Opinion: Why we can’t ignore Donald Trump’s impeachment trial

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On Tuesday the U.S. Senate will commence a trial of former President Trump, who stands impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Congress, which left five people dead. The verdict is all but certain — the former president will be acquitted, since the required 17 GOP senators will not join with Democrats to reach the 67-vote supermajority needed to convict him. But the trial, no matter what it says about Trump, will say much about our nation, and the continuing threat to democracy. For these reasons, all of us should feel bound to watch it, and to integrate every painful detail.

Many just want us to “move on.” But just like 9/11, we aren’t supposed to move on, or forget or fudge the gravity of what happened, and what it informs us about the present and future of our civic fabric.

Republicans in particular are busy downplaying those events, or at least making sure not to speak of that day. Few members of Congress who work closely with U.S. Capitol Police officers — and some in leadership, with 24-hour details, consider them family — have spoken up about the two officers who took their own lives in the aftermath of the insurrection, let alone the injuries and deep trauma the survivors endure.

Conservative media, and their allies in Congress, immediately attempted to whitewash the insurrection. Trump supporters, from The Washington Times to Newsmax, along with Reps. Mo Brooks and Matt Gaetz, tried to blame antifa. Trump administration intelligence officials and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made clear this was false — that while one antifa member infiltrated the crowd, it was not made up of left-wing anarchists but right-wing ones.

Much of this is an attempt to protect Trump, who plans a revenge tour to punish those Republicans who voted to impeach him. Senators eyeing conviction have been duly warned.

Yet the jurors, in the very chamber occupied by an armed rampaging horde, know just how quickly the siege could have turned into a massacre of hundreds of people, including the vice president and the House speaker, if the mob had found them. They know the president lied for months before Election Day about mail-in ballots, said the outcome would be “rigged” and after Nov. 3 deemed it “stolen” — urging his supporters to “fight like hell” and “fight to the death.” He promoted Jan. 6 – it “will be wild” — to the rioters, telling them Congress could overturn the Electoral College count, and that Mike Pence would, as vice president, reject it. Both are lies. But due to a crisis in civics education in our country, woeful ignorance fueled his supporters’ wailing about defense of “the Constitution,” which showed the attackers knew nothing about the powers that belong to the states versus the federal government, or the executive branch versus the Congress. No, vice presidents cannot change the outcomes of elections when their ticket loses. Yet when the day arrived, Trump essentially told the crowd that power was in Pence’s hands. Then he urged them to “fight like hell [or] you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The most blatant appeal to violence was this declaration: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

It was a tweet well into the siege, at 2:24 p.m., that sent a mob chanting, “Hang Pence” and searching for him. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” Trump wrote.

The mob came within 60 seconds and 90 feet of Pence, who was hiding with his family, likely having been told by his Secret Service detail trying to save their lives that Trump had thrown Pence to the wolves.

After that, the president had been persuaded to send out tweets asking for peace and support for law enforcement, but called the rioters “very special.” At 6 p.m., Trump praised the attackers again, as martyrs, in a tweet so incendiary Twitter removed it. It read: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

The prosecution will not only have video and social media posts — from rioters planning the event to the president promoting it in advance — but helpful acknowledgment from a top Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has described a commander-in-chief indifferent and unresponsive to the danger and, actually, enjoying the sight of supporters fighting on his behalf. Law and order was the furthest thing from the president’s mind.

“It took him a while to appreciate the gravity of the situation,” Graham told the Washington Post. “The president saw these people as allies in his journey and sympathetic to the idea that the election was stolen.” Graham described how Trump’s daughter Ivanka and the staff around the president couldn’t get through to him initially. “They were all trying to get him to speak out, to tell everyone to leave.”

This is what the senators know. And that mob defendants are planning to tell the courts they were following the wishes of their president. And that the U.S. Capitol Police is investigating whether members of Congress gave tours to some attackers in the days leading up to the insurrection. Senators also know they are likely to learn a lot more.

“What we already know does constitute the gravest violation of his oath of office by any president in the history of the country,” House GOP Conference chair Liz Cheney said Sunday when asked whether she would vote to convict if she were in the Senate.

A lack of accountability — to date, we have seen none — will serve as encouragement not only for future riots and attacks on governance, but on those who knew the lies weren’t true but shamelessly preyed upon mass delusion to further their political power.

To be sure, despite Trump’s incitement, the Capitol complex could have been better protected; rioters should never have made it past the first perimeter. That is an astonishing security failure, but it can’t be considered an intelligence failure. Anyone reading the news and Trump’s Twitter feed knew violence was not just possible but likely on Jan. 6. We just didn’t know the mob could ever get inside the building.

So during the impeachment trial, the forces and resources mustered to protect the Capitol after the insurrection will remain, in case any anarchists attempt to disrupt the proceedings. If they do try, they won’t succeed. But how — with a pandemic draining budgets in every state in this nation — can those governing at the state and local level be safe from political violence? How can we ensure that no members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump aren’t assassinated once they leave the Capitol complex?

What Jan. 6 showed is that we have a disinformation crisis that, three months after the election Trump lied about and one month after a bloody coup attempted to overthrow the government, only two dozen GOP members of Congress have acknowledged. Last week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did not denounce QAnon, a dangerous conspiracy cult, because her leaders did not demand it. No one is calling out the pernicious effect of apocalyptic rhetoric to inspire political violence.

Trump’s second impeachment, like the first one, may seem all about him — a man so desperate to hold power he extorted the president of Ukraine in 2019 in order to interfere with the 2020 presidential election, and then lied to steal the outcome of that election, inciting voters to violence in 2021, weeks after the states had certified that he lost.

But this trial is also about us. Yes, everybody is sick of politics, violence, impeachment and Donald Trump. But we cannot look away.

Americans should learn all they can about what happened on Jan. 6. While it’s too much to hope it will provide an epiphany in the United States, knowing everything that happened that day is critical to seeing clearly the picture it painted of a flawed democracy. The chaos and carnage unleashed on our government was no accident, but it never should have happened — it was fueled. Our friends and foes all over the world saw it that way. And we must too. The danger hasn’t passed.

Photo: Gallagher Photography / Shutterstock.com