The plot (and spoilers) of Impeachment II

The rule of thumb in the cinema is that the original is invariably better than the sequel.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

But then you get The Dark Knight getting far more acclaim than Batman Begins. Or Godfather 2 being better than the first movie – and personally I thought Toy Story 3 was the best. And don’t get me started on Star Wars. 

So, what should we expect from Impeachment 2, Incitement of Insurrection, coming to a TV screen near you this week?

Some very general and obvious observations.

The plotlines in this second impeachment will be much easier to follow than the original. 

A presidential call to his Ukrainian counterpart asking questions about an obscure energy company on which Joe Biden’s son had served as a director, does not have the immediacy of the events of 6 January when a Trump supporting mob stormed Congress after listening to a speech delivered by the president. 

What is not in question is that the MAGA-mob tried to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Five people died following the mayhem. There will not be an American who doesn’t have a view on what unfolded.

The other quick observation I would make is this – the chamber where the Senate trial will unfold is also the crime-scene; the epicentre of this assault on America’s most sacred democratic sanctum. And the corollary of that is that some of the people who will be ‘trying’ the former president will have felt themselves to be victims of the crime that unfolded.

So what chance is there that Donald Trump will get a fair trial?

Well, the first thing I would say about that is though the language of impeachment is replete with quasi-judicial terminology, the jurors are the 100 Senators – Republican and Democrat. This is political. 

Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021

How many of those who will weigh the evidence for and against Donald Trump will be swayed by the evidence presented? I find it hard to imagine there will be a single one.

Democrats, I would guess, will vote as a block to convict. Republicans are split three ways – and this is a political split, not a schism based on the evidence. 

There are those Republicans who remain firmly behind Donald Trump, and will not now, not ever, vote to find him guilty of “incitement of insurrection”, the three words on the article of impeachment.

There are those who would love nothing more to see the former president slip away from the national consciousness, and feel that he has been a corrosive force on the democratic norms and values of US democracy – but don’t want to pick a fight with him for fear of the consequences. Their worst nightmare is Trump rallying support behind a Republican rival the next time they’re up for election.

And there is a smaller number of Republicans who are ready to very publicly say they believe that the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan needs to be rid of the Trump legacy, that it is a cancer that needs to be cut out.

In other words, this will all be about political calculation. And the second order calculation will be how these senators will explain the decision to their voters. captionDonald Trump’s second impeachment trial opens on Tuesday – but what’s it all about?

Which brings us to this next question, how will this play itself out?

Democrats will make a case that evokes the drama of the day and the fears some of them had – they thought their lives were in danger as they cowered in offices while the mob went room to room. The blame for that will be laid squarely at the defendant’s door.

The Trump defence will take two forms. 

On the substance of the “incitement of insurrection” charge, his lawyers will argue that he was exercising his free speech, First Amendment rights – and they will point out that in that address on 6 January, the president told his supporters to march on Congress “peacefully and patriotically”. 

But the speech was notable for all its “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” And telling his supporters that they have to be tough and not weak.

The US Capitol is seen in Washington, DC on January 22, 2018

And his case is not helped by the tweets and messaging around this time – urging his supporters to come to Washington on 6 January because it was “going to be wild”. 

In a video released on the night of the riots, Donald Trump told the mob that had descended on Congress that he loved them and they were special people. He tweeted that evening – seemingly to justify the actions of the insurgents – that this is what happens when you steal the result of the election.

He repeatedly claimed he had won the election by a landslide. There is no evidence for that.

He repeatedly claimed that the election had been stolen. Judge after judge – many appointed by Donald Trump – rejected those legal arguments put by his campaign lawyers. 

And the charges of fraud – again promoted by Mr Trump – were dismissed by the president’s own Attorney General William Barr; the head of election security – another Trump appointee – also said the election had been fair.

So don’t expect the president’s words to be the backbone of the defence.

Instead it will focus on the constitutionality of impeaching a president once he’s left office. The lawyers will argue that the weapon of impeachment is only to be used for a serving politician, not a private citizen (as Donald Trump now is).

How can you use the sanction of removing someone from office when they’ve already left office? And this is I suspect the justification (fig-leaf, I feel sure Democrats will insist) that Republicans will reach for as their justification for acquitting Donald Trump.

Former US President Donal Trump

Of course, Democrats will point out the offence took place while he was president, and you don’t get a free pass just because you’ve left office. Or as James Corden put it on his Late, Late Show, it’s like being pulled over by a traffic cop for speeding, and saying to the officer “I might well have been going at 50mph back then, but now as I speak to you I am stationary, so you can’t charge me now…”

Impeachment II will get big, big TV audiences – though they’d have been far greater if the president had testified, as Democrat impeachment managers had wanted.

But the outcome – and here I feel the need to issue a spoiler alert – is almost certainly going to be the same as Impeachment I. 

He will be acquitted.

Jon Sopel
North America editor

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