As you’ve probably heard by now, over the weekend the U.S. Senate acquitted Donald Trump on the charge of inciting the Capitol Hill riot that took place in January, by a vote of 57-43. While seven Republicans crossed party lines to find the ex-president guilty, it wasn’t enough to overcome the two-thirds majority necessary to convict and subsequently bar him from ever holding office again. One of the lawmakers who decided that Trump should be allowed to get away with everything was Mitch McConnell. Although he insisted that he’d be going into the trial with an open mind, the Kentucky lawmaker’s vote should’ve come as a shock to exactly no one, given that he famously has no principles. Occasionally, though, McConnell likes to pretend otherwise, hence his remarks after the verdict was rendered in which he said that there was “no question—none—that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” but, alas, his hands were tied. “We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen,” he said, claiming he came to that conclusion after “intense reflection.”
Unfortunately for McConnell, his little speech did little to convince anyone he’s not exactly the shameless hack everyone thinks he is, and so on Monday, he tried a new tack: an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal swearing that he only found Trump not guilty because he cares about the Constitution so damn much. Writing that he was “as outraged as any member of Congress” about the January 6 riot, a statement that right off the bat is debatable, McConnell said his job wasn’t to “find some way…to inflict a punishment” but to protect the 200-plus-year-old document. Of course, the Constitution itself demands accountability for the very thing Trump was on trial for, so it’s not exactly clear how letting Trump off scot-free was a defense on the Constitution, but never mind that. McConnell looked at the text—or rather, had a staffer look at the text—and said, Damn it, find me a way, no matter how shaky, to let this guy off:
…after intense study, I concluded that Article II, Section 4 limits impeachment and conviction to current officers. Everyone agrees that “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” exhaust the valid grounds for conviction. It follows that the list of persons in that sentence—“the president, vice president, and all civil officers”—likewise exhausts its valid subjects.
I side with the early constitutional scholar Justice Joseph Story. He observed that while disqualification is optional, removal is mandatory on conviction. The Constitution presupposes that anyone convicted by the Senate must have an office from which to be removed. This doesn’t mean leaving office provides immunity from accountability. Former officials are “still liable to be tried and punished in the ordinary tribunals of justice.” Criminal law and civil litigation ensure there is no so-called January exemption. There is a modern reflex to demand total satisfaction from every news cycle. But impeachment is not some final moral tribunal. It is a specific tool with a narrow purpose: restraining government officers. The instant Donald Trump ceased being the president, he exited the Senate’s jurisdiction.
Of course, Trump was impeached by the House on January 13, a whole week before he ceased being the president, and it was McConnell who refused to hold a trial during that period. Which, yes, makes his argument re: not convicting Trump because he is no longer president weaker than the skin around McConnell’s neck. He thought you might ask about that, and here’s his transparently bullshit answer:
Here’s what the scheduling critics are really saying: Senate Republicans should have followed a rushed House process with a light speed Senate sham. They think we should have shredded due process and ignited a constitutional crisis in a footrace to outrun our loss of jurisdiction.
Of course, this explanation might be more believable if it weren’t coming from a guy who is known for moving with lightning speed when it suits his agenda. For instance, you may recall that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s body was barely cold when McConnell announced that he was going to confirm Trump’s RBG replacement ASAP and then got Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court faster than you could say, “But it’s an election year!”
Elsewhere in Republicans trying to justify their decision to find Trump not guilty, we have Senator Ron Johnson, who claimed on Monday that Democrats tried to make the Capitol attack look worse than it was and that it “didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me,” even though, definitionally, that’s exactly what it was.
“When you hear the word ‘armed,’ don’t you think of firearms? Here’s the questions I would have liked to ask: How many firearms were confiscated? How many shots were fired?” Johnson added, “If that was a planned armed insurrection, man, you had really a bunch of idiots.”
If you missed it this weekend, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said this about the 1/6 Capitol Insurrection:
"This didn't seem like an armed insurrection to me. I mean, armed — when you think hear armed, don't you think of firearms?" pic.twitter.com/pZuJnpeKzg
— The Recount (@therecount) February 16, 2021
In fact, court filings show that rioters had, among other things: bombs, stun guns, and actual guns, with 14 people facing weapons charges, including a Maryland man who police say stormed the Capitol with multiple magazines and a bulletproof vest. But according to Johnson, that’s child’s play. “To call that an armed insurrection, it was the most pitiful armed insurrection anyone could possibly imagine,” he said on WTAQ, during an interview in which he also claimed that a rioter seen carrying zip ties never posed any kind of threat to anyone. “That one guy in the Senate chamber had plastic wrist ties. What was he supposed to do, go up to Mike Pence and capture him? It’s absurd,” he said. The senator from Wisconsin insisted that he was “literally never afraid” at any point on January 6 and questioned the fact that other lawmakers said they were scared of the mob. Johnson did not say whether he would have been pants-pissingly terrified if, in fact, he had been taken hostage by the zip-tie-toting rioter and/or come in contact with one of the people who stormed the Capitol very much armed, but we probably know the answer to that one.
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