As the U.S. Senate trial winds down, it is clear that the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump was well deserved, as is conviction — which he may or may not get.
That's not because of any holes in the case against him. House impeachment managers, over the course of several days, laid out compelling evidence of how Trump built the false narrative of a "stolen election" over months, reaching a Jan. 6 crescendo after he summoned followers to rally in a last-ditch attempt to stop the certification of an election he had lost decisively.
House managers showed Trump's utter failure to act swiftly to quell the insurrection with all the means at his disposal. They demonstrated, in fact, his callousness during the violence, when he continued to call senators, imploring them to slow down the certification. Trump's defense, such as it was, concluded in a few hours after making a halfhearted attempt to define him as a "law and order" president by playing videos in which he uttered the phrase.
Regardless of the outcome, it was vital that the trial be held and that Americans saw, in a comprehensive way, what led up to one of the most infamous days in U.S. history.
The trial was never just about the speech Trump made that day, incendiary as it was. Trump groomed his followers carefully, over months, to reject any possibility that their champion could lose, to raise the stakes so high that they believed the nation itself hung in the balance, and the way to save it was to "fight like hell."
From their own mouths that day and since we have heard that they believed they were acting at the behest of the president, which explains the singular brazenness of their actions as they pushed past barricades and stomped into the Capitol with the bravado of a conquering army.
When the rally turned violent, just moments after his speech ended, Trump did ... nothing. For hours, insurrectionists breached police lines, scaled the walls of the Capitol, smashed windows, viciously attacked law enforcement and ransacked the Capitol itself, stealing property, rifling through legislators' papers and even taking the time to smear excrement on the walls. Trump never told them to stop. He never made any substantive effort to end the mayhem he had set in motion.
There are still, frankly, unanswered questions about how the Capitol came to be so lightly guarded that day, why there was such a delay in sending reinforcements. Why was it left to Vice President Mike Pence, being hustled away from the mob intent on hanging him, to authorize the use of the National Guard? Investigations should continue until we have answers.
Incredibly, after more than 120 law enforcement officers injured, some seriously, one killed; after lawmakers and staff were forced to hide for hours from insurgents who hunted them through the halls, Trump told the mob to go home "in peace." He told them how much he loved them, how "very special" they were, and implored them to "remember this day forever."
It is chilling to think there may be no consequence for all this. Eric Janus, a constitutional law expert at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, told an editorial writer that "we have rarely seen such a clear case of incitement." Moreover, he said, Trump incurred further culpability by his failure to take action to protect the Capitol, and the constitutional process of election certification that he did his best to stop. "It is terribly important for our democracy to make a clear statement that this kind of incitement to violence by the president is unacceptable," said Janus, who along with more than 140 other constitutional scholars across the country, signed a letter calling elements of Trump's defense "legally frivolous."
The message here cannot be to affirm that some sort of "January exception" exists that allows a president at the end of his term to commit impeachable offenses, obstruct the peaceful transfer of power, and simply walk away. Rep. Ted Lieu, part of the House impeachment team, got it exactly right when he said "impeachment is not just about the past. It's about the future."
Janus notes that failure to convict will necessarily result in Trump's acquittal. That would not, Janus said, carry a finding of innocence, but rather that the Senate lacked the two-thirds necessary to convict.
Nevertheless, if Trump escapes conviction there can be little question he will hold it as a banner of victory. He will use it to rally his followers, to grow his cult of grievance. If that happens, shame on him. And shame on us.