Democrats’ final Trump impeachment plea: Never mind the past or present — America’s future is at stake

'There are hundreds of millions of citizens who can be president. Donald Trump has disqualified himself'

Griffin Connolly
Washington
Thursday 11 February 2021 22:35
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Impeachment trial hears rioters' attacks against police

The Democratic impeachment managers have wrapped their 12-hour opening argument against Donald Trump with a plea for senators to consider what their vote on impeachment means not for the present, but for the future.

“My dear colleagues, is there any political leader in this room who believes that if he is ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” lead impeachment manager Jamie Raskin asked. “Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”

In anticipation of this week’s trial — the second against Mr Trump in just the last 13 months — several Republicans openly dismissed the need for an impeachment trial, arguing that since Mr Trump does not presently hold office, convicting him is a moot point.

“A complete waste of time,” declared Senator Rick Scott of Florida.

“Welcome to the stupidest week in the Senate,” North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer scoffed.

Over the last two days, the impeachment managers have dismantled that short-sighted argument (and several others) by pointing out the obvious: an impeachment conviction not only boots a current public servant from office, but also triggers a vote to disqualify him from ever holding it again.

For a former president whose last words before leaving Washington on 20 January included the phrase, “We’ve only just begun,” and whose aides have insisted is eager to run again in 2024, that second point feels especially salient.

The impeachment trial of Mr Trump has never primarily been about protecting the US against the present danger posed by a former president watching the trial from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida (although he does still pose a threat, the managers argued).

The damage was already done, on 6 January, when five people died and the halls of the Capitol were desecrated.

No, the managers argued on Thursday, the impeachment trial is about safeguarding the US from that man ever reclaiming the presidency to inspire more violence and attacks.

Mr Raskin, whose 58 years on this earth have been a lifelong study of America's four-page founding document, used his closing remarks on Thursday to preemptively rebut Mr Trump’s main line of defence — that putting a former president on trial for an impeachment is unconstitutional.

If a US president can incite a violent rebellion against a co-equal branch of government in the final days of his office and then simply vacate the White House to avoid any political consequences, what good does the Constitution’s impeachment power serve?

“If you don't find this a high crime and misdemeanor today you have set a new terrible standard for presidential misconduct in the United States of America,” Mr Raskin said.

“The precedent he has asked you to create, which would allow any future president to do precisely what he did, is self-evidently dangerous. … He must be convicted.”

Mr Trump’s counsel will have 16 hours over the next two days to defend the former president’s actions.

They are expected to lean heavily on two arguments:

  • First, that a former president cannot be tried on impeachment articles, a claim that has been roundly rejected by most constitutional scholars from across the political spectrum; and
  • Second, that Mr Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech when he was questioning the results of the 2020 election.

Impeachment manager Joe Neguse panned that second argument as a “distraction” based on an “alternative set of facts” that doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of Mr Trump’s speech on 6 January and the context surrounding it (chiefly, his months-long crusade to undermine his supporters’ faith in the election).

Mr Raskin invoked a letter from more than 140 legal scholars, including several conservatives with deep ties to the GOP, dismissing the Trump team’s First Amendment argument as “legally frivolous.”

Never mind that political speech inciting violence — which is what happened at the Capitol on 6 January, the managers have alleged — is not protected under the First Amendment, per a precedent set by the Supreme Court in the 1969 case Brandenburg v Ohio.

None of those free speech arguments even apply in a court of impeachment, where the very senators who sit as a jury decide for themselves the rules governing the process.

“I mentioned the Brandenburg standard not because it applies here. Of course it doesn't, since this is an impeachment. It's not a criminal trial,” Mr Raskin said. “There's no risk of jail time, let's be clear about that. The President doesn't go to jail for one week, one day, one hour or one minute based on impeachment and conviction and disqualification from further office.”

All that is to say, Mr Trump faces no imminent punishment from an impeachment conviction.

No one is coming to strip away his life, his liberty, his property.

No one is forcing him to run again for president.

“There are hundreds of millions of citizens who can be president,” Mr Raskin said.

“Donald Trump has disqualified himself, and you must disqualify him.”

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