For the second time in one year, Donald Trump was acquitted in an impeachment trial by the Senate. Fifty-seven senators voted to convict him for inciting the far-right mob that carried out the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, falling far short of the 67 required. Only seven Republicans broke ranks and supported a conviction.
This outcome marks one of the most remarkable turnarounds in modern U.S. politics as Trump is resuscitated from near political death. But because of the approach adopted by the Democratic Party in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, Trump’s acquittal was essentially a foregone conclusion.
The impeachment managers tasked with making the case that Trump incited the mob to insurrection had the advantage of being obviously correct. They began their argument to the Senate with a compelling, well-produced video montage showing the dramatic scenes that unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the public statements by Trump that instigated them.
This could have been framed as an illustration of why it is necessary to take decisive action against the menace of fascist, white supremacist violence — on Jan. 6 they came for Congress, but next they’ll come for you. But this would be too “divisive” for the Democratic Party elite. Instead the messaging by prominent Democrats made it all about themselves and the fear they felt that day. While certainly this must have been a harrowing experience, attempting to build support for impeachment on the basis of personal sympathy for members of one of the most hated institutions in U.S. politics is not a winning strategy. Congress’ approval rating currently stands at 22 percent, and this figure has not cracked the 30 percent mark in over a decade. Some of the less hardened members of Trump’s base may peel away as a consequence of being repulsed by the extreme, wanton violence committed by the fascists that day — but it appears to not have been enough to tip the balance.
The performance of Trump’s lawyer Bruce Castor was widely criticized and reportedly angered Trump himself. Castor opened Trump’s defense with a long, rambling statement with little substantive argument. Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer for Trump during the first impeachment, lamented after watching the statement, “I have no idea what he’s doing. I have no idea why he’s saying what he’s saying.” While David Schoen, another Trump attorney, followed Castor with a more well-received presentation, the damage had been done. Later in the trial, Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen was openly laughed at by Senators after he demanded that potential witnesses travel to his law office in Philadelphia to conduct depositions.
Both sides were in agreement that no witnesses should be called as part of the trial. But then at the last minute the Democratic members of the House of Representatives leading the prosecution changed their minds — for a few hours. Renewed media attention on statements by Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler that she heard Trump coercing Rep. Kevin McCarthy over the phone as the mob was besieging the building gave the impeachment managers more confidence. But the surprise announcement sparked a furious reaction from leading Senate Democrats, who like the Biden administration just wanted to get the trial (and inevitable acquittal) over with so they could focus on other matters. The impeachment managers quickly backed down. The last minute reversals on the issue of witnesses reinforced the perception that this was a political circus and not a solemn matter relating to criminal wrongdoing.
Trump was acquitted, but a thorough and independent investigation is still needed to reveal the full extent of the conspiracy that facilitated the events of Jan. 6. The “9/11 style” commission announced by Nancy Pelosi could turn into just another futile exercise. Progressive civil rights organizations like the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and Center for Protest Law and Litigation have already started filing Freedom of Information Act requests to bring critical information to light.
Why were National Guard units repeatedly blocked from securing the Capitol? Why did elements of the Capitol Police passively allow the mob to advance on the building? Why were preparations so lax even though police agencies were well aware of threats to attack the Capitol, which were made publicly by Trump supporters? Were members of Congress giving leaders of the mob “reconnaissance tours” of the building? All these questions and more must be answered and all those responsible, no matter how high ranking, must be held to account.
Trump vows comeback but faces strong headwinds
Immediately after the Senate voted to acquit him, Trump released a statement boasting: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey.”
His opponents missed a critical window of opportunity to deal a decisive blow to him and his movement. No matter how weak his legal argument was on the facts of the case, the politics surrounding impeachment were so favorable to Trump that it did not matter in terms of the final outcome. Liberation News argued at the start of the process that:
“Because the most severe punishment under consideration if Trump is found guilty is being barred from seeking the presidency again in the 2024 election, it will be easy for him to spin the trial as an anti-democratic effort by his political opponents to deprive the American people of their right to elect whoever they choose as president. … If they continue on this path, it makes Trump the center of attention and also allows him to reinvigorate his currently demoralized base of hardcore supporters by casting himself as the target of persecution by the political establishment — the same thing he did during the farcical 2020 impeachment.”
The anti-Trump consensus that emerged not only among political elites but also within the military and corporate America was re-polarized along predictable ruling class factional lines. The Republican Party and its base mostly lined up behind Trump, and Democrats behind impeachment. A Morning Consult poll released the day the trial began found that 88 percent of Democrats approved of impeachment, 75% of Republicans disapproved, and independents were split 46% to 45%. Impeachment left it up to Republican Senators to determine whether Trump would be held accountable, and despite whatever personal disdain they have for him over the Jan. 6 attack they knew full well that such a move could be political suicide. Liberation News pointed out on Jan. 29:
“Besides the Democrats’ bumbling incompetence, the other main advantage Trump had was the threat that he could form a far right third party, which news reports claim he wanted to call the ‘Patriot Party.’ Because the United States has a winner-take-all electoral system, the Republican Party would be facing a wipeout of historic proportions if a newly-formed Patriot Party was able to siphon off even a minority of Republican voters … [a] poll found that 35 percent of Trump voters would defect to the ‘Patriot Party’ if it were formed, and only 31 percent were sure that they would stick with the Republican Party.”
Not only did impeachment fail to secure a conviction that would prohibit Trump from holding office in the future, it created a political dynamic that paved the way for Trump’s reentry into mainstream politics.
Some Republican Party elites are highly optimistic about Trump’s future. For instance, former 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted Feb. 6, “If Trump asked me how to win again. I would run on being impeached twice. They are about to give him super powers. They just aren’t smart enough to see it. … They are about to make him a martyr.”
But there are still formidable obstacles Trump needs to contend with. The Wall Street Journal, leading voice of corporate America, wrote in an editorial on Sunday, “Mr. Trump’s behavior was inexcusable and will mar his legacy for all time.” The editorial board argued, “Mr. Trump may run again, but he won’t win another national election. … The country is moving past the Trump Presidency, and the GOP will remain in the wilderness until it does too.” Their tone was similar to that taken by the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the most important corporate lobbies in the country, which wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack: “This is not law and order. This is chaos. It is mob rule. It is dangerous. This is sedition and should be treated as such. The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power.”
Both the Wall Street Journal and the National Association Manufacturers — along with many other conservative institutions that are now denouncing him — were largely supportive of Trump during his presidency. He delivered things to the capitalist class that seemed impossible: the multi-trillion dollar tax cuts for the rich and corporations, the evisceration of key environmental regulations, a $4 trillion COVID bailout package personally overseen by former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, and more. While he did embarrass U.S. imperialism on the world stage and recklessly inflame conflicts within the United States, many in the elite thought it was worth it to hold their nose in order to reap the benefits of Trump’s presidency.
But without the power of the presidency at his disposal, Trump will find it much more difficult to keep his ruling class critics in line. Some members of Congress may cower at the prospects of a Republican electoral implosion brought on by a Trump-led third party, but the bankers and CEOs would have little trouble finding “centrist” Democrats that are willing to take essentially the same positions as the anti-Trump Republicans.
Trump is facing legal action at the state and local level. This includes an investigation in Georgia over a call he made to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger where he pressured Raffensperger to swing the vote count in his favor. In New York, the Manhattan District Attorney is investigating Trump for criminal fraud, and the state Attorney General is conducting a civil investigation into financial crimes. The D.C. Attorney General is reportedly weighing criminal charges related to the Jan. 6 mob attack. However, these efforts are complicated by Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, which will make it easier for Trump to present state or local charges as effectively an instance of double jeopardy and further persecution by the powers that be.
Republican elites divided over submission to Trump
Two distinct positions on how to move forward in the aftermath of impeachment have emerged within the Republican Party. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell voted to acquit Trump on the basis of a narrow interpretation of the constitutional authority vested in Congress, but then gave a speech where he stated, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day … 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.”
As the PSL argued the day after Trump was elected in 2016:
Almost universally the ruling class did not trust Trump, a small time real estate mogul and reality show TV huckster, to be in possession of the keys to the capitalist castle. Wall Street presumed Trump would only be out for himself which is the real reason they thought he was “unfit” to perform as the CEO for the entire capitalist class. As Karl Marx incisively wrote in the Communist Manifesto: ‘The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.’
What McConnell is essentially saying is that it should be Biden’s Justice Department, not Republicans in the Senate, who take down this unfit manager of “the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
So far, Biden has shown little appetite for such a move. In a statement following Trump’s acquittal, Biden praised the Senators who voted to convict for their efforts “to defend the truth and to defeat the lies,” while making it clear that his goal was to “end this uncivil war and heal the very soul of our nation. That is the task ahead. And it’s a task we must undertake together. As the United States of America” (emphasis in original). Democratic Senator Jon Tester was more blunt: “We don’t put presidents in jail, ex-presidents. We just don’t do that. We never have in the past. I don’t know why we’d start now.”
McConnell and those in his camp want to retake control of the Republican Party that Trump seized hold of in the 2016 election. Even if Biden is hesitant, they can continue to push publicly or privately for the administration to bring down the legal hammer on Trump.
On the other hand, Kevin McCarthy, the leading Republican in the House of Representatives — whose members serve shorter terms and are therefore more vulnerable to far-right primary challenges — has forcefully embraced Trump. According to Rep. Herrera Beutler, Trump remarked to McCarthy over the phone as his life was in danger during the siege, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” But that is being put to the side in the raw pursuit of political power. Trump is by far the most popular Republican in the country, McCarthy’s faction reasons, and if Republicans want to win control of Congress in the 2022 midterms they need to unify behind his banner.
On Jan. 28, after the House’s role in impeachment was over, McCarthy traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort for a reconciliation meeting. Praising his administration for achieving “historic results for all Americans,” McCarthy happily reported afterwards, “President Trump committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022.” McCarthy then launched a new campaign vehicle for the midterm election called “Trump’s Majority.”
Those in the Republican Party and in the ruling class more broadly that hope to jettison Trump are determined to exorcise his influence from the country’s politics. And so far there are no indications that Trump intends to simply walk away from the arena. The two are on a collision course.