Former President Trump was acquitted in the shortest impeachment trial ever. Here’s what happened

Former President Trump was acquitted in the shortest impeachment trial ever. Here’s what happened
Source: U.S. Senate TV/Handout via Reuters
Though Trump was ultimately acquitted of the charges, the fact that seven Republican senators voted against him means it was the most bipartisan impeachment vote in the nation’s history.

The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump officially began on Tuesday, February 9. By dinner time on Saturday, February 13, it was over: Trump was acquitted. Though seven Republicans sided with all 50 Democratic senators, they fell short of the 67 total votes necessary to convict.

The first day of the debate was devoted to argument over whether the trial was constitutional and while the conclusion of that argument was never in question, that first debate set the tone for the brief trial to come.

The House impeachment managers, a team of nine Democrats acting as the prosecution, presented their case that Trump actively and intentionally goaded his loyal followers into violently attacking the United States Capitol on January 6, an attack that resulted in five deaths. Trump’s team of lawyers, on the other hand, argued that the trial was nothing but a partisan political act with no constitutional merit.

Though Trump was ultimately acquitted of the charges, the fact that seven Republican senators voted against him means it was the most bipartisan impeachment vote in the nation’s history.

Five Republicans and 50 Democrats agree

In January, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives charged Trump with abusing the power of his office in the “incitement of insurrection.” The charges stem from the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in which Trump’s supporters attempted to stop President Joe Biden’s victory from being certified.

On January 27, Republican Senator Rand Paul forced a vote in the Senate on proceeding with the trial. Paul had argued that the trial was unconstitutional because Trump was no longer in office and is now a private citizen. Since only a simple majority was required to proceed with the trial, the Democrats didn’t need any Republicans to side with them for the trial to continue.

However, five did: Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse and Patrick Toomey. Romney was the only Republican to vote for Trump’s removal during his first impeachment trial.

The 55-45 split on the vote led many in the media to suggest Trump’s conviction was a long shot, as it required a two-thirds vote, or that of 67 of the 100 senators. The Senate is evenly divided 50/50 between the two parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tiebreaking vote.

The first day of the trial

Despite having already voted on its constitutionality, the first day was devoted to the opposing sides presenting their case for whether or not the trial was legal.

The House impeachment managers went first, arguing that Trump’s words and actions both on the day of the attack and prior to it were instrumental in motivating the rioters. Representative Jamie Reskin, the lead manager, presented a 13-minute video that showed footage from the attack from various perspectives, beginning with Trump’s appearance at a “Stop the Steal” rally earlier in the day.

Raskin also spoke about his personal experience of the attack, getting emotional as he described the fear he and his family had felt on that day. He had invited his daughter and son-in-law to Congress that Wednesday to see Biden’s victory be certified. The day before, the family had been at the funeral for Raskin’s son, Tommy, who had committed suicide a week earlier.

Other House managers continued their case for trying Trump, arguing that everyone knew the attack on the Capitol happened because of him. However, the video Raskin showed was the big take-away from their collective presentation.

Trump’s lawyers, Bruce Castor Jr. and David Schoen, followed, attempting to convince the Senate to end the trial. Neither lawyer did the job: the Senate ultimately voted 56-44 to continue with the trial, with Republican Senator Bill Cassidy reversing his January 27 vote to side with the 50 Democrats and five original Republicans.

Castor’s presentation received widespread criticism and mockery online, with NPR calling it “hard to follow as it jumped from what appeared to be a stream-of-consciousness talk that ignored the constitutional issue at hand.” Castor also contradicted Trump’s official stance by confirming that the voters had chosen Biden in the election.

Trump was reportedly upset by the performance of his lawyers on the first day, which the team chocked up to inexperience in arguing before the Senate and a lack of time to prepare. Trump’s original impeachment team had quit less than two weeks before the trial began.

The House managers make their case

Each side was given 16 hours to present their case, split over two eight-hour days. The House managers went first, presenting their evidence on Wednesday and Thursday.

The House managers had the task of convincing two-thirds of the Senate that Trump’s words and actions were responsible for the attack. To do so, they relied largely on video evidence, with clips of Trump speaking in interviews and to his supporters at rallies. In the clips, Trump asserts that the election was stolen by the Democrats, a claim that the courts have repeatedly found has no merit.

In the opening arguments on February 9, Raskin stated their evidence would show “Donald Trump surrendered his role as commander in chief and became the inciter-in-chief of a dangerous insurrection.”

In addition to trying to prove that Trump had incited the insurrection, the House managers argued that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech does not apply in this situation. Quoting the well-trod expression that a person cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, Raskin said Trump was like the town fire chief sending in a mob “to actually set the theater on fire.”

The first day of arguments also included the revelation of new footage that had, until then, not been shown to the public. While considerable footage shot by the insurrectionists and journalists on the day had previously been available, this was the first time the general public was able to see this security video footage from inside the Capitol.

The footage was shown by Representative Eric Swalwell and Delegate Stacey Plaskett, who, as the representative for the territory of the US Virgin Islands, is the first nonvoting member of the House to present in an impeachment trial.

The footage shows people breaking through the windows and doors, as well as Congress Members escaping the scene. One of the most striking scenes is footage of Romney walking down a hallway when a Capitol police officer, Eugene Goodman, comes toward him and directs him to run the other way from the rapidly approaching mob.

In other footage, insurrectionists can be heard threatening Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” Trump and his loyalists were incensed with then-Vice President Pence for not overturning the election results, though that was never legally an option.

The House managers also played audio of law enforcement personnel on the scene requesting backup support, a call that went unheeded for hours.

Day three of the impeachment trial

The main thrust of the House managers’ second day of their presentation was establishing that the insurrectionists believed they were acting on behalf of Trump and at his command.

Footage and audio from the day of the attack was yet again presented, with rioters heard yelling “We were invited by the President of the United States!” Additionally, the testimony of rioters who were arrested after the attack affirmed that they were at the Capitol because they believed they were acting on Trump’s behalf.

The House managers further argued that Trump was unfit to serve in office again, both for inciting the insurrection and for providing ammunition to “America’s adversaries” to criticize and diminish democracy and the US’ international standing.

In concluding their two-day arguments, the House managers summed up their case that Trump was derelict in his duties as president and that he actively encouraged the attack. Representative Joe Neguse stated, Trump “cared more about pressing his efforts to overturn the election than he did about saving lives, our lives.”

Trump’s lawyers make their case

Though Trump’s lawyers had originally petitioned to push their presentation until after the weekend in observation of the Sabbath (Schoen is an Orthodox Jew), the team ultimately opted to present on Friday. Taking less than three hours (not even one-fourth of their allotted 16 hours), Trump’s lawyers rested their case well before sunset.

Rather than directly defending Trump’s word or actions, the lawyers argued that Democrats were equally guilty of using “violent” rhetoric. The team showed a montage video of Democratic politicians using the word “fight” (often with little context), contrasting that language with Trump’s exhortation at the January 6 rally to, “Fight like hell.”

The then-president had added, “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The lawyers maintained that such language was “ordinary political rhetoric” and thus not an act of incitement.

The New York Times reported that the lawyers’ short case was filled with numerous misleading or false claims, including the claim that massive voter fraud had cost Trump the election. Trump’s original team of lawyers had reportedly quit because they had not wanted to argue the former president’s voter fraud claims, which have not been supported by evidence.

The team’s case rested on the argument that Trump was protected by the First Amendment and the entire impeachment trial was nothing but a political stunt.

Saturday: No witnesses but a vote

On Saturday, it briefly appeared as if the Senate would allow the House managers to call witnesses. This was a contentious topic, with Republicans opposing any witness testimony. Prior to the trial, Senator Lindsey Graham had threatened to drag out the proceedings with a long list of witnesses, including members of the FBI, if Democrats allowed witnesses.

Going into the trial, it seemed the Democrats were not going to call witnesses. However, late on Friday night, new information was revealed about a phone call between Trump and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy that took place in the midst of the January 6 attack. During the call, Trump reportedly acknowledged the rioters were there on his behalf.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump is said to have told McCarthy when the two had spoken by phone during the attack. The exchange reportedly got increasingly heated, with McCarthy telling Trump the rioters were breaking into his office.

Multiple Republicans confirmed the details of the call, including Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler. Beutler was one of 10 House Republicans who had voted to impeach Trump in January.

Early on Saturday, in a 55-45 vote, the Senate agreed to allow witnesses, which likely would have prolonged the trial for days, if not weeks. The decision angered Republicans and confused some Democratic senators who hadn’t expected witnesses.

Hours later, though, the decision was reversed after the two parties came to an agreement to withhold witnesses but allow Beutler’s written testimony to be admitted into the record of the trial.

The Democratic senators were criticized by many in their party for appearing to back down to the Republicans, even after having the votes to call witnesses. Some believed it showed weakness on behalf of the party that, ostensibly, is in control of the chamber. Others countered that witnesses wouldn’t have changed the vote and would merely have delayed senators from acting on Biden’s agenda.

After the back and forth on witnesses, the Senate voted to acquit Trump on Saturday night, with seven Republicans voting against him. Senator Richard Burr joined the six Republicans who had voted for letting the trial continue on Tuesday: Cassidy, Collins, Murkowksi, Romney, Sasse and Toomey. All 50 Democrats voted to convict.

Trump has now survived two impeachment trials and could, if he so desires, run for the presidency again in 2024, a possibility he is rumored to have considered.

Despite the loss, lead House manager Raskin put a positive spin on the result: “In the most bipartisan presidential impeachment vote in the history of the country, a powerful majority of both houses of Congress found that the former President incited violent insurrection against the Union & the Congress. History will record his terrible constitutional crime.”

In a statement following his acquittal, Trump thanked his lawyers and denounced the entire impeachment as “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”

Trump added, “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people. There has never been anything like it.”

Hero Eugene Goodman

Though the divide between the Democrats and the many Republicans who still support Trump is stark, there is at least one point on which almost everyone can agree: US Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman acted heroically on January 6.

Goodman has already been roundly praised for his role in confronting and misdirecting the crowd so that they did not find the Congress Members. Footage from the day showed Goodman single-handedly standing up to an encroaching mob, including at least one man wearing a QAnon sweatshirt.

Goodman was chosen to escort Vice President Harris on inauguration day as recognition for his bravery during the attack.

After Wednesday’s footage revealed Goodman swiftly acting to lead Romney from the mob, the officer was once again the focus of admiration and praise. Goodman’s bravery and quick thinking is one facet of the insurrection that all sides appear able to agree on. On Friday, at the end of the day’s impeachment proceedings, the Senate voted unanimously to award Goodman with the Congressional Gold Medal.

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