Donald Trump is facing ejection from the White House, a second impeachment trial and a mutiny in his party
James Astill | 15 Jan, 2021
Donald Trump (Photo: Reuters)
WHEN DONALD TRUMP began falsely claiming that last November’s general election was fraudulent, his Republican enablers chuckled and urged everyone who found this troubling to calm down. “What is the downside for humouring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” one told the Washington Post. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on January 20th. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”
It was the same one-eyed, complacent attitude that had seen the president’s party—the party of Lincoln and Reagan—excuse or defend Trump’s incompetence, loutishness and abuses of power over the past four years. And it would have the same result: whenever he suffers no consequences for his rule-breaking, he behaves worse. Yet not even the most jaundiced critics of Trump—who on January 13th suffered the historic disgrace of becoming the first president to be impeached for a second time—could have predicted quite how much worse.
Trump’s legal campaign to overturn the election was every bit as hapless as predicted. His legal team was a joke. It was led by Rudy Giuliani, the once-admired and now unhinged former mayor of New York. He was supported by a conservative lawyer and conspiracy theorist called Sidney Powell, who argued that Trump had been robbed of electoral victory by a secret cabal comprising communists, George Soros, the CIA, Hugo Chávez and the hundreds of Republican and Democratic officials who administered the general election, including the pro-Trump Republican governor of Georgia, a state Trump lost by 12,000 votes. You think that sounds ridiculous? Then also consider that Giuliani launched this audacious effort at a press conference in Philadelphia held outside a small gardening company, known as Four Seasons Total Landscaping, which was located between a sex shop and a crematorium. It was suggested that the unfailingly incompetent Trump team had meant to book the nearby Four Seasons Hotel, but got their wires crossed—as indeed Giuliani continued to do during the press conference.
He alleged that the election had been so fraudulent in Philadelphia, whose state of Pennsylvania Biden had won by over 80,000 votes, that that result would need to be voided. He presented no proof of this claim, besides a list of names of dead people, including the former heavyweight boxer Joe Frazier, whom Giuliani said had voted in the election. It was very quickly established that they had not.
From this inglorious beginning, things went seriously downhill for Trump’s legal effort. Giuliani’s 60-odd legal challenges, filed in the six battleground states that had voted decisively for Biden, were laughed out of court; including the Supreme Court. The various audits and recounts the Trump team requested also failed to deliver the goods. A partial recount of the vote in Wisconsin, which the president lost by 21,000 votes, merely added 87 to Biden’s tally. Increasingly desperate, as the prospect of a rare comeuppance loomed, Trump made personal calls to Republican officials in all the relevant states. By turns beseeching, flattering and darkly threatening, he demanded that they overturn the election for him. But there was nothing doing. After he implored Georgia’s Republican secretary-of-state, Brad Raffensperger, for the umpteenth time to “find 11,780 votes” for him, Raffensperger had his office leak the call to the press. And yet, even as Trump’s substantive efforts to overturn the election were coming to nothing, the political effects of his contortions were a triumph. Three-quarters of Republican voters claimed to believe Biden’s victory was illegitimate.
Whenever he suffers no consequences for his rule-breaking, Trump behaves worse. Yet, not even the most jaundiced critics of Trump—who on January 13th suffered the historic disgrace of becoming the first president to be impeached for a second time—could have predicted quite how much worse
This persuaded many Republican politicians who had no direct responsibility for the election to try to win the president’s favour by attacking it on his behalf. The fathomlessly cynical Republican attorney-general of Texas (who, incidentally, has been indicted on unrelated fraud charges) filed a lawsuit to overturn the results in four battleground states. Around two-thirds of Republican members of the House of Representatives added their names to the suit—before it, too, was summarily dismissed. Many Republicans had been secretly hoping that Trump’s electoral defeat would loosen his grip on the party. Yet, in defying the reality of his loss he seemed only to be tightening his grasp.
That led to the awful scenes in Washington DC on June 6th, when Congress gathered to rubber-stamp the election results. This congressional process was in the past such a formality that it barely garnered newspaper headlines. Yet Trump, half-crazed by the humiliation of his loss, saw it as a last possible roll of the dice.
In a series of frenzied tweets through late December, he invited his hardcore followers to congregate in Washington and challenge Congress to overturn the result. “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!” Members of a white nationalist group called the Proud Boys answered the call. So did many members of a Trump-ultra cult, QAnon, who claim to believe the president is at war with a shadowy cabal of socialist devil worshippers and paedophiles. A few days before the planned vote, an ambitious young Republican Senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, announced that he would lead an effort to overturn the results as the president wished. And suddenly things began to look more serious.
Hawley’s challenge had no chance of success—as he, an alumnus of Stanford and Yale Law who has branded himself a scourge of the elite under Trump, knew full well. The election results would be approved by bipartisan majority in both congressional Houses. Yet the spectacle of even a performative election heist by the president’s party, in the sanctum of American democracy, seemed alarming enough. It also provided additional encouragement to the hordes Trump had summoned to Washington, who had been deluded into thinking the election really was up for grabs. Ahead of the showdown, a Harvard scholar of democracy, Daniel Ziblatt, told me he feared we were about to witness a “dress rehearsal” for a more serious Republican attempt to overthrow a future election. I wondered if that was too pessimistic. Yet it would very soon seem almost complacent.
At noon on January 6th, as members of Congress were gathering on Capitol Hill ahead of the vote, Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters two miles away, outside the White House. “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” he told them. “You have to show strength…You’ll never take our country back with weakness.” Even as he was speaking, the crowd began flowing down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Hill, joining the hundreds of red-capped #MAGA diehards who had already gathered there. Swiftly, the mob then breeched the Capitol Building’s perimeter barricades, after attacking their hopelessly outnumbered police guardians with chemical agents and flagstaves. In what appeared to be a coordinated assault, the mob attacked the main building from two sides. By around 2PM, Trump’s supporters were in. They killed a policeman, by braining him with a fire extinguisher and then kicking him in the head, around that time. It was the first time the Capitol Building had been breached since 1814, when it was burned by British troops.
Over the next four hours, the mob rampaged through the building, looting and wrecking offices, defecating in its polished corridors and hunting for politicians. Mike Pence, the vice president, who was charged with overseeing the vote in his role as president of the Senate, appears to have been the insurrectionists’ main target: Trump having falsely claimed his deputy had the power to overturn the result. They also went looking for Nancy Pelosi, the 80-year-old Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, who is a particular hate figure on the right. Some of the Trump terrorists wore combat fatigues, were armed with zip-ties, batons and guns, and moved with military precision.
Others constructed a gallows, maybe for the symbolism of it, maybe for possible use, outside the building. Mercifully, they failed to take any prisoners. But it was a close-run thing.
At noon on January 6th, Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters outside the White House: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” he told them. “You have to show strength… You’ll never take our country back with weakness”
The chamber of the Senate was evacuated—and the Senators taken to a safe-room under armed guard—just a minute before the first intruders burst in. The police were hopelessly overrun; a few showed sympathy with the insurrectionists, cheering and taking selfies with them. Trump, watching the action from the safety of the White House, was reportedly spellbound. To the extent that, when he was frantically first requested to send the National Guard in to reinforce the police, he allegedly failed to act. In a video message to the insurrectionists on his Twitter account, as the rampage began to quieten, he called them “very special” people, told them he loved them, reiterated his false and incendiary claim that the election had been stolen; then urged them to kindly withdraw.
By the time they did so, another four people were dead. An air force veteran, who had lost her head to the QAnon cult, was shot by police as she launched herself through a shattered window. It is still unclear how the three others died. Two more participants, a policeman and a bank manager from Georgia, who was arrested for his role in the crime, have since committed suicide.
The blow this debacle represents to America’s global standing will take some time to become clear. Pity the next American ambassador, in Kinshasa or Dhaka, whose job it is to lecture the locals on the importance of free and fair elections. And naturally, America’s adversaries, in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, have revelled at the news: their state broadcasters have been running updates on the battle of Capitol Hill for over a week. Yet more serious damage may have been done to America’s broader reputation for steadiness and reliability.
The country’s dysfunctional politics has long been a drag on its ability to govern itself. Yet its allies and foreign investors have for the most part felt able to shrug this off. That will now be harder. A country that cannot manage a peaceful democratic transition is not well-placed to provide allies with policies and investors with contracts that they can expect to last from one administration to the next.
The damage might blow over, of course. It is still America, a country with more reputational credit than almost any other. But that will mostly depend on its ability to reform and improve its politics. What are the chances of that?
THEY ARE AT least much better than they might have been. Under an unprecedented authoritarian challenge, America’s institutions held. The courts now look less straightforwardly partisan than many feared; many state-level Republican officials played their part. So Trump will be out of office on January 20th. Moreover, the second impeachment trial he is now facing—after the House voted on January 13th to try him in the Senate with ‘incitement of insurrection’ against the US government—could lead to an even stiffer reckoning.
In a coordinated assault, the mob attacked the main building from two sides. By 2PM, Trump’s supporters were in. They killed a policeman, by braining him with a fire extinguisher. It was the first time the Capitol Building had been breached since 1814, when it was burned by British troops
When Trump was impeached by the Democrats the first time round—for having coerced his Ukrainian counterpart to launch a bogus graft investigation into Biden—the process withered, like most political initiatives, in the fires of partisan animus. No Republican House member joined the Democrats in voting for the impeachment (though in private many conceded that it was warranted). And after Trump was duly tried in the Senate, only a single Republican there, Mitt Romney of Utah, joined the Democrats in finding the president guilty as charged. This time already looks different.
Even some of Trump’s most loyal Republican defenders were badly shaken by the riot. “Enough is enough…count me out,” declared Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a favourite presidential golf partner and poodle. A near brush with a lynch mob concentrates the mind, it seems. And the anger towards Trump among more principled conservatives—who have long despised him though they have defended him—is much fiercer. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House (and eldest daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney) was among 10 Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment this week. “The president of the United States summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” she declared in a statement, announcing her decision. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the constitution.”
More dramatically still, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has let it be known that he might vote to convict Trump when his impeachment trial is held. That will not be before he leaves office. And there is already a legal wrangle over whether a former president can be put on trial and, if convicted, then banned by the Senate from holding public office. America is in uncharted constitutional waters. Yet, most constitutional lawyers do not seem troubled by the lack of precedent. And if McConnell does indeed move against the president, it is highly possible that another dozen or so Republican Senators would join him and the Democrats in doing so. That could be sufficient to make up the two-thirds majority required for a first-ever presidential conviction.
Trump’s party would be shot of him. The prospects for a return to functional governing—with Biden’s administration finding modest bipartisan support for tackling the many problems his predecessor has largely ignored (including the pandemic)—would rise. It is an optimistic case. And to do it full justice, it did not exist before the insurrection. Most Republican lawmakers formerly assumed Trump would retain his grip on their party even after he left office, and that he would be their candidate again in 2024. That is less likely now—even if it is still far from improbable.
What are the chances of America reforming? They are much better than they might have been. Its institutions held. Trump will be out of office on January 20th. Moreover, the second impeachment trial could lead to an even stiffer reckoning
Trump has not yet been repudiated by his party’s establishment. Indeed, 197 Republican House members have just voted against impeaching him for launching an insurrection against their own branch of government. The explanation is that a large majority of their voters are still for Trump—and so long as that remains the case, relatively few Republican politicians will turn on him. Stunningly, in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, 45 per cent of Republican voters said they stood with the rioters. It is not hard to see why Ziblatt, the Harvard democracy expert, is so pessimistic about America’s democracy.
It only works if both the two main parties are committed to it. That requires both to accept democracy’s basic conditions: including the sanctity of elections, the legitimacy of the opposition and the degree of bipartisan mutual respect and restraint that underpins them. Under Trump, the Republicans have ventured a long way towards abandoning such things. And, to reiterate the fundamental truth of the 45th president, so long as he evades repudiation and censure for his corruption and rule-breaking, he will push his party ever further down that authoritarian path.
Over to the Senate then, to which the belated second stab at repudiating Trump will fall. His trial promises to be another close-run thing in the Capitol Building. And the future of American democracy will be even more at stake than it was last week, when the president’s shock troops rampaged, wrecking and killing, through the building’s polished halls.