The sophisticated take is that no one really cares about the impeachment of Donald Trump. At least, not compared with pressing pocketbook issues. Eggheads and sophists will preoccupy themselves with academic obsessions like the weight of history, precedent, and republican prudence—all the stuff House impeachment managers insisted we must concern ourselves with, by the way.
But with the abrupt conclusion of impeachment proceedings in an anticipated acquittal, political observers agree that hastening the unavoidable culmination of Trump’s impeachment proceedings was necessary. Joe Biden needs a Cabinet. Democrats need to prove their economic bona fides to skeptical voters. Americans need COVID relief. It’s time to move on.
But Democrats also ensured that the way the “trial” of Donald Trump concluded in the Senate precludes catharsis or closure.
In the late hours on Friday night, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler threw a wrench in the works. Just hours before proceedings were expected to conclude, she released a statement reiterating claims she made in an interview with a local media outlet in her native Washington state alleging that Donald Trump was supportive of the rioters’ well into the siege of the Capitol Building on January 6. “McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters,” Herrera Beutler alleged. “That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said, ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’”
The scandal these remarks ignited had a momentum all its own. Suddenly, proceedings that were supposed to terminate without witness testimony could not be definitively closed in the absence of a fuller exploration of the congresswoman’s allegations. The Democratic House managers insisted upon deposing Herrera Beutler and the Senate called a vote on witnesses, which passed with bipartisan support.
At that moment, the dynamic of these proceedings changed. The U.S. Senate had concluded that there was more to this story. We did not have all the facts, and only a proper investigation would produce them. But this unexpected turn of events produced a lot of squirming among elected officials, and it was not limited to Republicans.
The Democratic objection to witnesses had always been that the process could take some time in the absence of Republican cooperation. A thorough exploration of the events of January 6 might even forestall the passage of some of Biden’s early priorities, such as a nearly $2 trillion COVID relief bill.
“The jury is ready to vote,” said Sen. Chris Coons, according to one House Democratic aide. “People want to get home for Valentine‘s Day.” He later said that an optimal outcome wouldn’t be to depose Rep. Herrera Beutler under oath but maybe only to enter her statement into the record. Just so that everyone can say they’ve touched all the bases. “I think most senators would support that,” Coons told reporters. And that’s exactly what happened.
Witnesses were not called, despite a vote affirming the necessity of sworn testimony. And while an unexpectedly large number of Senate Republicans declared the president guilty, most Republicans voted as expected and Trump was acquitted. With that unfortunate business behind them, the Senate declared itself in recess for a week.
But in the minutes that followed this vote, Sen. Mitch McConnell elaborated on the conditions that ensure that Americans cannot close this chapter in American history as easily as the Senate has. In a passionate dressing down of the former president he had just voted to acquit, McConnell insisted that Trump was culpable, “practically and morally,” for the events of January 6. What’s more, he concluded that “impeachment was never meant to be the final forum for American justice,” and strongly implied that Trump should be pursued by “the ordinary tribunals of justice.” But the body responsible for disqualifying the president for misconduct in office had just abdicated that responsibility. The criminal-justice system should not be an alternative venue for the prosecution of alleged derelictions of duty in office either.
Regardless, McConnell’s admission is telling. Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP isn’t loosening. Republicans who want to either contest or reaffirm it will continue to prosecute their cases. And looming over all this are the yet untold events of January 6. As the Senate declared in their vote for witnesses, we do not know all that happened on that inauspicious day. We may never know what the president was doing in the two hours and fourteen minutes that elapsed between the Capitol Hill Police Department’s request for relief from the National Guard and their deployment. And the reporting we have that purports to reveal what the president was doing and when is unsettling, to say the least.
The Senate has left America with an open wound—an unsolved crime that will gnaw at the public’s subconscious for years to come. Even if it isn’t at the forefront of most voters’ minds in the ensuing months, the worst assault on the seat of government in over 200 years is now a specter that will haunt American imaginations. Those events will serve as fertile soil in which paranoid and conspiratorial versions of events will root themselves, only to bear some abhorrent fruit many years or even decades from now.
Our elected officials didn’t want to get to the bottom of these events. Our betters in the commentary class know that was because there are more important things right now. They know that voters only care about their wallets. They know that you’ll forget about this in short order, goldfish that you are. We should hope that they’re right. Because if they’re wrong, they will be wrong in spectacular, unimaginable, and likely quite terrible ways.