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.