The point of Donald Trump’s second impeachment is not his actual conviction. The quivering weakness of many Republican senators, who will not be moved to vote against him even after he incited a mob to attack the Capitol, means conviction appears impossible. But Trump can still be held to account.
Indeed, this reckoning has already begun.
Of all the myths about Donald Trump, the one that shows him continuously escaping all responsibility for his destructive actions may be the most enduring. During years of studying and writing about him I have often believed it myself. But now, with the House impeachment managers about to tell the story of Trump’s failed effort to overturn the 2020 election result, I can see that they have already delivered the kind of justice he deserves.
The disgrace that attached to Trump as he was impeached a second time — with 10 House Republicans voting with the Democratic majority — ensures that forevermore his story will begin with the humiliating words, “Twice impeached.” What will follow will reference the bloody Capitol riot, which he inspired, and the Ukraine scandal.
As these outrages are fitted into the context of his fatally flawed response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump’s White House term will replace Richard Nixon’s as a cautionary tale of a presidency that ended in ignominy.
To understand how Trump has already lost, it helps to note how he judges himself and others. He likes to control the narrative. Public acclaim, recorded in the press, has always been his stock in trade. From his early days when he pressured Forbes magazine to overstate his wealth to his recent demand that officials in Georgia “find” enough votes to give him an election win, Trump has devoted enormous effort to making others believe he was incomparably successful.
As Trump defined things, even his failures, like his bankruptcies, became evidence of his brilliance since, as he said, “I used the laws of the country to my benefit.” In the meantime, he tried to shame and humiliate those he considered to be rivals or critics. When former protégé and White House staffer Omarosa Manigualt Newman criticized him in a book he called her “a crazed, crying lowlife.” After Jimmy Carter said Russia’s help likely put Trump in office, he called Carter a “terrible” and “forgotten” president.
In Trump’s attacks on others and his reflexive self-aggrandizement, Trump makes clear that what matters to him is not an accurate record of success and failure but rather the stories that are told about him. In the case of his second impeachment, there is abundant, widely seen video evidence of the former president’s inflammatory rhetoric urging his followers to go to the Capitol and the mob’s reaction — including remarks from rioters that they were there because they were “inspired” by Trump and because “our president wants us here.” Comments like these form the spine of the case laid out in the House impeachment managers’ trial brief.
As the lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin told The New York Times, “The story of the president’s actions is both riveting and horrifying. We think that every American should be aware of what happened — that the reason he was impeached by the House and the reason he should be convicted and disqualified from holding future federal office is to make sure that such an attack on our democracy and Constitution never happens again.”
Raskin and the eight other Democratic managers will formally seek Trump’s conviction, which the senators could follow with a vote to ban him from future office. However, with all but five of the 50 Republican senators already having voted against trying Trump at all, it appears highly unlikely that a total of 17 of them will break party ranks to help the Democrats reach the two-thirds total needed for official conviction.
After his first impeachment, in which Mitt Romney was the only GOP senator to declare him guilty, Trump celebrated his acquittal surrounded by supporters at the White House. Arriving in the East Room to the dramatic strains of Hail to the Chief, he delivered a long and rambling diatribe in which he lashed out at “dirty cops” and “leakers and liars,” whom he blamed for his troubles.
Impeachment Two finds Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort without access to the trappings of office — no East Room, no Marine Band — and diminishing public stature. Laurence Leamer, the author of “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace,” says members are quitting the swanky club. Trump’s luxury business brand is tarnished and an ABC News/Ipsos poll finds 56% of Americans believe he should be convicted and barred from future office.
The poll, the second impeachment, and the damage to his reputation are real rebukes and contradict the notion that Trump always escapes accountability. This is a story that he can’t retell — and it’s one that’s far different from the myth he weaves. The impeachment trial and the looming judgment of history inevitably will reflect Trump as a morally corrupt and venal character.
Trump will likely appear on television to proclaim victory if members of his party, fearful of his base, make sure he isn’t convicted. But nothing he says will eclipse the images of violence at the Capitol, which must be considered the defining moment of his time in office. Nothing will rewrite the story of his disgrace and humiliation.