If the denouement of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial had been a Hollywood film, stirring music would have struck up around the time Congressman Joe Neguse explained why he thinks the floor of the US Senate is “sacred”.
“The 13th amendment, the amendment abolishing slavery was passed in this very room – not figuratively, literally where you all sit and where I stand,” said Neguse, the son of immigrants from Eritrea. “We made the decision to enter world war two from this chamber. We’ve certainly had our struggles but we’ve always risen to the occasion when it mattered the most.”
Chords would have swelled as Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, looked the senators in the eye and implored: “The children of the insurrectionists – even the violent and dangerous ones – they’re our children, too.”
And even hard-hearted Republicans would have turned to each other and wept when Raskin entreated: “Senators, this trial in the final analysis is not about Donald Trump. The country and world know who Donald Trump is. This trial is about who we are. Who we are!”
But Washington is no Hollywood and the Senate – while it is predictable – doesn’t guarantee happy endings. The cold, hard fact of Trump’s second impeachment trial on Saturday was Trump’s second acquittal. His son, Eric, tweeted simply: “2-0.”
As the time to vote arrived just before 4pm, the old chamber filled with a hubbub of expectant voices. McConnell, seated on the front row, planted the tips of his fingers together like a cartoon villain. The public gallery above was a sea of empty seats because of coronavirus precautions, although Democrat Congressman Al Green of Texas, a pioneer of Trump impeachment calls, was sitting alone and looking on.
The charge against Trump of inciting insurrection was read. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest serving member of the Senate and presiding officer at the trial, said: “Senators, how say you? Is the respondent, Donald John Trump, guilty or not guilty?”
Typically senators hold votes by shouting “Aye!” or “No!”. The manner in which each now took it turns to rise to their feet and utter “Guilty” or “Not guilty” gave the event new gravitas, as if suddenly evocative of a court of law.
They cast their votes in alphabetical order with all senators except Rand Paul wearing masks due to the virus. The voicing of “guilty” or “not guilty” pinged back and forth between Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right.
Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio offered a characteristically gravelly “Guilty.” Richard Burr of North Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana were the first Republicans to break ranks. Republican Ted Cruz rose to his feet, buttoned his blue jacket and said loudly: “Not guilty.”
When his turn came, McConnell, who had described the vote as a “close call”, peeled off his mask and stood up with his hands folded in front of his yellow tie. “Not guilty,” he said, quietly but firmly.
From that moment the die was cast. If the minority leader had gone against Trump, it is not hard to imagine that a sufficient number of Republicans would have followed to secure a conviction. For those who believe McConnell is the architect of much that has gone wrong in his party and country, it was another compelling piece of evidence.
After about 10 minutes, the result was announced: 57 for guilty, 43 not guilty. Leahy declared: “Two-thirds of the senators present not having voted guilty, the Senate adjudges that the respondent, Donald John Trump, former president of the United States, is not guilty as charged on the article of impeachment.”
It was hardly a complete vindication. By a simple majority, Trump lost. It was the most bipartisan margin in favor of conviction in history. He was fortunate that Senate rules require two thirds of votes cast. The impeachment managers fell just 10 short.
In one of the last spaces on earth where phones and laptops are prohibited, reporters bolted from the press gallery to hit their deadlines. Most senators also hurtled towards the exits. But a few from both parties made their way over to Ben Sasse, one of the Republican rebels, to offer supportive words or taps on the arm.
As the Senate returned to its usual state – almost empty – there was a final twist. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, spoke from the heart: “This trial wasn’t even about choosing country over party, even not that. This was about choosing country over Donald Trump. And 43 Republican members chose Trump. They chose Trump. It should be a weight on their conscience today. And it shall be a weight upon their conscience in the future.”
And then McConnell gave his most damning criticism yet of the former president. “Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” he said. “There is no question – none – that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”
McConnell had only voted to acquit, he claimed, because of a technicality: Citizen Trump is “constitutionally not eligible for conviction”.
Only in today’s Washington could someone be so clear-eyed about the greatest ever betrayal by a US president of his oath and office just minutes after letting him off the hook. It was like a juror at the OJ Simpson trial voting not guilty then rushing outside with the news that yes, of course he did it.
But if there’s one thing that McConnell has mastered over the years, it’s the art of having your cake and eating it too.