The outcome of Trump’s second impeachment trial will echo for generations

The Senate is again at a crossroads. It should send a message to future presidents that assaults on democracy will not be tolerated.

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House impeachment managers, led by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, proceed through the Capitol Rotunda from the House side of the U.S. Capitol to the U.S. Senate chamber as the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump begins Tuesday.

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We stand at a moment that will shape the future of our democracy.

Just over a year ago, the U.S. Senate stood at such a historic moment, at Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, and cravenly failed the test. By not convicting Trump and removing him from office, Republican senators invited him to continue his treasonous efforts to overthrow democracy and keep himself in office.

And that is exactly what Trump attempted to do.

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Now the Senate stands at another historic moment. As the second impeachment trial of Trump began Tuesday, the stakes were enormous. The Senate is again at a crossroads. It can send a message to future presidents that assaults on democracy will not be tolerated. It can make clear no president who just lost an election can instigate an insurrection in hopes of staying in the White House.

Or, a majority of Republican senators can once again spinelessly turn their backs on democracy.

Just five weeks ago, the insurrectionists pounding on Capitol doors sounded like battering rams. Members of Congress hid under desks and called or texted family members to say what they thought might be their last words.

Yet on Tuesday, it appeared many Republican senators were shamefully looking for an exit ramp that would allow them to avoid voting on the merits of the case. They appeared ready to ignore Trump’s all-encompassing effort to overturn a democratic election. They appeared ready to hide behind a worse-than-flimsy claim that the Constitution does not permit a conviction after a president leaves office, a line of argument Democratic house managers eviscerated on Tuesday, based on concepts Republicans normally prize: textualism and originalism.

‘Never happens again’

The Democrats should give zero credence to the absurd and groundless argument that they’re engaged in nothing more than political theater, victims of what Republicans — who themselves remain in thrall to a would-be autocrat — call “Trump derangement syndrome.” The nation requires a watertight historical record and precedent demonstrating how the former president, in a grossly blatant violation of the Constitution, laid the foundation for an assault on the Capitol, incited it and cheered it on.

As lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told the New York Times, “We think that every American should be aware of what happened — that the reason he was impeached by the House and the reason he should be convicted and disqualified from holding future federal office is to make sure that such an attack on our democracy and Constitution never happens again.”

The legal flimflammery presented by Trump’s lawyers paled beside the powerful video the house managers played of the Capitol assault. Even after weeks of snippets of similar video playing on the nation’s TV screens, Tuesday’s images of Confederate flags flying, people chanting “Pence is a traitor,” police officers under assault, chants of “Fight for Trump” — with Trump still claiming the election was fraudulent and saying, “We love you, you’re special” — were beyond chilling for what they said about the frailty of democracy when an amoral president attacks it.

Yes, Trump’s term ended in ignominy, but he could run for office again and is making noise about starting his own political party. In all likelihood, Trump will hold rallies and rail against anyone he thinks crossed him. For their own political protection, Republicans would be wise to vote to convict, the only way to keep Trump out of office for good.

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Put democracy back on a firm foundation

But far more important, Republican senators must ask themselves how, after watching the video of Trump’s insurrection, they can at the end of this trial honestly say the words: “Not guilty.” They need to think of the nation, not how their votes will affect their chances in the next election.

All their attempts to rewrite the Constitution and give themselves cover by saying Trump left office before then-Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scheduled a vote, would not hide their abysmal betrayal of their oaths of office.

Even prominent conservative lawyers say the Constitution absolutely permits the Senate to vote on the impeachment measure brought to them by the House managers, although Trump is now a private citizen holed up at his private club in Florida.

Trump sought to bring democracy down. The Senate needs to put it back on a firm foundation for the future. This is a moment that will tell us what we really believe about democracy, and what we believe about ourselves.

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