violation in question and the persuasiveness of the available evidence. And McConnell's remarks make clear: he thinks the evidence was decisive. Trump's behavior was "unconscionable," he said, and it threatened to "either overturn the voters' decision or else torch our institutions on the way out."
So why not hold the trial immediately? McConnell just didn't want to convict, so he delayed instead. He then used the delay as an excuse to acquit.
The constitutional argument on its own is dubious, even if McConnell weren't the source of the technicality that enabled its use as a fig leaf. Most constitutional scholars reject it, including originalists and conservative thinkers McConnell supposedly adores. And though he argued vehemently in favor of his interpretation, McConnell even admitted the Constitution is "legitimately ambiguous" on the question of trying former officials. Given this admission, McConnell should have, by all rights, let the matter remain settled by the Senate's vote on the question, 56-44, finding that it did have jurisdiction to hold Trump's trial. Instead, despite having lost this vote, McConnell used this separate issue as his excuse for voting on another matter entirely: regardless of jurisdiction, was Trump guilty of the charges laid out in the article of impeachment?
McConnell's speech made quite clear he thinks Trump was guilty. But instead — against his own judgment, and arguably in violation of his own oaths — he declared Trump "not guilty" when the roll was called.
Were McConnell really so opposed to the trial that he thought he couldn't in good faith vote to convict, he could have chosen to abstain from the final vote. He could have even boycotted the proceedings, which would have made it easier for the managers to obtain a conviction — a conviction only requires two-thirds of the senators who are present. Instead of choosing these alternatives, McConnell took a dishonest vote.
These choices on McConnell's part show how hollow his devotion to the Constitution and his cries of outrage about the president's conduct really are. But it wasn't just the games he played around impeachment that should draw scrutiny. His actions prior to Jan. 6 showed he's just as derelict in his duty as the president was.
Even though McConnell on Saturday denounced the "growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole, which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth" for inspiring the violent Capitol mob, the Kentucky senator himself had already personally enabled it.
On Nov. 10, 2020, after media outlets correctly projected Joe Biden as the winner of the election, Trump had already declared victory and was launching a wave of frivolous lawsuits attempting to overturn the result. The then-sitting president's refusal to concede despite the clear evidence of his loss disturbed many of his critics, and some of us correctly saw even then that he was plotting a coup. We warned of potential violence.
But McConnell defended Trump's array of legal challenges, despite their clear lack of merit and their role in stoking conspiracy theories and distrust in the election result.
"Until the electoral college votes, anyone who's running for office can exhaust concerns about counting in any court of appropriate jurisdiction," McConnell said on Nov. 10. "That's not unusual. That should not be alarming."
He added: "At some point here we'll find out, finally, who was certified in each of these states. And the electoral college will determine the winner. And that person will be sworn in on January 20. No reason for alarm."
There was reason for alarm, and many of us were correctly alarmed. Not only did McConnell dismiss those legitimate fears, he was defending what he has since called on Saturday the "increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was being stolen in some secret coup."
McConnell did recognize Biden as the president-elect after the Electoral College voted in mid-December. But by then the damage was done. McConnell had enabled Trump to spin his election lies for more than a month, and the train was already on a course for disaster. Had McConnell, as the then-leader of the Senate, joined with Speaker Pelosi in congratulating Biden and assuring the country that his victory was settled as soon as the election result had become clear, Trump's doomed effort to stay in power might never have gotten off the ground.
Just as Trump's riling up of the mob on Jan. 6 foreseeably resulted in the violent attack on the Capitol, McConnell's decision to humor the president in November foreseeably gave rise to an insurrectionist movement.
And indeed, McConnell's dereliction of duty goes back even further. He led the Senate through Trump's first impeachment trial at the beginning of 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic took over our lives. And he was upfront from the start that there was no way he and the Republican caucus he led were going to let Trump be convicted.
During that trial, lead impeachment manager Adam Schiff made a passionate plea that Trump's attempt to induce Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden was a gross abuse of power and an attempt to cheat in the 2020 election. And Schiff warned that if Trump wasn't convicted and removed, he would continue to put democracy at risk
"You can't trust this president to do the right thing," Schiff told the Senate. "Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can't. He will not change and you know it."
But McConnell, along with nearly the rest of his caucus, refused to listen. Even as Democrats said over and over that Trump's crime needed to be punished by impeachment because it was a threat to democracy, McConnell said their objections could be solved at the ballot box.
"If Washington Democrats have a case to make against the President's re-election, they should go out and make it. Let them try to do what they failed to do three years ago and sell the American people on their vision for the country," McConnell said during the first impeachment trial.
It was a disingenuous response, and he knew better. There was a plain warning that Trump was dangerous and didn't care about democracy, but McConnell couldn't be moved. He helped keep Trump in office, only to let Trump attack democracy in a more overt, gruesome, and vicious way. The Capitol was stormed. More than a hundred officers were injured. Five people died during the attack, including one Capitol police officer. Two other cops who responded to the assault died by suicide in the following days.
McConnell correctly said that Trump is "practically and morally responsible" for the events of that day. That's true. But McConnell shares in the blame as well.
Speaking on Saturday, he said: "The Senate's decision does not condone anything that happened on or before that terrible day. It simply shows that Senators did what the former President failed to do: We put our constitutional duty first."
But this isn't correct. Like the former president, McConnell abandoned his duty to protect the Constitution and fulfill his oath of office. By letting Trump off the hook, once again, McConnell's just as negligent and derelict.
McConnell tried to deflect such accusations by saying others can hold Trump responsible: "We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one."
But he also said: "By the strict criminal standard, the president's speech probably was not incitement."
That claim is up for debate, and many legal scholars disagree. But if McConnell is right, Trump isn't subject to be held accountable for the acts he spent the speech condemning. If it is true that Trump's acts, reprehensible as they were in McConnell's view, didn't technically violate the criminal law, it would only emphasize why it's so important that the Constitution provides a specific remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors. Officials can abuse their power and authority in unique and dangerous ways, and that's why impeachment exists. Through McConnell's actions, the remedy has been vacated. And if Trump does end up criminally charged for his Jan. 6 conduct, his party and supporters would have been better prepared for that eventuality if the Senate had properly fulfilled its duty and delivered a resounding bipartisan vote for conviction.
Instead, Republicans want someone else to take responsibility for Trump.
And regardless of the criminal question, the gravity of Trump's violation demands a constitutional response. It would prevent Trump from even credibly threatening to run for office again and help the country move on. And it would close that dark and dangerous chapter, and potentially allow the Republican Party to move in a healthier direction.
But McConnell, like most of the GOP, is refusing to defend American democracy from a would-be tyrant. He let Trump run wild and tramble over American institutions, cheering him on at certain moments, averting his gaze at others, and eventually throwing up his hands in a feigned inability to use his power to respond as needed. And for that, the minority leader shares in the former president's guilt.
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