The Upside of Senate Republicans’ All-but-Certain Acquittal of Donald Trump, or, What Cruz and Hawley Truly Want
by Neil H. Buchanan
I hereby state clearly and unequivocally up front that Donald Trump should be convicted in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. Whatever one might have thought about his first impeachment, or about anything else that he has done that endangered and diminished the nation, he is guilty as charged -- guilty as sin -- in the current article of impeachment. And it matters that he be so found.
That being said, my focus today is on the consequences going forward of the outcome in the Senate, no matter which way it goes. My contention is that it is unclear which outcome would be good or bad for the future interests of Republicans or Democrats, so Democrats and all others who are not in the death cult need to keep the stakes in Trump's trial in perspective.
That is, I can spin a story in which good things happen for Democrats even after an acquittal, and I can tell a different yarn where bad things happen to them after a conviction. In that sense, maybe we should not care so much how this drama plays out. It matters, but does it matter?
Again, the case against Trump based on simple justice is incontrovertible. As I plan to write in my Verdict column next week, the Republicans' procedural objections, especially the claim that a former president cannot even be impeached, are laughably baseless. There ought to be many ways to visit justice upon Trump for his many crimes, and certainly being the only president ever convicted in an impeachment trial would be one important way to hold him responsible for his evil deeds. (Yes, I said "evil," and I meant it.)
Indeed, not only does it matter that he be convicted by the Senate next month, but the verdict should be unanimous. That is obviously not going to happen, and a non-unanimous conviction is itself problematic. For example, if he is convicted by a vote of exactly 67-33, that would mean that two-thirds of the Republicans whose own lives were put at risk, and who are now (outside of the impeachment trial) squandering a golden opportunity to move their party into a post-Trump era, voted to acquit.
More to the point, a close vote to convict would mean at best that Mitch McConnell's public rebuke of Trump merely created space for just enough Senate Republicans to vote to convict, leaving all of their colleagues to vote with Trump simply to suck up to his fanatical supporters -- a particularly toxic version of the "safe vote." That is, it would reflect a situation in which some Republican senators would have been willing to do the right thing and vote to convict if needed, but they would be given permission to vote to acquit purely to save themselves from political retribution.
That, however, would mean that -- even after everything that we have seen -- a huge part of the Republican Party would find it convenient to do the wrong thing for the wrong reason. It would not be at all difficult for Republican leaders, if they cared to do so, to put together 17 votes to convict simply from senators who are retiring and those who are at the beginning of 6-year terms and thus will not face voters until 2026. The other cowards could take the politically safe route.
Of course, even that will not happen. Indeed, there is less reason every day to believe that more than a handful of Republicans will vote to convict. Those who are on record most strongly in favor of conviction, such as Lisa Murkowski or Pat Toomey, might even flip back, relying on dishonest procedural objections. The hope that Mitch McConnell might actually have given "permission" to his caucus to vote to convict is quaint, and even he will almost certainly decide in the end to save his own political skin.
The supposedly upright institutionalist John Roberts, moreover, has now done his own dirty work for the Trumpists, claiming absurdly that his duties make him too busy to preside over another impeachment trial. Yes, the Constitution does not require the Chief Justice to preside when the trial is not of a sitting president, but that makes it all the more important for Roberts to volunteer. Having a Republican-appointed Chief Justice preside over the trial would negate inevitable Republican claims of unfairness, and Roberts knows that his absence will be used to de-legitimize the trial. Roberts's supposed impartiality has always been overstated, but this should permanently stop anyone from believing that he merely calls balls and strikes.
Having said all of that, then, how can I also believe that the trial's outcome does not matter? Let us consider the vile infestations of American politics known as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. In a recent news broadcast, a left-leaning commentator was mentioning possible anti-Trump votes in the Senate, and after listing the obvious possibilities, he added Ted Cruz's name to the list.
Why? The direct logic is actually obvious and well known, and it applies not just to Cruz and Hawley but to every other Republican with presidential ambitions: Trump needs to go away. A conviction in Trump's trial, followed by a vote to bar him from ever again holding public office, would be great news for all of these wannabes. At that point, Trump could still try to play kingmaker, but he could not freeze the process while threatening everyone with his own possible 2024 candidacy.
Every one of the Republicans now bleating about how unfair the impeachment is to Trump, saying that this proves that Democrats do not truly want "unity," and all of their other nonsense is desperately -- but secretly -- hoping that Trump will be convicted and barred from running again. If he is acquitted, even if he ends up not running, his eligibility will be bad for Cruz, Hawley, Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and all of the other non-geniuses. (And we must not forget the especially puzzling case of Mike Pence.)
They all want Trump out, but of course, none of them can say so out loud, not if they want to have a chance at winning the Republican nomination in 2024 (or maybe even beyond). So the idea that Cruz or any of the other ambitious Republicans in the Senate would actually vote to convict is beyond fatuous. The Machiavellian move would be for Cruz or others of his ilk to work behind the scenes to guarantee a conviction, all the while publicly wailing about the injustice of it all.
That Republicans are already memory-holing January 6 is, among other things, an indication that Cruz's colleagues still hate him as much as ever, if not more. One can almost hear a rank-and-file Republican senator saying: "If voting to convict Trump has even a chance of helping Ted Cruz, I'm out." Hawley surely now shares the most-hated category as well.
Meanwhile, if Republicans revert to form and almost-unanimously vote to acquit Trump, that could quite possibly end up being good for Democrats. Because an acquital would guarantee that Trump's insanity would continue to prevent the Republicans from regrouping and moving forward, it would solve what might be Democrats' biggest political problem post-2020: a clear opponent. Trump was frankly great for Democrats politically, having turned Virginia from red to purple to blue, giving us two Democratic Senators from both Georgia and Arizona, and turning various state-level Democrats into national stars. Oh, and also flipping both houses of Congress.
From a purely strategic point of view, then, I would think that Democrats would be delighted to be able to continue to motivate voters with an anti-Trump narrative. "Even after the Capitol was overrun by rabid Trumpists who attacked and killed police, Republicans voted to acquit the man who incited insurrection against the United States of America." Democrats once had a great deal of political success when Newt Gingrich was the face of the Republican Party, and his disappearance from the headlines left Democrats with no way to put a face on the opposition. Cruz and Hawley will be easy to vilify -- because they actually are villainous -- but there is nothing like Trump to mobilize and unify independents and Democrats.
There is no way to know how this would all play out under the various possible scenarios, so I am not claiming to have any special ability to predict the future. Having described how the Democrats could be helped and Republicans could be hurt by an acquittal, I will simply note that it is also quite easy to describe the opposite, with a conviction being to the long-run political benefit of Democrats and to the detriment of Republicans.
More importantly, I continue to believe that the most important story -- possibly the only thing that matters going forward -- is how Republicans (with or without Trump) will work to rig future elections and turn the United States into a one-party autocracy. It would surely be worse if that future post-constitutional state was run by Donald Trump, but the end of the rule of law would be bad no matter what. Guaranteeing free and fair elections -- including ending voter suppression -- is the real fight for America's future.
I am not fooling myself into believing that I will be able to adopt a zen attitude about the second trial of Donald Trump. Witnessing the blizzard of disingenuous, smarmy, corrupt, and unscrupulous whining by Republicans that surely awaits us will be infuriating. I do, however, take some comfort in the idea that, although we know what justice would look like in the immediate circumstances, it is possible that Democrats could win by losing, just as they could win by winning.
Trump should not be acquitted, but if we are indeed confronted with that bitter outcome, it will still be possible to make lemonade. His conviction matters, but it might not matter.