When two white men went on trial in Mississippi in 1955 for murdering Emmett Till, a Black teenager, the jury swiftly acquitted them despite indisputable evidence of their guilt.
Among 4,743 known lynchings in the U.S., that was the rare case that even got to court. Each one that went unpunished led inexorably to another.
The example of that craven Mississippi jury shadows the U.S. Senate this week as it undertakes to try ex-president Donald Trump for the gravest crime any politician ever committed against the American people.
Unlike a criminal trial, it isn’t about sending Trump to prison. The purposes, both urgent, are to anathemize what he did and disqualify him from running again.
And yet most of his party’s senators hope to acquit Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. If they succeed, they and their party will be branded forever as disloyal to the Constitution and faithless to the American people.
Trump is guilty as charged in the House impeachment resolution. There is no reasonable doubt that he deliberately incited the mob that ravaged the Capitol on Jan. 6. He did it to thwart the counting of the electoral votes for Joe Biden. If that was not sedition, the word means nothing.
It was the last resort of a demagogue in denial of his election defeat, the loss of more than 60 fabricated court cases and his own attorney general’s advice that there was no evidence of any significant fraud.
The House managers’ trial brief accurately calls Trump’s conduct “a betrayal of historic proportions.”
But unless conscience can conquer cowardice, the Senate will acquit Trump as corruptly as that Mississippi jury absolved the thugs who had kidnapped, brutalized and murdered a 14-year-old boy.
Conviction requires 67 votes if all senators are present. Assuming all 50 Democrats vote guilty, it will take 17 Republicans to avoid saying to the nation, to the world, and to the next amoral demagogue who comes along, that there is nothing to lose in trying to overthrow the government of the United States. In a test vote, only five Republicans favored even letting the trial proceed.
All the world knows what Trump did on Jan. 6. It is a date that will live in infamy for a president waging war on his own country.
No one knows it better than the senators who will try him on the incitement of insurrection charge lodged by the House. The entire Congress had to hide for their lives as Trump’s lynch mob rampaged through the Capitol amid shouts of “Hang Mike Pence!” Outside the Capitol, someone erected an expertly tied noose.
They didn’t get Pence, but they did kill a Capitol Police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, one of five people who lost their lives that day. Two police officers later committed suicide.
Sicknick’s remains lay in repose in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday night and Wednesday last week, close by the chamber where the Senate will hear the case against the man who had whipped up the mob’s murderous frenzy.
Seventeen Republican senators were in Congress in 1998 when President Bill Clinton was charged with lying under oath about a sexual affair. Fourteen voted as House members to impeach him or as senators to convict. Conspicuous among them are Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has become Trump’s most abject apologist, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump’s crime is inarguably greater.
Trump’s defense, as laid out in his attorneys’ trial brief, consists of several weak themes. One, he can’t be impeached after leaving office. Two, what he said to the mob was protected speech under the First Amendment because he believed his claims of a stolen election were true. “It is denied,” they wrote, “that the phrase, ‘If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore’ had anything to do with the action at the Capitol as it was clearly about the need to fight for election security in general …” Three, what he said can’t be proven untrue. Four, his words didn’t amount to incitement. Five, his notorious telephone call to Georgia’s secretary of state wasn’t how it sounded.
The argument that words don’t matter is specious. Trump knew what he was doing when he called for a march on the Capitol — something the rally organizers hadn’t intended — and then happily watched it play out on television.
The pretext most appealing to Trump apologists like Rubio is the question of whether an ex-president can be impeached and convicted. That seemed to be settled in 1876 with the impeachment and Senate trial of a corrupt secretary of war, William Belknap, despite his hasty resignation. The House voted without objection to proceed; the Senate voted 37 to 29 that Belknap was “amenable” to trial “notwithstanding his resignation.” A majority of senators then voted to convict him, but fewer than two-thirds.
In a five-page legal memorandum that makes interesting reading — https://bit.ly/3jjuT0y — the Congressional Research Service acknowledged differing opinions but came down more on the side of the Belknap precedent.
If the purpose of impeachment could be foiled when an official resigns or leaves, the lawyers wrote, “there is an incentive for officials to conceal wrongdoing, and then resign as soon as misconduct comes to light. Likewise, there would be no method of holding officials accountable for misconduct that occurs late in an official’s term, no matter how egregious.
“Even if an official is no longer in office, an impeachment conviction may still be viewed as necessary by Congress to clearly delineate the outer bounds of acceptable conduct for the future.”
Once Emmett Till’s murderers could not be tried again, they turned a reported $4,000 profit by selling their confessions to Look magazine. Nine years later, three voting rights activists were kidnapped and murdered by a KKK gang in Mississippi. Precedents matter.
Trump intends to continue profiting from fund-raising whether he actually runs again or not. The Senate can deprive him of that corrupt option. Will it?
The duty to convict and disqualify him weighs against the fear that grips some Republicans of his influence with voters who are still in thrall to him. It is time to set an example of courage, not cowardice. For their party is as much on trial as the disgraced ex-president himself.