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Trump’s Trial and the Fight to Vote

Trump’s lies about the election didn’t just fuel the attack on the Capitol — they’re spurring voter suppression efforts nationwide as well.

February 9, 2021
The Washington Post; Brent Stirton; Probal Rashid; Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

On Tues­day, for the fourth time, the Senate began an impeach­ment trial of a pres­id­ent. 

Few who watched the video presen­ted by the House managers can fail to be moved, and alarmed, all over again. The House made a compel­ling consti­tu­tional case that a pres­id­ent can be tried after leav­ing office. There is no “Janu­ary excep­tion,” as Rep. Jamie Raskin said. As I explained on ABC News, a pres­id­ent cannot incite a viol­ent mob with no consequences at any point in his term and avoid consequences after­wards as well. The Senate agreed, with six Repub­lic­ans join­ing their Demo­cratic colleagues in voting 56 to 44 for the impeach­ment trial to continue.

In past impeach­ment trials, lawmakers debated whether miscon­duct rose to the level of “high crimes and misde­mean­ors” — abuse of power deserving of the Consti­tu­tion’s ulti­mate sanc­tion. Few can make such argu­ments here. No other pres­id­ent attemp­ted to over­turn the results of a demo­cratic elec­tion and send a viol­ent mob to stop the count­ing of the elect­oral votes.

Trump is in an envi­able posi­tion: he’s being tried by a jury of his accom­plices.

Recall that Trump’s affront didn’t start at the Ellipse on Janu­ary 6. The insur­rec­tion followed months of Trump’s Big Lie about the elec­tion being stolen. 

The 2020 elec­tion was not stolen — the top federal agen­cies in charge of elec­tion secur­ity declared it “the most secure in Amer­ican history.” Trump’s claims are false, and they have been repeatedly and defin­it­ively debunked by the nation’s lead­ing elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors, national secur­ity lead­ers, polit­ical lead­ers, elec­tion experts, and judges. Voter fraud is, and has always been, vanish­ingly rare.

Far too many members of Congress have retold the same lie about Amer­ica’s elec­tions. Trump’s claims are a cartoon­ish version of the fact-free argu­ment his party colleagues have made for years. These lies draw on racist stereo­types about Black voters and undoc­u­mented immig­rants commit­ting fraud. They are made up. 

The same Big Lie is the sole justi­fic­a­tion for the new wave of restrict­ive laws being read­ied in states across the coun­try. Since Janu­ary, state legis­lat­ors have intro­duced 165 bills in 33 state legis­latures making it harder for people, primar­ily people of color, to vote. That’s nearly five times as many restrict­ive bills as this time last year. Hard evid­ence that the Big Lie is having its inten­ded, perni­cious effect.

So this impeach­ment is about much more than even the conduct of one person. The fight over the Consti­tu­tion and the fight to protect the right to vote go hand in hand. 

The Framers held widely vary­ing views about who should have the right of suffrage. But they all feared a future demagogue who would try to over­turn the repub­lic. They spoke of Crom­well and Caesar, and congrat­u­lated them­selves that George Wash­ing­ton would never do such a thing. They saw impeach­ment as above all a punish­ment for polit­ical abuse. 

“A good magis­trate will not fear them,” Elbridge Gerry said at the Consti­tu­tional Conven­tion. “A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.” Alex­an­der Hamilton, in Feder­al­ist No. 65, described impeach­ment as “a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.” Because impeach­ment was inev­it­ably polit­ical, he wrote, it made sense for other politi­cians to conduct the trial. 

Will there be account­ab­il­ity for this attack on demo­cracy? In this trial, maybe. (Don’t hold your breath.) The real answer will come when these same lawmakers are asked to strengthen our demo­cracy by protect­ing voting rights and secur­ing elec­tions in months to come.