Trial of the Century
Exiled at his golf club in Florida and barely seen since leaving office, Donald Trump is to once again take centre stage as a second Senate impeachment trial commences on February 8th. The trial is unprecedented – and bizarre – in a number of ways. A conviction would merely remove a man from a job he has already left. The President is accused of inciting violent insurrection, so his Senate jurors were also the intended victims of the crime. Yet forty-five Republicans who will sit in judgment appear to have already decided the outcome, voting last week to have no trial at all.
Twice impeached and voted out after a single term, banned from Twitter and other social platforms and with a legal team disintegrating before the trial even starts, Trump should be a politically spent force. Yet there have been precious few Republican defections from Trump’s disgraced brand, and the leader of the party has symbolically travelled to Florida to kiss the ring of the fallen hero.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell clearly took a gamble in moving to delay the trial by two weeks. With each passing day, more information comes to light showing that the violent events of January 6th were far from spontaneous, and suggesting a darker narrative to the insurrection.
Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial shamefully called no witnesses. This time, Democrats have the majority. Evidence may be heard, and from what is already in the public sphere, that evidence is likely to paint the insurrection on January 6th as one of the most consequential events in America’s long history.
There’s plenty of blame to go round. In the two weeks that followed the election, Fox News cast doubt on the result nearly 800 times. Fox hosts like Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson pitched January 6th as a moment of historic national crisis. In fact, the crescendo of Fox’s revolutionary zeal, centred on January 6th, is worth dwelling on. Host Lou Dobbs said…
‘The battle for the White House is now a full-fledged struggle for the survival of this constitutional republic.’
Steve Hilton said…
‘We need to fight back. We need to strike at the heart of their power. We need to show that the next revolution is just getting started.’
Trump’s minions played their part. In the days prior to January 6th, prominent Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley spewed the most inflammatory rhetoric. Representative Madison Cawthorn urged people to call their members of Congress to urge them to overturn the election, adding ‘you can lightly threaten them’. Representative Louie Gohmert said ‘you’ve got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM’.
When taken in combination, the media and political right-wing turned the rhetorical dial up to eleven as January 6th approached. It’s impossible to imagine that this took place without encouragement and coordination from the White House.
Trump himself played a central role in casting doubt on the integrity of the election, both before and after November 3rd. For months, the President insisted that the only way he could lose was if Democrats cheated, or rigged the election. After the result became clear, Trump’s legal team launched a spectacularly unsuccessful effort to get the courts to intervene. It was only when these avenues were exhausted that the focus turned to January 6th, the day when the hapless Mike Pence was to certify the electoral college results, and the last chance to overturn the election. Primed by months of disinformation, the base was primed and ready to go.
Imagine yourself as a Fox viewer. A Trump supporter. Someone who really, actually, truly believes the lie that a coup is taking place, and that Joe Biden is a illegitimately overthrowing the government. Such a person would have no alternative but to storm the Capitol. To kill in order to save America. Trump, his family members, Rudy Giuliani and others incited the crowd of thousands that day, telling them to march on the Capitol, name-checking Pence. Trump’s reflexive habit of pitching everything as unprecedented convinced his supporters that they were indeed in a fight for the soul of the nation. The mob marched to the Capitol. What happened next was inevitable.
Or at least, that’s how it seemed on January 6th. An incited mob, some literally armed with pitchforks, spontaneously taking matters into their own hands.
But that’s not what happened at all.
What has emerged in the weeks following January 6th suggests a much more troubling picture, one that includes preparation, planning, co-ordination with elected officials and a possible stand-down of law enforcement. The evidence we now have also points towards a threat to America’s government that remains active today.
First, it’s clear that the rioters were not acting in a moment of sudden madness. Court filings show rioters had gas masks, zip ties, bullet-proof vests and body armour. Tear gas. Mace. Baseball bats. Hammers. Someone had thought to bring lumber and rope – a gallows was erected. Using the walkie-talkie app Zello, insurrectionists used terms like ‘stick to the plan’, and ‘this is what we’ve lived up for, everything we’ve trained for’.
There was clearly an intent to kill. Rioters chanted ‘hang Mike Pence’ and searched the halls for prominent Congress-people. A police officer was bludgeoned to death. It cannot be a coincidence that the two politicians most vocally targeted – Pence and Nancy Pelosi, were second and third in the presidential line of succession. Had they been killed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fourth in line, would have taken charge of the electoral college count. As the mob rampaged through Congress, Trump tweeted that Pence ‘didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done’. Pence was sheltering with his family, including his daughter, just metres from a violent, active and armed mob. How could that not be incitement?
The two pipe bombs that were discovered at RNC and DNC headquarters on January 6th are now thought to have been placed there the night before. The former chief of the Capitol police has said that he thinks the bombs were intended to draw officers away from the Capitol during the riot. The person who planted the bombs remains at large.
Some of the insurrectionists had detailed schematics showing the layout of the Capitol, and advised others via megaphone and radio how to proceed through the building. Militia groups like the Proud Boys (who Trump told to ‘stand back and stand by’) breached the building tactically, from different approaches, breaking through barriers even while Trump spoke at the rally. Leaders with bullhorns urged new troops to take the fight forward as those injured or exhausted fell back. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio had told his men to wear civilian clothes in order to blend in, so the distinction between organised attackers and ordinary protesters was not easy to see, but it’s clear that militia groups were highly prepared and organised.
It’s impossible to overlook the threat from within. Senators like Ted Cruz had incited violence in the days before the riot. Josh Hawley was pictured with a clenched fist raised towards the mob, a gesture of solidarity. Within the halls of Congress there was worse. Some members are alleged to have given the attackers a reconnaissance tour of the building the day before the attack. Representative Lauren Boebert tweeted out Nancy Pelosi’s location as the mob roamed the halls of Congress.
It appears America avoided catastrophe by a combination of good luck, miraculous timing and the incompetence of the attackers. The mob came within 100-feet of Mike Pence and his family, missing the Vice-President by perhaps sixty seconds. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said she thought she was going to die.
Yet despite these troubling aspects to the story, the lack of adequate security on January 6th, and the reasons for that absence, will perhaps provide the most inflammatory evidence of all.
The rally had been planned for some time. It was clear that the event might be a flashpoint for political violence. The Capitol is the most sacrosanct political site in the United States. Yet when the crowd arrived they mostly overran police and security with ease. The Capitol Chief of Police appealed for reinforcements, saying ‘code red, forces overrun, Congress in imminent danger of great bodily harm’, yet the Pentagon took hours to respond.
We may be beginning to understand why.
President Trump made some highly unusual personnel changes in the weeks following his election loss. He decapitated the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, installing unqualified and unconfirmed cronies. He made plans to install a new Attorney General and CIA Director. These moves seem inexplicable in normal circumstances – lame duck Presidents usually concentrate on winding up their administration and assisting in the transition of power. Trump’s hiring and firing seems to have had only one tangible effect – when the call came from the Capitol on January 6th, the Pentagon was under the control of Trump’s recent appointments.
The Department of Homeland Security has been accused of modifying intelligence in 2020 in order to downplay the severity of the threat from white supremacy. Capitol Police have testified that by January 4th they were aware that the event on the 6th had ‘strong potential’ for violence, and that the Capitol was the target. Yet on the same day, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller (one of Trump’s post-election appointments) issued an inexplicable memo placing limits on National Guard forces ahead of the protest. The single page memo lists eight bullet points, all detailing what the National Guard was not authorised to do. The guards were restricted from being issued with weapons, from arresting people, from seeking support from other units.
With such a clear and imminent threat, why would a Defense Secretary take action to hobble protection of the Capitol? With what we know of Trump and his ongoing efforts to overturn the election, is it unreasonable to suggest that his recently appointed man at the Pentagon may have been involved in a stand-down?
Any impeachment trial worthy of the name will consider these earth-shattering matters.
The actual case against Trump is pretty much open and shut. Trump is charged with incitement of insurrection, something the world saw on live television. Yet the vote will take place in a highly charged atmosphere, with thousands of troops still on Washington’s streets and fear in the halls of Congress. It’s largely gone without comment, but legislators now fear for their lives – Democrats have moved offices to get away from aggressive Republicans, and those few Republicans who have broken with Trump can be assured of the death threats that follow. Congress-people have spoken of making ‘that’ call to their families on January 6th (the one where you prepare to say goodbye). This is what Trump has done to America.
Far from fighting back against the threat of violence, many Republicans have embraced it. Recall that on January 6th, after an armed and murderous insurrection invaded America’s seat of government, the majority of Republican members returned to the chamber that night and voted in line with the mob, to overturn the election. Violence at the Capitol remains an active threat, with metal detectors at doorways to the floor and loony representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert boasting of bringing guns to the Chamber.
Conviction would have one immediate consequence – if the Senate impeaches Trump, a simple majority (which Democrats hold) could also vote to disqualify him from every holding public office again. Yet with 90% of Senate Republicans voting last week to have no trial at all, it seems unlikely that Democrats will be able to find the seventeen Republican senators required to impeach. Trump will again claim complete exoneration. Uncensured, he will be emboldened once more.
America remains hostage to Trump’s big lie, and until the day comes that the former president admits that he lost the election fair and square, there will be some of his followers who believe it their patriotic duty to overthrow what they perceive as an illegitimate new administration.
Trump tried to cheat in the 2020 election by blackmailing Ukraine. He was impeached. He continued to try and cheat by various measures, including crippling the mail service. Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and when he lost the election, claimed to have in fact won by a landslide. Trump phoned election officials in Georgia and tried to have that state’s results overturned. He exhausted every possible legal avenue to overturn the results and slow the transition process. And when these measures failed, Trump’s campaign paid organisations that organised the rally and changed the rally schedule to include a march on the Capitol. He invited the crowd (saying ‘it will be wild’), incited the crowd, told them where to go and who to seek, watched as the results played out and told rioters he loved them. His followers took precisely the actions that – had they been successful – might have allowed Trump to retain power.
In short, Donald Trump, the sitting President of the United States, fomented a violent and murderous attack on his own government, with the aim of overturning the election result and ending America’s democracy in order to retain political power.
And now Republicans, who investigated four deaths at Benghazi for 853 days, say they want to move on. 140 officers were injured on 6th January. One died. Two more have subsequently taken their lives. The mob attacked the police forces that Republicans claim to revere, and would have killed many more were it not for good fortune.
It’s sometimes hard to accept that the Republican party of 2021 is essentially a fascistic, anti-democratic, authoritarian personality cult with clear and extensive links to white supremacy and extremist groups. The party of Lincoln is today home to sectarian insurgents willing to use violent insurrection to overthrow elected government. Believe the evidence. Trump’s departure has revealed what students of politics have known for some time – many of today’s Republicans are American democracy’s greatest threat, happy to see the Republic ended in their quest for power. And that sentiment is reflected in the base. Polling shows 64% of Republicans support Trump’s recent behaviour. 57% think he should be the Republican candidate in 2024. The Republican party remains Trump’s party.
In a few days Trump returns to the spotlight to fight a second Senate impeachment that, if successful, may bar him from ever holding public office again. A number of Trump’s lawyers have departed his defence team at the last moment, unable or unwilling to make the argument that Trump insists will form his defence – not that he did not incite insurrection, but that he won the 2020 election. Implicit within this argument is the notion that if Trump was robbed of the election, surely it was his duty to try to overturn the result using whatever means necessary. And if Republicans acquit Trump, they are endorsing his lie. This is madness.
Trump adores the spotlight, and has been out of it for some time. It seems likely that he will reappear in a blaze of raging glory, perhaps coming to Washington himself (as he is being encouraged to do). The trial will be America’s next political flashpoint. If Trump escapes censure, it will be seen as a green light for future insurrection. Trump’s psychology means he is unlikely to ever publicly accept that he lost the 2020 election, and a portion of his followers will take that lack of acceptance as an indication that America’s democracy has been taken over by Joe Biden, a tyrant.
Trump’s last public statement as President included the words ‘we will be back in some form’. Perhaps it’s a good thing those fences haven’t come down yet.