Not guilty, again. And not just because of GOP partisan politics
There is no surprise that most GOP senators say they are wary of convicting Trump. Their reluctance, really refusal, to convict him, is routinely chalked up to naked, raw, hard-nosed partisan politics with a heavy dose of fear. The fear is that Trump’s millions of backers and true believers will be so enraged at a conviction that they’ll punish GOP senators as “No Trump Republicans,” at the polls down the line.
The seeming defiance of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in pushing back on talk of conviction, seems to seal the belief that it’s the GOP just being the same old obstructionist party that must toe the line out of party loyalty, political largesse and implacable opposition to the Democrats. The political optics of that were glaring when GOP senators and representatives railed long and loud against the second Trump impeachment.
McConnell, at the first go-round of Trump impeachment, branded it “weaponizing impeachment.” This was a disingenuous and almost nonsensical argument then. It’s even more silly and nonsensical now, given all we know about Trump’s blatant illegal, dangerous, destructive borderline sedition when he exhorted the mob to rip up the Capitol to keep him in the Oval Office.
The single article of impeachment against Trump, incitement to insurrection, fits squarely within the guideline of what is an impeachable offense. No other president in U.S. history, including Nixon, has been as blatantly crime-prone as Trump.
However, the process itself and its potential abuse makes it almost impossible to convict a president, let alone a non-president. The GOP had absolute control of the Senate when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. It did not convict. Ten GOP senators flatly said they wouldn’t vote for conviction. True, Clinton was a popular president, and some of the senators came from states that Clinton won. They took the inevitable glance over their shoulders at possible voter backlash for a conviction vote. However, the senators also made clear that the offenses simply didn’t warrant ousting a sitting president from office.
The Founding Fathers were deeply wary of ever having to take that drastic step with the nation’s top executive. When wrangling over putting a mechanism in the Constitution for getting rid of a sitting president who abused the office, they warned of the extreme danger of using impeachment and conviction as a malicious weapon to threaten, intimidate or ultimately remove a president of the opposing party they didn’t like or had a vendetta against. If it happened, it would taint the established process of getting rid of a bad-behaving chief executive, namely at the ballot box. Removal by anything other than an election is extreme and widely viewed as extra-legal.
GOP senators scream at practically every turn that impeachment is a political hit job by the Democrats on someone who is not even the President anymore. Here’s where the fear of abuse of the process comes in. A conviction of non-President Trump could open the gates for going after any future sitting president that the opposing party deems bad. Since there is no allegation that Trump could be hauled into a court and charged with an actual crime, the reason for dumping him seem hazy, and thus seemingly a political hatchet job by the Democrats. A future Democratic president could just easily find his or herself saber-rattled with impeachment with the catch-all charges of abuse of power and Congress. Conviction sets that dubious precedent.
In the Trump trial, there’s no guarantee that all 50 Democratic senators will vote to convict him. A handful of Democrats could well vote not to convict on the article of impeachment against him. The reasons are the same. Conviction brings the risk of jading the political process, stirring voter rage and cynicism, deepening political polarization, and the ease of waging political vendettas using threats of impeachment.
McConnell gives off mixed signals about the need for and outcome of a Trump Senate trial. But his heart won’t be in it, and not simply because the target is a former GOP president. Conviction is just too explosive a minefield. Trump will be found not guilty. In part because of hard partisan politics. But in greater part for the same reason Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Trump, after his first impeachment, weren’t convicted. Too many senators just see too much bad precedent in ousting a president.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.