There was a moment during yesterday’s impeachment trial when the news shows took center stage.
The Democrats decided to play clips of former top Trump officials—Mick Mulvaney, H.R. McMaster, John Bolton—saying in interviews that their ex-boss had done something terrible in whipping up his supporters on Jan. 6.
Now this would never be allowed in a courtroom. The opinions of associates have no bearing on the defendant’s guilt or innocence and would not be admissible as evidence. The only thing a judge would allow is if one of them was testifying about a real-time conversation with the defendant.
A Senate trial is fundamentally different from a criminal trial. It is a political process headed toward a political outcome. That is one reason Donald Trump is on the verge of being acquitted.
What the Democrats are doing is playing for the verdict of history. They want to discredit Trump, and Trumpism, forever. Sure, they’d like to diminish him as a political force in the midterm elections. Sure, much of this is personal since they lived through the nightmare of the Capitol riot.
But ultimately they want Trump to be remembered 100 years from not only as a president who was impeached twice, but as the man who fomented a deadly assault on American democracy.
So they turned their case into a television show, using video and graphics, perhaps fitting for our electronic age and a reality-show president who watched so much cable news.
Yet what Trump loyalists are saying—and what his lawyers will argue in their one-day defense today—is that their man is not responsible for the carnage.
They will not focus on Trump urging his supporters to come to Washington when Congress was to certify Joe Biden’s victory, or his rally speech urging them to march on the Capitol. They may say he had no intent to incite violence, but they will largely stick to process arguments—the trial itself is unconstitutional, a private citizen cannot be convicted on an impeachment charge.
The Democrats have been taking a kitchen-sink approach. Trump’s dismissal of the kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, what he once said about the Proud Boys—such matters are worthy of congressional scrutiny, but they are not mentioned in the article of impeachment.
As for all the video played at the trial—most of which would be excluded by a judge—it is squarely aimed at the court of public opinion. No matter how vicious or murderous the rioters were, that doesn’t prove Trump wanted them to commit the crimes they did. But it indelibly links him to thugs who carried out their crimes in his name. And it was of course edited to prove a narrative.
The security-camera and body-cam footage played Wednesday was truly chilling. To see the insurrectionists coming from inside the building—with Mike Pence and Mitt Romney being whisked to safety, with Nancy Pelosi staffers barricading themselves in an office—captures the fear of those moments. It also makes clear that, but for a few lucky breaks and the bravery of certain officers, some of our nation’s leaders may well have been killed.
Now there’s a mainstream version of history, but it’s not the only one. Scholars still argue about Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. Just as Trump assailed the credibility of fake news, he will decry both impeachment trials as witch hunts. He has already convinced a majority of Republicans that he really won the election. And they will continue to believe him.
But the Democrats are hoping that their narrative—that the 45th president endangered democracy–will be the one taught in school textbooks.