The Third Impeachment of Donald J. Trump

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Tonight the Congress began his second lawsuit against former President Donald Trump for his role in the events of the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising. The first came just a month after the Capitol siege, when the Senate held an impeachment trial abstract which resulted in his acquittal. Last year, the Democrats leading the prosecution chose not to call witnesses. “People want to go home for Valentine’s Day,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware would have impeachment officials told, infuriating those who hoped the Senate would hold Trump accountable and bar him from running for public office again.

The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack is calling witnesses this time around – many of them. In its first public hearing, televised in prime time by every major network except Fox News, the panel played clips of former Attorney General William Barr recounting how he told Trump that his claims that the 2020 election was stolen was “bullshit”. The committee interviewed Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, who said in a videotaped deposition that she “accepted” Barr’s conclusion about her father’s false claims.

The millions of viewers who likely tuned in to tonight’s opening salvo saw only a snippet of what the select committee uncovered. (By design, this first of several audiences was an opening statement, essentially teasing the reveals to come in upcoming episodes, the next of which is on Monday morning.) Neither was the two-hour intro so dry. than most congressional procedures nor as smooth as some expected when the news has fallen that the committee had hired a former ABC News executive to help plan its showcase.

Yet at times the event felt as much like a criminal trial as a standard House hearing. Instead of an endless parade of statements from lawmakers, viewers had to endure just two: from President Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, and Vice President Liz Cheney, the Republican from Wyoming who was ousted from office last year as a member of the GOP leadership for his vote to impeach Trump. The committee also waived opening statements from its two live witnesses, Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards and documentary filmmaker Nick Quested.

Cheney, who holds a law degree from the University of Chicago, gave a 30-minute speech presenting the committee’s case that Trump was ‘at the center’ of the Jan. 6 riot and efforts to nullify the election who led to it. “President Trump called the crowd together, rallied the crowd and lit the flame for this attack,” she said. What followed is perhaps the most compelling evidence presented by the committee tonight…an 11-minute video compilation of the attack itself, showing the Capitol breach and featuring never-before-seen police body-cam footage showing harrowing hand-to-hand combat between officers and rioters. “We lost the line! We lost the line! an officer is heard shouting at one point as a crowd rushed towards the Capitol.

Again and again, the committee returned to Trump and his role in the insurgency. Among the arguments made by the hearings is that Trump and his allies knew he had lost the election even as he tried to hold on to power. Committee members also spent much of the second half of tonight’s presentation trying to demonstrate that Trump’s post-election tweets and statements were interpreted as motivation – and even direction – by the Prouds. Boys and the Oath Keepers, the two bands that came to Washington in January. 6 prepared not only for peaceful demonstrations but for violence.

The purpose of the hearings, aside from strengthening the all-time high around Jan. 6, is clearly to warn the public of the danger Trump still poses, both as an individual who could run for president again in two years. and as a leader of a movement that doesn’t care much about democracy.

The structure of tonight’s opening — giving equal weight to Democratic and Republican leaders on the panel — had the effect of lending the committee more bipartisanship than is probably deserved. The House GOP officially boycotted the effort, forcing Democrats to nominate Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois as members because they were the only Republicans willing to participate.

Trump is not a defendant, despite the committee’s best efforts to portray him as such. Its members cannot hope to sanction him, only to sway public opinion and, perhaps, push the Department of Justice to prosecute the former president more aggressively than it has already done. The panel’s chances of reaching audiences in a meaningful way are also limited, as the network with by far the most viewers voting for Trump, Fox News, chose not to broadcast the hearing. Congress had the opportunity to hold Trump accountable more than a year ago when the horror of January 6 was still fresh. The House impeached him and the Senate tried him. But the senators chose Valentine over the witnesses, a quick verdict over a thorough and thorough investigation.

Now, audiences will finally get something close to a full Jan. 6 account, but is it too late?

Republicans are poised to win back Congress this fall, and Trump, free to run once again, remains the likeliest presidential nominee in 2024. “Tonight I say this to my fellow Republicans who champion the indefensible,” Cheney said at the end of his speech, in implicit acknowledgment of his solitary place in the party. “There will come a day when Donald Trump will be gone, but your dishonor will remain.” The committee is trying to reach people who have yet to make up their minds about Trump and the current threat to democracy, but there are still plenty left.

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