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Inside a Dead-on-Arrival Impeachment

Former president Donald Trump will almost certainly not be convicted and barred from office. How that matters.

We know a lot more on February 12 than on January 6.

First, it is clear that the assault on the Capitol has become the most damaging event of Donald Trump’s political career. Combined with forfeiting the Senate in the January run-off elections, the lethal storming of the federal legislature by Trump’s most unscrupulous and foolhardy supporters the next day has now overshadowed a surprisingly strong performance for then-President Trump and the GOP last fall, in a year where everything went wrong.

Trump could have conceivably held himself out as the strongest Republican in the country, in cruise control for the 2024 presidential nomination, a budding oligarch with the loyalty of a vast following and a stable of proteges, including several members of his own family. Even his vainglorious attempts to overturn the 2020 election with constant insinuations—nay, declarations—of voter fraud could have been overlooked as the culmination of a years-long Republican whisper campaign on the subject.

But once there were deaths—and images of national humiliation broadcast all over the world—that all changed. To perhaps put it lightly, January 6 raised painful questions for the conservative, nationalist, and populist movements that supported Trump’s ascent as to what manner of man had occupied the Oval Office for four years.

I was in Florida earlier this month. It’s a state with residents like Matt Gaetz, Tucker Carlson, Ron DeSantis, Marco Rubio, and Rick Scott (all 2024 prospects), which is to say it has become something of Republican headquarters in exile. Even among some of Trump’s most stalwart, elite backers, there was speculation that the big man had finally hung it up. Deplatformed, he left office with a near-60 percent disapproval rating.

Trump has been radio silent since departing Washington last month, with exactly zero public addresses or official utterances. His progeny and kin may carry on his legacy, or at least his brand, with former White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump mulling a Senate bid in Florida (where else?) and daughter-in-law and budding Fox News presence Lara Trump weighing one in North Carolina.

Trump did not follow the recommendation of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, whom Trump spared from a potential stint in federal prison in his final days in power, that Trump make a big show of his second impeachment trial. “Trump returns. Trump goes to the Capitol, to the well of the Senate to face his accusers and the jury. And he throws down hard,” Bannon told the website Revolver News earlier this month. It may have seemed ludicrous legal counsel, but such an appearance would have been vintage Trump, reclaiming the limelight. It didn’t happen. Trump has said he will not honor the proceedings with an appearance, and as the week closes in Washington, there have been no signs of the 45th president.

The second thing we know is that for how badly—tragically—Trump miscalculated on Jan. 6, his most trenchant critics whiffed politically. When a double-digit number of Republicans voted to impeach Trump (again) in his final days, there was speculation that this could finally be it. Press reports were littered with rumor and innuendo that Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Senate Republican, was in a rage at Trump and was prepared to do the unthinkable—join with Democrats in voting to convict. If so, McConnell could bring over the heart of the Republican Senate caucus, providing enough votes to convict Trump, and next and more importantly, in a chamber where every member sees himself a future president, bar Trump from running in 2024.

It didn’t even get off the ground.

McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, introduced a motion to declare the impeachment trial unconstitutional—a point debated by the legal elite and unsettled by the Supreme Court—because Trump was not in office. Though it did not carry, forty-five Republican senators voted for it. Rep. Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, one of the House impeachment managers, painstakingly made the case this week that the matter of jurisdiction is thus settled. So, Raskin’s message to Republicans is, even if you voted against the trial’s very constitutionality, you can still vote to convict.

On Friday, Politico‘s morning “Playbook” focused on the unlikely externality that McConnell would still do so. The plugged-in conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt told NBC this week he expects none of the 45 to defect; I am told the same. This means Democrats are likely 13 votes shy. If so, the questions get academic: Will Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah vote to convict Trump (again)? Likely. Will Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana join him? Perhaps, but the political ramifications are constrained to his right flank and a potential primary challenge in the Bayou in 2026; he was just re-elected.

This matters for those, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, who took the gamble to convict and make a power play within the party. If Trump had actually gone down, the daughter of a notorious vice president could have made a conceivable play for Minority Leader—or the speakership, if the Republicans take back power in the House next year. In a world where Trump was truly persona non grata, and no threat to run himself, Cheney could have even have weighed a run for the presidency that eluded her father. Instead, she’s trying to ward off a primary challenge, and failing to elude party censure, in her at-large Wyoming House district. Trumpist stalwarts, such as Rep. Gaetz, have been on the ground trying to pick up an intra-party scalp.

To the critics, reports that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was received with (literal) Republican applause behind closed doors last week, after being kicked off her committees for conspiracy mongering, show a party in a death spiral, in the throes of rank know-nothingism. But I think that misreads the nature of how and why Republicans are dug-in.

Many in the GOP feel the constellation of enemies arrayed against them is unprecedented in American life—corporate America, the military establishment, the academy, social media platforms—and, on that, they’re right. They see the last Oval Office occupant as unfairly undermined with a Russia investigation that produced little in the way of a smoking gun, but ate up the majority of his presidency. They feel they are justified. And they feel they can easily win.

In January, I was in the White House the first time a president of the United States was impeached for a second time. The attitude in the building was basically sanguine, another battle line in the long war, as our current president would say, for the “soul of the nation.”

President Biden’s agenda, if he can be said to properly have one, may well be unpopular. Even if the man himself very much is not. (Very potentially) robbed of the Trumpian scapegoat, Americans will come to face-to-face with the reality of the left flank on which Biden catapulted to power. That is, an administration preoccupied with “equity” over the more traditional “equality.” That is, further COVID-19 lockdowns combined with a lethargic, politicized vaccine rollout. And that is, clear contradictions with Biden’s pledge to be a man of labor.

At a time of near-unanimity for Democratic politics in corporate America, organized labor has apparently taken notice, already slapping down Biden on his environmental program, and drawing the condemnation of Richard Trumka, the president of the storied AFL-CIO. Whether or not you think that gripe is legitimate on a warming planet, Biden failed an early test in keeping his coalition together.

Add into the mix: The logical endpoint of many mainstream Democratic policies is seen to be California, where critics say state failure is commonplace, seen on the streets—or in the schools—of San Francisco, or through the investors fleeing to the more Republican climes of Texas and Florida. Detractors say the hypocrisy in the state’s leadership rivals the house of Bourbon, as shown at the French Laundry in Napa this summer. In what would have sounded lunatic just a year ago, the Golden State’s pedigreed Democratic governor is now fighting off a recall.

After successfully removing him from office, it’s not a mystery why the Democrats don’t mind keeping Trump on the docket.