Before Wednesday, the Democratic impeachment managers tasked with arguing the case for Donald Trump’s conviction before the U.S. Senate had taken a conciliatory approach toward their fellow lawmakers.
The House Democrats made a point of thanking all the senators for doing their jobs and certifying the results of the 2020 election in defiance of Donald Trump’s demands, even though some of them had not. To the consternation of the left-leaning maximalists who dominate the discourse on social media, the managers took pains to avoid implicating Republicans who countenanced the unsettling events culminating in the siege of the Capitol Building.
What this approach lacked in moral clarity, it more than made up for in strategic soundness—at least, in theory. If conviction is the goal, it’s a bad idea to antagonize the jury.
But the managers’ tone changed during Wednesday’s proceedings. Though it remained more in sorrow than anger, the House Democrats arguing before the Senate expanded the indictment against Trump to include not just the events that followed November 3, 2020, but everything that occurred after March of 2016. It was then that the populist movement Donald Trump incepted finally heeded his repeated calls for violence. And by widening the terms of engagement to include not just the post-election period but the whole of Trump’s political career, Democrats are now implicitly indicting the Republicans who tolerated it all.
That is not to say that the impeachment managers had a choice in the matter. To make a comprehensive case that Donald Trump incited violence on January 6, it is necessary to establish a pattern of behavior that laid the psychological foundations behind his followers’ belief that the president approved of violence in his name.
In one video montage presented to the senators, Trump is featured on the 2016 campaign trail describing how he would ideally like to be more “violent” toward the protesters that stalked his campaign. Unshown were the episodes in which Trump hectored his rally-goers to “punch” his opponents “in the face,” or “knock the crap” out of them, or strip them of their clothing and “throw them out in the cold.” Nor did the managers have time to remind the Senate of Trump’s promise to “pay for the legal fees” of anyone who is arrested committing violence on his behalf.
When one supporter was finally persuaded to act on Trump’s demands, it was directly attributable to Trump’s incitement. Don’t take my word for it; take Marco Rubio’s. “Leaders cannot say whatever they want, because words have consequences,” the senator said in the wake of a Trump rally that ended in violence and counterviolence. “They lead to actions that others take.”
That video montage went on to implicate Donald Trump in his support for Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, not because of his record in office or his ideals as a candidate, but because he assaulted a reporter. It showed Trump laboring over the course of three days to properly condemn the racist rioters in Charlottesville, one of whom took the life of Heather Heyer. It noted that Trump had expressed support for a group of maniacs who menaced a Joe Biden campaign bus in Texas with the apparent aim of running it off the road. It reminded the audience that Trump had affirmatively thanked a Republican county commissioner in New Mexico who, in a video Trump promoted to his followers on Twitter, said that the only “good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” That commissioner, Couy Griffin, insisted he was speaking metaphorically, but he wasn’t reaching for an analogy when he participated in the invasion of the Capitol Building and promised that, next time, it would be a “Second Amendment rally on those same steps” that would end with “blood running out of that building.”
None of this is likely to ingratiate the prosecution to the Republican jurors. Many of them were, to one degree or another, the abettors of this conduct. These Republican lawmakers told reporters that they had not seen the tweets they were now confronted with, if only to avoid commenting on them. This was the very moment that they had spent four years hoping to escape.
Maybe the Democratic managers have concluded that it is fruitless to seek Republican consent for conviction since it will not be forthcoming regardless of the evidence they present. But this tone shift shines a spotlight on the insurmountable obstacle before Democrats. To condemn the former president for his conduct not just after Election Day but throughout the whole of his presidency would be to implicate many Republicans not named Trump.