In Their Moment of Truth, Senate Republicans Falter

The country is left to pay the price.
Michael van der Veen, an attorney for former President Donald Trump, speaks during Trump's second impeachment trial on February 12, 2021.
Credit: Senate Television via AP

The country is left to pay the price.

In his moment of truth, on January 6, Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick gave his life to honor his oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

That’s more than what 43 Senate Republicans were willing to do on Saturday, when they voted to give former President Trump a free pass for inciting the insurrection that left Officer Sicknick and four others dead.

Each of those Senators took an oath of their own to defend the Constitution. Their lives were not in danger Saturday when their constitutional moment of truth arrived. Even so, they faltered, choosing to bow before an aspiring tyrant rather than stand up to defend our democracy.

All but seven of the 50 Senate Republicans voted to acquit Trump on the charge of inciting insurrection as part of his attempt to cling to power by overturning the results of free and fair elections he falsely claimed he won.

In acquiescing to political violence, those who fell in line with Trump blocked the Senate from holding him to account for striking a blow at democracy. They shirked their duty to repudiate not only Trump’s actions, but the politics he has fomented of fury and fear. And they failed to protect the country from future attempts—by Trump or anyone else—to replace reasoned dialogue, debate, and compromise with rancor, intimidation, and bloodshed.

As the impeachment proceedings documented, Trump set the tone for the January insurrection long ago. Indeed, he has invested years egging on violent extremists and giving license to the kind of white supremacists who paraded the Confederate flag through the Capitol right alongside Trump banners. 

Months before the election, Trump convinced supporters that he couldn’t lose the election unless it was rigged. When he lost by more than 7 million votes, Trump pressed the big lie that instead he’d won, launched a sustained effort to pressure state election officials into overturning the results, and threatened those who rejected his false victory claims. 

He called on supporters to descend on Washington, D.C. on January 6, the day the Constitution required Congress to formally certify the election results. When that day arrived, Trump whipped his backers into the angry mob that stormed the Capitol to disrupt the vote count.

Trump “told them to fight like hell,” recounted Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead prosecutor of the impeachment proceedings. “And they brought us hell that day.”

As his backers attacked, Trump, who long ago abandoned his own oath to defend the Constitution, neither confronted the rebellion nor condemned the rebels.

It was “the worst violation of the presidential oath of office in the history of the United States of America,” Raskin noted, adding, “Donald Trump surrendered his role as commander-in-chief and became the inciter-in-chief of a dangerous insurrection.”

The nation has been duly warned. We’ve seen the kind of sway a demagogue like Trump can exercise over large numbers of people, the kind of violent mob a would-be tyrant might summon, and the reckless and dangerous forces they can unleash.

On Saturday, instead of holding Trump to account, 43 Senate Republicans gave him a pass. Rather than repudiate Trump’s attempt to overturn free and fair elections, they condoned it by inaction. And, instead of protecting the country from political violence, their cowardice only invites more of the same.

As environmental advocates, we’re radical optimists. We regard public service as a high calling. We’ve seen people rise to the moment in unexpected ways. 

Sure enough, seven Republican Senators—Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana—joined all 50 Senate Democrats on Saturday,  voting to convict Trump for inciting insurrection against the government he was sworn to defend.

That was a majority, 57 in all, who stood up to hold Trump to account. It was the most bipartisan vote ever for the conviction of a president but it fell 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority an impeachment conviction requires.

When a Senator takes an oath to defend the Constitution, it’s more than a ceremonial pose. It’s a promise, before the nation, to become, as of that moment, a steward of our system of governance, a custodian of democracy itself. 

Taking that vow, though, doesn’t make it so. Only by living up to that promise and the solemn duty it confers does a politician have the chance to become something more.

And only by demanding allegiance to that oath and the values it embodies does a political party become something more than a hollowed-out shell of special-interest dealings and self-interested politicians who lack the fortitude and unifying vision required to lead the nation.

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