This time was no different. At least not for the vast majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives. Never mind the deadly rampage of the pro-Trump mob that endangered their own lives, and the President’s direct role in setting that mob loose on the Capitol. When the House of Representatives returned to the scene of the crime on Wednesday, for the first-ever second impeachment of a President, the result was drearily predictable: Democrats supported it and, with a few exceptions, Republicans didn’t.
And so the second impeachment of Donald John Trump, just like his first impeachment, will go down in history not as an exercise in forcing the President to face consequences for his actions but as a stark confirmation of how in thrall to Trump the Republican Party remains. In a way, it was as heartbreaking for American democracy as the violent mayhem that triggered it just a week ago. Democrats on Wednesday spoke of “accountability,” and “responsibility”; Republicans of “unity” and “moving on.” The result, of course, was none of the above.
There was a chance—a remote one, but a chance nonetheless—that it might have turned out otherwise. Trump’s behavior last week was as close as an American President has ever come to mounting a direct assault on the Constitution. Perhaps Trump, in his final days in office, at last, had gone too far even for those who defended him all these years? “We love you,” he had told the pro-Trump rioters, in a video released in the middle of the riot. And when it was over, Trump never apologized, never admitted culpability, or even any regret about his own role at the rally that morphed into the riot. Unrepentant, he told reporters on Tuesday morning, as he left for an ill-timed valedictory trip to the border in Alamo, Texas, that he had been “totally appropriate” in his comments on January 6th.
For four years, there has been a constant bit of suspense: Would the congressional Republicans who so clearly chafed at Trump’s erratic rule and disagreed with many of his policies finally abandon him? They never did. But then on Tuesday afternoon the news came, via the Times, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believed Trump had committed impeachable offenses and was “pleased” with the Democratic move to impeach him. It had the feeling of the long-awaited jail break. CNN confirmed the story and added the detail that McConnell “hates” Trump because of the Capitol assault and the President’s craven behavior since. The timing of the apparent leak seemed designed to influence House Republicans who might still be wavering about backing impeachment.
This reflected a key political lesson of Trump’s first impeachment: with no Republicans signing on in the House, it had been impossible to get Republicans to sign on in the Senate. But that was before January 6th, and the assault on the Capitol itself. And also before Trump eviscerated McConnell’s chances of remaining Senate Majority Leader—by sabotaging Republican chances in two Georgia Senate runoffs that both went to Democrats just hours before the riot in Washington. This was payback. Or so it seemed.
Minutes after the McConnell news, Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, announced that she would vote to impeach Trump. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” she said. Anticipating her Republican colleagues’ arguments in favor of more time and investigation, she sought to preëmpt them. “What we know now is enough,” Cheney said. “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”
More Republican defections followed: Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a loud critic of Trump’s since the election who had become only louder and more adamant since the riot. And Fred Upton of Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington. “I am not choosing a side,” Herrera Beutler said. “I am choosing truth. It’s the only way to defeat fear.”
But by Wednesday morning it was pretty clear that this was not the dam finally breaking, so much as a small crack in the Party’s heretofore unbroken façade. As the impeachment debate began, just five Republicans had publicly said they would vote to impeach Trump, and only two more Republicans came forward during the debate itself: Dan Newhouse of Washington and Peter Meijer of Michigan. Handicappers said that ten to twenty House Republicans breaking ranks with Trump would send a resounding message; less would make impeachment just another empty symbolic gesture. In truth, it was never even close.
By midafternoon, in fact, it was evident that the ending was not going to be a dramatic last-minute rebellion of the Republicans. The House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, took the floor to—belatedly—reaffirm Joe Biden’s election victory and cast blame directly on Trump for the mob. “The President bears responsibility,” McCarthy said, and he admitted, too, that Trump had not shouldered that responsibility. But McCarthy offered no suggestion for what to do about it, except a vague nod toward a bipartisan censure resolution that Democrats had already dismissed as insufficient. The truer sign of where the Republicans were at came from Jim Jordan, managing the floor debate on behalf of the Party. Jordan, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Trump earlier this week in thanks for defending Trump against the previous “impeachment witch hunt,” mostly did not bother with a defense of Trump’s words and actions. Instead, he offered a speech that might have been a guest appearance on one of Trump’s favorite Fox News shows, all about the evils of “cancel culture” and Trump’s new, post-riot Twitter ban.
Jordan’s confident disregard for the substance of the matter was justified. This impeachment was not really different, and how could it have been? The hour was late, too late, for these Republicans to finally act against Trump, after years of voting with him and enabling him and excusing his behavior. Nearly a hundred and forty House Republicans had bowed to Trump and pointlessly voted to challenge the Electoral College results, hours after the storming of the Capitol. If they could go along with that unconstitutional assault on the democratic process, then of course they would not abandon Trump now, with just a week left in his term. And even those who did break with Trump had, until then, gone along and gone along. They had endorsed Trump for reëlection. They had voted for him to return to office for a second term—even after three hundred thousand Americans were dead in a pandemic that the President chose to pretend has disappeared.
When the vote was finished, soon after 4:30 P.M., the final tally was ten Republicans in favor, one hundred and ninety-seven against. It was the largest number of members ever to vote against a President of their own Party on impeachment, and also, given the circumstances, a very, very small number.
McConnell, who may have personally broken with Trump, can still count votes. He swiftly announced that there would be no emergency use of Senate rules to reconvene and try Trump before his term expires. And so the Trump mess will carry over into Biden’s Presidency, when the new Democratic majority in the Senate will have to put on an impeachment trial. McConnell and a number of other Senate Republicans might still vote to convict Trump, but they will do so after his term in office ends. This is not about removing a President anymore.
Hypocrisy is never in short supply in Washington. But this impeachment debate overflowed with it. A year after acquitting Trump in an impeachment trial that had no witnesses or evidence, Republicans said on Wednesday that this was a sham impeachment because it had no witnesses or evidence. They positioned themselves as the defenders of the First Amendment, on behalf of a President who has spent the last four years calling journalists “the enemies of the people.” The Party that confirmed a Supreme Court Justice eight days before the election was against impeaching a President seven days after he incited an insurrectionist mob.
When I went up to cover the proceedings in Congress this week, the Capitol was newly surrounded by a massive armed force. Inside, it was eerily devoid of people, and the damage from last week’s rampaging Trumpsters was still visible on scarred walls and windows hastily covered with plywood. In the basement, there was an impromptu shrine to the Capitol police officer, Brian Sicknick, who died at the hands of the mob that championed a President who claimed the false mantle of “LAW & ORDER.”
Just outside the House floor, new magnetometers had appeared by order of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and all members of Congress were required to go through them. But when the House convened late Tuesday, Lauren Boebert, the famously pistol-packing freshman congresswoman from Colorado who had live-tweeted the Speaker’s movements in the middle of the riot, refused to give her bag to police after it set off the alarm. . Many of her Republican colleagues also refused, some with almost cartoonish displays of outrage. Debbie Lesko of Arizona complained on Twitter about being “wanded like criminals” and insisted that the arrival of such a basic security measure—presumably she had flown to Washington from Arizona?—was proof that the House of Representatives was now “Pelosi’s communist America.” This performance was just about as revealing of the true state of our politics as anything said on the floor during the impeachment debate. Debbie Lesko, not Liz Cheney, is the face of today’s Republican Party, of Trump’s Republican Party.
In the real Washington, meanwhile, a state of security alarm bordering on the unprecedented was growing about threats to the Capitol and Biden’s Inauguration. By the inauguration, there will be more American troops stationed in Washington than in all of Afghanistan or Iraq, some twenty thousand in total, and, for the first time since the eighteen-sixties, National Guard soldiers are garrisoned in the Capitol.
The troops are there because of a lie, a big monstrous lie told by the President and spread by many of the Republicans who rose in his defense on Wednesday: a lie about the election that he lost and refused to concede. Because of them, America is now a country that has to build a wall around its Capitol to defend its Congress, not from some foreign threat but from fellow-Americans. Which, whatever the outcome of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, is quite a Presidential legacy indeed.