Mitch the Duplicitous

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking on the Senate floor after the trial of former president Donald Trump

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tried to appease everyone — including all factions in the Republican Party — with his vote to acquit former president Donald Trump and subsequent delivery of a scathing indictment of Trump’s actions before and during the insurrection of January 6, 2021. My guess is he only managed to earn the well-deserved scorn of all.  

McConnell improperly hung his vote to acquit Trump of the House-passed impeachment article on the technicality that the Senate lacked jurisdiction under the Constitution to try an official no longer in office. McConnell’s vote was improper because the Senate already had voted that the trial was constitutional. As lead House manager Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, told the senators in his summation: “The jurisdictional constitutional issue is gone. Whether you were persuaded by the president’s constitutional analysis yesterday or not, the Senate voted to reject it. And so, the Senate is now properly exercising its jurisdiction. And sitting as a court of impeachment, conducting a trial on the facts. We are having a trial on the facts.” 

On the facts, McConnell agreed the former president was guilty. In a speech on the Senate floor shortly after the trial concluded, McConnell said Trump “is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” of January 6.  Using words that could have been uttered by the House managers, McConnell said, “Former president Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty…. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” He further said the insurrectionists were fed a “growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole” by Trump claiming the election had been stolen. “The leader of the free world,” McConnell charged, “cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.”

But, if removal and disqualification from office was not a remedy available to the Senate under the Constitution, McConnell claimed, that did not mean Trump could escape all punishment. “President Trump,” the Kentucky Republican said, “is still liable for everything he did while he was in office” and could be prosecuted under the criminal justice system and pursued through civil litigation.  

McConnell is correct, and perhaps the Justice Department under the still-unconfirmed Merrick Garland may investigate Trump with an eye toward possible prosecution. But, regardless of Trump’s guilt, prosecution in federal courts of a former president is dangerous, and Garland should proceed carefully. Those who worry a Senate trial of a former president — where the only penalty available would be disqualification and the convicted official would not serve a day in jail — may set a dangerous precedent should be doubly worried about criminal proceedings against that official. Jailing predecessors and political opponents is the modus operandi of authoritarian regimes, which is why the Trump crowd shouts of “lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton were so scary. (Pursuing legal action against Trump in state and local courts is another matter.)

The minority leader’s vote to acquit on jurisdictional grounds has elements of the theater of the absurd about it. Trump was impeached by the House on January 13 for his role in the January 6 insurrection. The former president’s trial could have begun on January 14, only the then-majority leader, yes, the one and only Senator Mitch McConnell, refused to summon the Senate back into session. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out, the timing issue “was not the reason that [McConnell] voted the way he did; it was the excuse that he used.” The hypocrisy of McConnell claiming the Senate lacked jurisdiction on January 21 to try a former official when that very senator could have begun the trial of January 14 is breathtaking — even for a politician.

McConnell’s blistering attack on Trump reeks of even more hypocrisy. McConnell sat quietly for four years through all of Trump’s aberrant behavior because the senator made a Faustian bargain that tolerating Trump was worth tax cuts and stacking the federal judiciary with conservatives. McConnell never condemned Trump, and his silence — and that of the bulk of the Republican Party — only encouraged Trump further. McConnell’s coddling of Trump for the senator’s narrow political goals set the pattern for the rest of the Republican Party from which it is now difficult for the GOP to break free. McConnell also refused to recognize Joe Biden’s electoral victory until mid-December of last year, six weeks after the votes were cast. On the Senate floor, McConnell gave Trump space to pursue his absurd claims of electoral fraud, saying Trump was “100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities” in the election. True, but the minority leader could have given the nation his opinion on whether there were any electoral “irregularities.”

James Baldwin

The brilliant Black writer James Baldwin once wrote, “A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.” The jury is out on the wickedness of McConnell and the rest of the Republicans who voted to acquit, but their spinelessness has been on display for years. They subserviently follow a man who has no knowledge of or devotion to the Constitution. They believe he is their ticket to future electoral success, though the possibility of Trump and his sycophants winning new voters in battleground states after the January 6 insurrection is unlikely.

Nihilism triumphed in the decision to acquit Trump. The Republican Party may not have convicted Trump, but it convicted itself of blatant disregard for public safety. And, Mitch McConnell and his colleagues only increased the likelihood of future threats against our Constitution and electoral processes. True, 57 senators voted to convict, and that number included seven Republicans. So, in one sense, the trial was a success because a bipartisan majority agreed on Trump’s guilt. But, Trump and his supporters will take the outcome as a victory, as an exoneration of his actions. As Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and one of the House managers, said, “I’m not afraid of Donald Trump running again in four years; I’m afraid he’s going to run again and lose because he can do this again.” 

Or, to put it another way, an unpunished failed coup becomes a training exercise.

Posted February 16, 2021

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