Lessons from a trial like no other

See Disclaimer.

The former US president was found guilty of High Crimes and Misdemeanors by 57 out of 100 Senators, 10 short of the number needed for conviction in his impeachment trial. All Democrats and 7 Republicans voted to convict, while 43 Republicans voted to acquit.

Like most Americans, I was not an unbiased observer: Although an independent, I have been appalled by Mr. Trump’s behavior, before, during and after January 6. But I tried to remain objective, concentrating on watching and learning from as much of the trial as time and circumstances allowed.

Day 1 was focused on a constitutional argument, with the Senate ultimately accepting jurisdiction on the trial by a 55-45 margin. On days 2 and 3, the House Managers presented their (comprehensive and compelling) case for conviction. On Day 4, the Defense Counsel’s presented (underwhelming) exculpatory arguments, and Senators were able to ask both parties questions on their cases. On the fifth and final day, a negotiated decision was reached to not call witnesses, closing arguments were made by both parties (again far more ably by the prosecutors), and the actual trial vote took place.

That this was the most bipartisan decision in our country’s (fortunately short) history of impeachment trials is worth noting. Equally noteworthy is the evidence-based clarity of the case for charges of incitement to insurrection, which are at the core of the single Article of Impeachment passed by the House on January 13.  

But the key take-home message is that a clearly guilty former president—prosecuted ably by a talented team, and defended forcefully but ineptly by an under-qualified Counsel–was easily acquitted, as foreseen even before the trial began. That speaks volumes. But what does it actually say?

It certainly speaks to the moral bankruptcy of today’s Republican Party. It might speak to a missed opportunity by the Democratic Party. But it speaks first and foremost to the need to overcome the unhealthy radicalism and partisanship in our society and politics.

The immorality of the Republican Party is partially illustrated by the 43 Senators who voted to acquit. Certainly by those who disrespected the proceedings by neglecting to listen to the prosecutors’ case. And, perhaps even more, by those who hid their acquittal behind a false technicality. A clear example of the latter is the post-voting speech of Mitch McConnel, sternly condemning the former president, but denying the very jurisdiction that the Senate had voted for on Day 1.

The missed opportunity for the Democratic Party was, in my view, not adding a Republican to the House Managers team. Ten House Republicans voted to impeach, in a show of courage and principles. Including one of them—such as Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger or Jaime Herrera Beutler—would have made a strong bipartisan statement, and might have convinced ten more Republican Senators to convict. Perhaps invitations were extended and declined, but that has not been reported. Either way, this was the one glaring shortcoming in an otherwise stellar prosecution strategy.

The fact that ten Republicans voted to impeach and seven to convict, though, offers a rare ray of hope in our otherwise extreme partisan divide. The same can be said about the respect that the House Managers consistently showed to representatives and senators of both parties, without compromising the forcefulness of their case. The key question is whether these are bipartisan kernels that, coupled with President Biden’s calls for unity, might flourish into a different type of political climate.

The next few months will tell whether this is an utterly naïve hope. Expedite confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet members, and bipartisan passage of key elements of his agenda, would be welcome and highly positive signs of progress.

But Democrats are appropriately leery of spending too much time and energy in seeking elusive compromises—especially at a time when the country needs solutions on COVID-19, economy, climate change and so much more. And Republicans are struggling with what their party stands for. All of which offers both opportunities and challenges. Will lessons from the impeachment trial—and from all the radicalism and divisiveness that ultimately led to its necessity—help focus our lawmakers on the common good? Or will the trial drive them even further apart?

As citizens, we all have a role to play. By cooling tensions among ourselves, without abandoning our principles. By reducing the prevalence of uncivil dialogue, and requiring our lawmakers to operate in a more consensus-building mode. By being better informed, and more open to diverse perspectives. And by encouraging the press to shy away from content with shock value, rather focusing on objective reporting and informative, thoughtful debate.

Will we be up to it?

— Antonio Baptista

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