The Morning Dispatch: Acquitted Again

In the end, 43 Republicans stuck with the former president.

Happy Monday! Bet you didn’t think you were getting a TMD today because of the holiday. Wrong!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Senate voted over the weekend to acquit Donald Trump on impeachment charges of inciting rioters to storm the U.S. Capitol. Fifty-seven senators voted to convict the former president—including Republican Sens. Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey—falling ten votes short of the two-thirds threshold.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued step-by-step guidelines for schools to return to in-person learning. The guidelines—which are not binding for schools—do not stipulate teachers need to be vaccinated prior to schools reopening, but do recommend schools continue virtual or hybrid approaches until community spread falls below specific levels.

  • Mario Draghi, former head of the European Central Bank, was sworn in as Italy’s prime minister over the weekend after the previous government—headed by Giuseppe Conte—collapsed last month.

  • The United States confirmed 66,490 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 4.8 percent of the 1,392,266 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,165 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 485,332. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 67,023 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,242,472 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 52,884,356.

Senate Republicans Deem Trump Not Guilty

There were some unexpected last-minute twists and turns, but Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial concluded on Saturday afternoon in the manner most political observers expected: A narrow acquittal, with only a smattering of Republicans breaking ranks.

With all 100 senators present and voting, the House impeachment managers needed 67 votes to convict the former president and bar him from holding public office. They got 57: all 50 Democrats and seven Republicans. Sens. Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey took the plunge.

Much transpired in the trial since we were last in your inbox on Friday morning. Later that day, Trump’s defense team presented their case, using fewer than three of the 16 hours allotted to them. “The article of impeachment now before the Senate is an unjust and blatantly unconstitutional act of political vengeance,” Michael van der Veen told senators. “No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s January 6 speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection. … Far from promoting insurrection against the United States, the president’s remarks explicitly encouraged those in attendance to exercise their rights peacefully and patriotically.”

The defense relied heavily on whataboutism, presenting a series of videos that attempted to equate prominent Democrats’ behavior in recent years with Trump’s actions and rhetoric leading up to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. One showed a handful of Democratic members of Congress—including the House’s lead impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin—objecting to the electoral vote count in 2017. Another featured examples of Democrats—including Rep. Maxine Waters and Joe Biden—deploying incendiary language. Another was literally nine minutes of sentence fragments from Democratic politicians that included the word “fight.”

Making what amounted to a First Amendment defense, Bruce Castor told the jurors the trial was about something far bigger than Trump: “Constitutional cancel culture.”

“It is about silencing and banning the speech the majority does not agree with,” Castor said. “It is about canceling 75 million Trump voters and criminalizing political viewpoints. That is what this trial is really about.”

After a brief question and answer period—during which Trump’s defense team deflected rather than elucidate what actions the former president took to stop the violence on January 6—the Senate adjourned for the day, barreling toward a Saturday afternoon acquittal.

A wrench was thrown in the process Friday night, however, when Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler—a Republican from Washington who voted to impeach President Trump last month—released a statement shedding additional light on Trump’s actions during the riot..

When [Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol. McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’

The statement—which was based on conversations McCarthy had relayed to Rep. Herrera Beutler—painted an even more damning picture of Trump’s negligence. It was evidence, albeit secondhand, that the former president was not only aware of the violence taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, he approved of it.

The revelation threw the Senate into chaos. The two sides had a tacit understanding going into the trial that neither would call witnesses, allowing the proceedings to come to a hasty conclusion. But Herrera Beutler’s remarks were essentially a plea to have senators call her to testify, and the upper chamber reversed course Saturday morning, voting 55 to 45 to expand the scope of the trial and subpoena witnesses who could provide more information about Trump’s actions and state of mind on January 6.

The desire to obtain additional facts was short lived. Just hours after that Saturday morning vote, Senate Democrats backtracked and came to a deal with their Republican counterparts, most of whom had no desire to go down the witness path: Read Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record as evidence, and move to wrap the trial that afternoon.

Raskin defended the decision on Meet the Press yesterday. “We could have had a thousand witnesses, but that could not have overcome the kinds of silly arguments that people like McConnell and [Sen. Shelly Moore] Capito were hanging their hats on,” he said. Rep. Joe Neguse, another impeachment manager, told CBS News that “witnesses that were not friendly to the prosecution were not going to comply voluntarily, which meant that we were going to be litigating subpoenas for months, and potentially years.”

Herrera Beutler, through a spokesman, said she would have testified under oath if asked.

There will undoubtedly be additional hearings that aim to get closer to the full truth of what exactly happened on January 6. But both parties over the weekend had an opportunity to start that process in earnest. Instead, in a bipartisan fashion, they opted to take the politically expedient path.

The vote itself played out about as most political prognosticators predicted, but that doesn’t render what transpired any less historic. Just over a year ago, Sen. Mitt Romney became the first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his or her own party. On Saturday, he did the same again, accompanied by six others.

“On election night 2014, I promised Nebraskans I’d always vote my conscience even if it was against the partisan stream,” Sen. Ben Sasse wrote in a statement announcing his decision. “I cannot go back on my word, and Congress cannot lower our standards on such a grave matter, simply because it is politically convenient.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection in two years, said that Trump failed to uphold his oath of office. “If months of lies, organizing a rally of supporters in an effort to thwart the work of Congress, encouraging a crowd to march on the Capitol, and then taking no meaningful action to stop the violence once it began is not worthy of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from holding office in the United States,” she added, “I cannot imagine what is.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy was especially blunt: “Our Constitution and our country is more important than any one person. I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty.”

The majority of the Republican conference that voted to acquit Trump did so under the claim  that the trial itself was unconstitutional, a premise highly disputed by conservative and liberal constitutional scholars alike. “The real purpose of this trial was to tar and feather not just the rioters, but anyone who supported the former president and any senator who refuses to vote to convict,” Sen. Marco Rubio said. “I voted to acquit former President Trump because I will not allow my anger over the criminal attack of January 6th nor the political intimidation from the left to lead me into supporting a dangerous constitutional precedent.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to split the difference. Despite floating multiple times in recent weeks that he was open to convicting Trump, raising the possibility that the senate’s top Republican could change the dynamics of the vote by bringing others with him, McConnell gave top cover to Republicans worried about incurring the wrath of Trump supporters in the GOP—and Trump himself. But shortly after voting to acquit Trump using the same shaky constitutional argument, McConnell took to the Senate floor and lit into the former president.

“Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” the Kentucky Republican said. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their President. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”

“Many politicians sometimes make overheated comments or use metaphors that unhinged listeners might take literally,” McConnell continued. “This was different. This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”

The most shocking part of McConnell’s speech came toward the end: “We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”

In a rare phone interview with Politico Saturday night, McConnell put a stake in the ground opposing any future effort from the former president and his allies to primary Republicans he deems insufficiently MAGA. “My goal is, in every way possible, to have nominees representing the Republican Party who can win in November,” McConnell said. “Some of them may be people the former president likes. Some of them may not be. The only thing I care about is electability.”

But Trump may have other plans. Having kept relatively quiet since leaving office, the former president released a lengthy statement following his acquittal on Saturday. 

“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” he said. “In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”

“We have so much work ahead of us, and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant, and limitless American future.”

Worth Your Time

  • How to parse the CDC’s latest guidelines on how and when to reopen K-12 schools? Dr. Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor, believes they will keep too many schools closed for too long. “The new guidelines for the spring are a start, but keeping them in place for the fall will likely mean we cannot open all schools,” Oster—who has been maintaining the COVID-19 School Response Dashboardwrites in The New York Times. “This would be a tragedy for children.”

  • From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program—paid out-of-work writers to travel around the country and produce city and state guides and histories. Some were tasked with collecting and compiling oral histories from the last few thousand survivors of U.S. slavery. In a piece for The Atlantic, Clint Smith explores some of those recollections, and why—even though they aren’t “famous accounts of extraordinary people”—they’re still so important to read. “While many of these narratives vividly portray the horror of slavery—of families separated, of backs beaten, of bones crushed,” Smith writes, “embedded within them are stories of enslaved people dancing together on Saturday evenings as respite from their work; of people falling in love, creating pockets of time to see each other when the threat of violence momentarily ceased; of children skipping rocks in a creek or playing hide-and-seek amid towering oak trees, finding moments when the movement of their bodies was not governed by anything other than their own sense of wonder. These small moments—the sort that freedom allows us to take for granted—have stayed with me.”

  • Today is President’s Day, and Yuval Levin marked the occasion by lamenting the “sorry state of Congress.” The conclusion of this weekend’s impeachment trial, Levin argues, is just the latest development in a years-long abdication of authority by the legislative branch. “We are in a moment analogous in some respects to the mid 1970s, when modern conservative constitutionalism was born, except that at that point the most urgent problem was a misunderstanding of the proper role of the courts, and today it’s a misunderstanding of the proper role of Congress,” he writes. “The next phase of conservative constitutionalism will require a similar set of efforts ... but aimed at recovering an understanding of Congress’s proper role, the sources of its legitimacy, its value to our society, and how it needs to change to be worthy of all that. It is time for an era of congressionalism in our constitutional thought.”

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In a deeply reported Sunday French Press, David dives into the the forces that kept a litany of sexual assault and rape allegations against Christian apologist leader Ravi Zacharias from surfacing. Zacharias, who abused women in the U.S. and abroad for more than a decade, weaponized intimidation and marginalization to silence inquiring voices within his own congregation. “Christian ministries are populated by leadership teams who derive not just their paychecks but also their own public reputations from their affiliation with the famous founder. They’re admired in part because the founder is admired,” David writes. “They have influence in part because the founder has influence. When the founder fails, they lose more than a paycheck. There is powerful personal incentive to circle the wagons and to defend the ministry, even when that defense destroys lives.”

  • On this weekend’s Ruminant podcast, Jonah takes a quick break from jaunting around Austin, Texas with his daughter (where it is currently 20 degrees) to make amends for his missing Friday G-File. During the respite, Jonah muses about the Lincoln Project, conservative conspiracy theories surrounding January 6, and last week’s impeachment trial.

  • Liesl Hickey, partner at Ascent Media and co-founder of N2 America, joined Sarah and Steve on Friday’s Dispatch Podcast to discuss how students and parents are suffering under the constraints of remote learning. “If we’re going to follow the science, and we’re going to follow the data like they’ve talked about over and over, I think it’s pretty clear,” Hickey says. “It’s safe for kids to be back in school. I think the guidelines that they’re putting out are nonsensical.”

  • For a special Friday Mop-Up (🔒), Sarah was joined by newly minted Dispatch contributing editor Chris Stirewalt to talk about the 2020 election, his time at Fox News, and the future of the Republican Party. Chris’ million dollar question for the GOP: “Can they pick a way through this in such a fashion that they repudiate the worst degradations to the Republic from Trump, but not in a way that permanently alienates them from that 20 percent of America? Because they need that 20 percent of America to have a winning coalition.”

Let Us Know

What do you think the outcome of the impeachment trial says about the Republican Party? Does the GOP officially belong to Trump? Or is a harder break from the former president on the horizon?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).