January 6 Was Just One Day in a Sustained CampaignBreaking News
tags: impeachment, insurgency, Donald Trump, Capitol Riot
A risk exists that the Senate impeachment trial will focus too narrowly on the events of January 6, which culminated in the attack on the Capitol. As horrific as that day was, the broader picture cannot be allowed to slip from view: Donald Trump’s sustained, relentless efforts to propagate the myth that the election was stolen, including his attempts to recruit state and federal officials to embrace that myth and take action based on it.
For at least four reasons, this broader focus is important. First, if the trial centers on whether Trump incited the attack on the Capitol, the process is likely to get mired in hairsplitting debates, such as parsing his language at the rally to argue over whether he was urging peaceful protest or an actual attack, or what he meant by the word “fight.”
But in contrast with possible uncertainty about the express or implied meaning of his words on January 6, there can be no question that Trump used the bully pulpit of the presidency day after day to try to delegitimize the election—even for nearly a month after the Electoral College had voted. The entire country is fully aware of his relentless assertions about voting machines being rigged, ballots mysteriously showing up, dead people voting, and the like. Nor is there any dispute about the numerous concrete steps he took to persuade state and federal officials to act on his assertions, or even about exactly what he said to at least some of them. At a minimum, the public already has access to the recorded phone call between Trump and Georgia’s secretary of state, and to Trump’s many efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to refuse the votes from some states. Similar efforts to pressure other state officials have been reported, but less publicly documented, and the trial could help further bring them to light.
Second, one major purpose of a trial at this point, now that Donald Trump is no longer in office, is public accountability. The key question is, accountability for what? It should not be solely for his actions, or inactions, on January 6. The high-profile Senate trial offers the opportunity to demonstrate, yet again, that Donald Trump unceasingly tried to sell a false story about the election’s legitimacy. And even though some voters have left the Republican Party over this behavior, and others who initially believed that the election was stolen no longer do, the fact remains that many Trump supporters continue to believe him. The trial provides a major, crucial opportunity to further bury that “lost cause” mythology.
To be sure, the events of January 6 vividly demonstrate how dangerous that myth is. But of Donald Trump’s actions, the most important to condemn is not what he said on that single day. It is everything he did after the election’s outcome was clear that led up to that moment.
Third, the other purpose of the trial, in addition to accountability, is to determine whether Donald Trump should be barred from future public office. In the weeks following November 3, many questions arose about whether he was willfully lying about the election, or had become so convinced of what he was saying (egged on by figures like Rudy Giuliani) that he had deluded himself into actually believing that the election was stolen. For purposes of criminal law, this distinction can matter; some laws require that the defendant “knowingly” violated the law. But for purposes of impeachment, this distinction does not matter, because the purposes of impeachment are very different from those of criminal prosecution.
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