“After he voted to acquit Donald Trump of inciting the Capitol riot, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) explained why the former president was guilty. McConnell explained the apparent contradiction by arguing that the Senate does not have the authority to try a former president. But as he conceded, that is “a very close question,” and McConnell’s rationale for his vote is puzzling in light of what he did after the House voted to impeach Trump a month ago. McConnell’s mixed message reflects the predicament of a party that has built its identity around a reckless, unprincipled demagogue whose influence will continue to weigh down Republicans for years to come.
“Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech on Saturday after seven of his fellow Republicans joined 50 Democrats in voting to convict. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth. The issue is not only the president’s intemperate language on January 6th….It was also the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe—the increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was being stolen in some secret coup by our now-president.”
McConnell rejected the notion that Trump’s rhetoric was typical of the language commonly used by politicians and that it is therefore unreasonable to blame him because some of his supporters took him more literally than he intended. “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things,” he said. “Sadly, many politicians sometimes make overheated comments or use metaphors that unhinged listeners might take literally. This was different. This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”
McConnell also noted that Trump’s “unconscionable behavior” continued after the riot started: “Whatever our ex-president claims he thought might happen that day, whatever reaction he says he meant to produce, by that afternoon, he was watching the same live television as the rest of the world. A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags, and screaming their loyalty to him. It was obvious that only President Trump could end this. Former aides publicly begged him to do so. Loyal allies frantically called the administration. But the president did not act swiftly. He did not do his job. He didn’t take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed, and order restored.”
To the contrary, “according to public reports, he watched television happily as the chaos unfolded. He kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election! Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.”
While Trump urged his supporters to “stay peaceful” in a tweet he posted an hour and 45 minutes after the riot began, McConnell noted, “he did not tell the mob to depart until even later”—more than three hours after the protest turned violent. “Even then,” McConnell said, “with police officers bleeding and broken glass covering Capitol floors, he kept repeating election lies and praising the criminals.”
McConnell’s indictment of Trump, which elaborated on his previous criticism of the former president’s conspiracy mongering and his role in provoking the riot, could have come straight out of the arguments made by the House managers charged with prosecuting the former president. Why did McConnell nevertheless vote to acquit Trump?
“Former President Trump is constitutionally not eligible for conviction,” McConnell said. “There is no doubt this is a very close question. Donald Trump was the president when the House voted, though not when the House chose to deliver the papers. Brilliant scholars argue both sides of the jurisdictional question. The text is legitimately ambiguous. I respect my colleagues who have reached either conclusion. But after intense reflection, I believe the best constitutional reading shows that Article II, Section 4 exhausts the set of persons who can legitimately be impeached, tried, or convicted: the president, vice president, and civil officers. We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen.””…
“McConnell’s compromise seems to be aimed at appeasing the majority of Americans who supported Trump’s impeachment without alienating the majority of Republicans who did not.”