The Impeachment Trial That Wasn’t

During the summer of 1974, I was a young man about to enter my first year of law school. I was therefore more than fascinated by the Nixon impeachment hearings that were playing out on television every day. In fact, I was obsessed, and I can recall the very moment when sentiment in the United States suddenly shifted.

Up until July 16 of that year, most Americans believed that President Nixon’s involvement in the seamy affairs of the Watergate burglary could be inferred via speculation or hearsay at best. While there was plenty of smoke to go around, no one could point to a smoking gun.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an unassuming Deputy Assistant to the President, a man named Alexander Butterfield, testified—but only after being asked a direct question—that he had personally installed a taping system in the White House, one that had captured the President’s voice. Once the federal district court ordered that the tapes be delivered to Congress, the President’s goose was cooked.

Fast forward to the year 2021.

How much did President Donald Trump know, in advance, about the plans of the various right-wing extremist groups who were conspiring to storm the Capitol on January 6?

How about his now-infamous telephone conversation with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the zenith of the attack? According to a statement by Rep. Jamie Herrera-Beutler (R-Wa) that was read into the impeachment record today, Rep. McCarthy pleaded with President Trump to publicly call off the riot. The President apparently replied that he had no control over the rioters because they were Antifa supporters. When Rep. McCarthy challenged that claim, President Trump replied “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

Was the President happy about the fact that the rioters had successfully interrupted the counting of the Electoral College votes that day? We may never know. America won’t be hearing sworn testimony from Reps. Herrera-Beutler or Kevin McCarthy. Or from Donald Trump, for that matter. The Senate has voted to finish the impeachment trial without calling a single witness.

Some pundits conclude from all this that our democracy is going to hell in a hand basket. Spirited Reasoners have reason to be more optimistic than that.

The most important difference between the events of 1974 and 2021 is that Richard Nixon was the sitting President, having won re-election by a landslide in 1972. Donald Trump, by way of contrast, lost his re-election bid. Thus, arguably, it was more important for the Senate to take steps to remove Richard Nixon from power than to sanction a former President.

What if Donald Trump chooses to run again in 2024? I say let him try. Now that the patina of a winning vote getter has been tarnished by Biden’s victory, and now that Americans have seen with their own eyes what Trump’s most ardent supporters looked like as they stormed the Capitol dressed in Nazi regalia and carrying Confederate flags, it will be much harder for him to garner the votes he needs from moderate Republicans to win the general election.

If the party is crazy enough to nominate him again, I expect him to lose by a landslide. And that result might turn out to be better than an impeachment conviction.