If you fail to hold him accountable, it can happen again.
This is the heart of the prosecution’s argument in the ongoing impeachment trial of Donald Trump. It is a plea for the senators charged with rendering a verdict not to limit their concerns solely to the events of Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters sacked the U.S. Capitol, but also to act with an eye toward safeguarding the nation’s future.
To excuse Mr. Trump’s attack on American democracy would invite more such attempts, by him and by other aspiring autocrats. The stakes could not be higher. A vote for impunity is an act of complicity.
It is unfortunate that the country finds itself at this place at this moment, American pitted against American. But there is no more urgent task than recentering the nation’s political life as peaceful and committed to the rule of law.
Mr. Trump stands charged with incitement of insurrection. For three days this week, House managers laid out a devastating case for conviction. Methodically, meticulously they detailed the former president’s effort to undermine and overturn a free and fair election, culminating with his fomenting an attack on Congress that resulted in the deaths of five people, and very nearly more. Mr. Trump spun lies and conspiracy theories to defraud and destabilize his followers. He told them that their votes had been stolen. He made them believe that everyone had betrayed them, from local officials to the media to the Supreme Court. He convinced them that the only way to save their nation was to “fight like hell.” Mr. Trump whipped his loyalists into a rage, summoned them to Washington, pointed them at Congress and then retreated to the safety of the White House to enjoy the show.
The prosecution had a glut of supporting evidence. The nine House managers, led by Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, came armed with a cache of tweets and other social media posts. These included incendiary messages sent by Mr. Trump during the riot, as well as entreaties from other Republican officials for him to call for an end to the violence. Republicans recognized his power over the mob in the moment, even if some of their Senate colleagues are unwilling to acknowledge that reality today.
The managers also presented corroborating news accounts, snippets of Mr. Trump’s speeches and interviews and, of course, video of the siege, some of it posted online by the rioters themselves. Dozens of graphic video clips were woven together in a tapestry of rage and madness. Police officers are seen being shoved, beaten, cursed at and crushed. Members of the mob smash windows and chant their desire to “hang Mike Pence!”
Previously unseen footage revealed just how close some lawmakers came to disaster — including Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican and outspoken Trump critic, who would have run directly into the mob if not for an interception by Eugene Goodman, the Capitol Police officer who also drew a pack of rioters away from the Senate chamber.
Mr. Trump’s attorneys didn’t bother with a coherent defense. Their presentation was a slipshod, meandering, at times incomprehensible exercise in deflection and denial. Time and again, the defense team rejected the idea that Mr. Trump bore any responsibility for inciting his followers to violence. No reasonable person, the team argued, could have taken their client’s call to arms seriously, much less literally. All those rioters who asserted before, during and after the attack that they were following the former president’s will must have been confused. Once again, Mr. Trump has played his most devoted supporters for suckers and insulted the intelligence of the rest of the American people.
This shouldn’t be a close call. Yet nearly no one expects the Senate to convict. To do so would require a supermajority of 67 votes, meaning 17 Republicans would need to join forces with the Democrats and two independents. Only six Republicans voted this week to even recognize the constitutionality of trying a former president.
Many G.O.P. senators made clear heading into this trial that — whether out of fear, fealty or both — they still aren’t prepared to cross Mr. Trump and risk alienating his cultlike following. At moments, some were visibly shaken by the evidence being presented, but a handful were so committed to telegraphing their disdain for the process that they couldn’t be bothered to watch the House managers’ presentation. They doodled or played on their phones or simply averted their eyes as the horror unfolded.
This abdication of duty is heartbreaking for the nation. It isn’t just that these senators are putting the interests of a single man ahead of the interests of the nation; it’s also a tacit admission that the only constituents that many Republicans consider worth representing are their most partisan supporters. These lawmakers see themselves less as public servants committed to the common good than as party functionaries serving tribal interests.
It is also politically shortsighted. To reclaim the Republican Party from the MAGAverse, thoughtful, principled conservatives need to make clear that Mr. Trump is no longer in charge. Holding him accountable for his role in the Jan. 6 attack is one of Republican lawmakers’ best opportunities to signal that they, like so much of the country, are ready to break free and move on.
Moving on does not mean downplaying Mr. Trump’s incitements. The former president inspired an attack on a coequal branch of government. His behavior should not be excused simply because he is no longer the president — at least, not if the Republican Party hopes to serve as something more than a vehicle for a toxic cult of personality.
Mr. Trump has made clear that he intends to maintain his grip on the G.O.P. — and that he will work to punish any Republicans who dare to challenge him. If Republican senators do not act now to weaken his hold, they will have him hanging around their necks, clawing at their throats indefinitely. The next time he launches an attack on American democracy, they will have no one but themselves to blame.
When the House considered impeaching Mr. Trump for the second time, this board wrote that “President Trump’s efforts to remain in office in defiance of democracy cannot be allowed to go unanswered, lest they invite more lawlessness from this president or those who follow.”
Nothing presented at his trial refutes that position, and the evidence thus far presented only reinforces the urgent need for accountability.