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Trump’s Acquittal Is an Ignominious Failure

The case to convict Trump was a slam dunk. Today’s verdict of not guilty is a dereliction of historic proportions.
by Jim Swift
February 13, 2021
Trump’s Acquittal Is an Ignominious Failure
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) heads to the Senate floor (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Today’s vote to acquit Donald Trump was a disgraceful act of partisan cowardice.

Yes, a majority of senators (a total of 57, including 7 Republicans) voted to convict the former president. But the fact that it was the most bipartisan verdict in any impeachment trial of a president cannot disguise the reality that it was an enormous institutional failure. Donald Trump incited an insurrection; the case against him was not refuted; and history will look back upon his acquittal with confusion and shame.

The United States Senate let America down.

Not everyone involved failed. The House impeachment managers admittedly had an easy case to make, but they made it well: They learned a lot from last year’s impeachment trial, and their evidence and arguments were presented with clarity and force.

By contrast, former President Trump’s lawyers were so bad—alternately rambling and yelling and indulging in bizarre self-pity—that senators laughed at them (in contravention of the rules).

For about an hour today, it seemed as if the trial might involve witness testimony and perhaps go on for days or weeks. The Senate even voted to allow witnesses. But in the early afternoon, that possibility disappeared—the House managers, apparently after consulting with the Democratic leadership of the Senate, decided not to call any witnesses. In a post-trial press conference with the other House managers, the lead manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin, explained their reasoning this way: “We could have had 5,000 witnesses” and the result would have been no different.

In other words, the Republican “not guilty” votes were nearly all locked in, and those senators were set to use procedural questions—like the canard of whether it is constitutional to try an ex-president who was impeached while in office—as excuses for their votes. So why bother with witnesses?

Remember, the most precious commodity of the Senate is time. This is a body whose members are generally allowed to speak for as long as they want. And so the possibility of one side bringing in witnesses could easily have required witnesses for both sides, and the trial could have dragged on for months.

Lindsey Graham explicitly said as much: He went on Fox News and suggested that if there were witnesses, the Trump team and its Republican allies would find a way to exploit it.

He wasn’t the only Trump supporter who wanted to scare senators away from calling witnesses. Serial philanderer and Trump adviser Jason Miller paraded around a list that suggested the Republicans would call 300+ witnesses.

In reality, would most of those witnesses get called? Probably not.

But again, time is the Senate’s most precious commodity. The Democratic leadership and the House managers caved.

It was not a good look.

There was speculation that President Biden wanted to kill impeachment 2.0 to save time in the Senate. Rep. Raskin denied this in his post-trial press conference, as did Team Biden:

But still, that is the impression left behind: In responding to one of the most ignominious moments in American political history, the Senate chose the path of expediency.

Bade is right. Democrats chose not to spend political capital on an obvious loser so they could spend it on other things.

In time, we’ll see if that was a wise decision.

Still, the ultimate failure here rests in the hands of the 43 Senate Republicans who voted “not guilty.”

Mitch McConnell, in his remarks on the Senate floor after the trial, said that Donald Trump had engaged in a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

So, in their own way, have these 43 senators.

They failed the institution in which they serve.

They failed the Constitution they swore to support and defend.

And they failed the American people.

Those 43 senators will never erase the stain of today’s shameful vote.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 47 Republican Senators voted to acquit. 

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.