Like many of you, I’ve had to force myself not to vomit or cry several times this week watching the powerful video evidence impeachment managers have used to make their case for convicting Donald Trump in his historical second impeachment trial. For me, the events of January 6th were as heartbreaking as they were infuriating but seeing the expanded footage entered into evidence has been even more jarring, and the extent to which we as Americans didn’t know how close a coup came to succeeding has been crystallized in maddening detail.
The footage we saw on major news networks as the events of that day unfolded were oddly sanitized and out of context, largely limited to long shots of the enraged throng of Trump supporters still on the steps of the building.
What the managers of this impeachment have shown us hits, and hurts, entirely differently. Stitching together official clips from Trump’s unmoored speech that day with real-time reactions from angry attendees’ own social media feeds presents a clear and cogent throughline from the intent of Trump as he addressed the crowd and its tragic effect.
And the footage those managers were able to cull once that seditious throng reached the capitol is even more telling and terrifying. Splicing clips of the insurrectionists’ social media posts with footage captured by reporters, capitol staffers, and in many cases the body cameras of police officers as they valiantly fought to defend the seat of our government, shows us exactly what those officers were up against that day, and how close the terrorists taking the capitol came to former Vice President Mike Pence and other members of Congress.
When Pence and his family were finally evacuated from the capitol on January 6th, rioters were within 100 feet of them, being cheered on by Trump’s own angry tweets. Insurrectionists fashioned makeshift gallows in front of the building. As Pence and his family fled in terror, there were loudly audible chants of “hang Mike Pence.”
Then there’s the footage of Utah Senator Mitt Romney, a man who Donald Trump has steadfastly regarded as an enemy for the entirety of his political existence. Romney and a staffer emerged from the Senate chamber and briskly made their way down a hallway, only to be greeted by American hero Eugene Goodman, an officer in the Capitol Police. Goodman, who would be lauded for leading a group of angry insurrectionists away from the Senate chamber, is seen sprinting toward Romney. In a few harrowing seconds, you see Officer Goodman raise his hand and wave Romney in the other direction, shouting to the senator to turn and run to safety.
What Romney was unaware of as Goodman hoofed past him to warn more people and attempt to secure the building was that he had been briskly walking in the direction of the insurrectionists flooding the capitol. Goodman almost assuredly saved Romney’s life and in a powerful testament to what it means to protect and serve.
Another thing Romney was unaware of at that moment was that, while Goodman simply came to work that day, the situation he found himself in more closely resembled the battlefields the decorated veteran had gone to war on.
Similarly, New York Senator Chuck Schumer was caught on camera calmly making his exit from the building. In the footage he passes through a hallway, only to come running back through it seconds later. Impeachment manager and California Rep. Eric Swalwell counted out the paces between where Schumer had stood and where the angry mob was waiting.
58 steps separated Schumer from life and almost certain death.
Think about that for a moment, and count the steps to your kitchen and back the next time you need a glass of water. I did it myself just now, and Schumer was only 21 steps further from dying than I am from a water break right now.
And then there’s the footage from the officer’s body cameras. In one harrowing clip, provided to the managers by the U.S. Attorney’s Office because it will be evidence in the trials of several insurrectionists, we can see an officer pulled from the capitol steps and thrown to the ground. We see him being kicked and punched and pummeled with a Trump flag, insurrectionists shouting “We got one!” as they tried to strip his hand-cuffs, ammunition, and gun from the officer.
The footage shows Trump’s angry supporters harassing and assaulting officers in and outside of the building, calling them traitors and menacing them with threats of the crowd overtaking them.
I will never forget the sound of one angry Trump supporter staring down a police officer and chillingly saying, “We outnumber you. There’s a fucking million of us out there. What are you going to do?”
In my head, watching these on-the-ground snippets of one of the worst days of American history, I couldn’t stop hearing the voice of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, “The horrors…the horrors…”
I watched all of this along with the members of the United States Senate entrusted to be impartial jurors, and the continued farce many of them are reducing the hearings to.
While Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy has sounded increasingly like a voice of reason in the Republican caucus, many of his colleagues don’t seem to be watching the same harrowing footage. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley spent the entire proceeding in the gallery with his feet propped up on a chair and reading material unrelated to the impeachment. Texas’ own Ted Cruz released an op-ed on FoxNews.com and tweeted that the impeachment served no purpose but vengeance. And, perhaps most disgustingly, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham went on Fox News to say the case presented by impeachment managers was “absurd” and “offensive,” while comparing peaceful protests in front of his home to the full-blown insurrection that left several people dead.
Graham went so far as to insist there were more people willing to vote not guilty for Trump after the first two days of the trial.
This is the same Graham who fought tooth and nail to impeach Bill Clinton in the 90’s because, and we are literally quoting him here: “impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
How do you restore the honor and integrity to an office Donald Trump treated like a toilet for four years without holding him accountable for his actions? How can words that directly inspired an act of domestic terrorism, in real-time, have no consequences?
They must, and if the looks on the faces of Republican Senators watching the same horrific footage is any indication there remains a narrow path to conviction and barring Trump from future runs for federal office.
That’s where the hope portion of the program comes in, carried on the surprisingly able shoulders of the impeachment managers. Rep. Joaquin Castro and his colleagues, including Del. Stacey Plaskett from the Virgin Islands and her former law professor and now Rep. Jamie Raskin from Maryland, have built a powerful and compelling case grounded in facts and with a clear timeline that shows beyond a reasonable doubt in any real courtroom that Donald Trump is guilty of intentionally inciting a riotous insurrection in an attempt to delay the certification of electoral votes.
But alas, this trial is taking place in the United States Senate, where the American Bar Associations’ standards for professional conduct and integrity don’t factor into things. Senators are by nature cautious to the point of cowardice, particularly Republicans in the era of Trump. But if Senator Cassidy’s rapidly changing tune and open admissions that impeachment managers are building a strong case are any indications, there are still Senate Republicans capable of independent thought.
With the trial expected to stretch into next week, the biggest remaining question is where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is on all of this. McConnell strongly condemned Trump’s efforts to delay the electoral college certification and the insurrection Trump had inspired, and it was widely reported after January 6th that McConnell welcomed the prospect of impeaching Trump.
If McConnell were willing to embrace that position in no uncertain terms, at least privately, he very well could bring along enough Republicans to convict, and while we would all likely celebrate such a decision as McConnell putting country over party, the Senate is far too cynical a place for that actually to be true.
In the same way that nothing is more important to Trump than himself, nothing is more important to McConnell than having a Republican majority in the Senate, and he must be continuing to grow uneasy with the images of so many Trump voters maiming and attempting to kill police officers in Trump’s name. With a 50-50 Senate heading into 2022, McConnell is playing the angles on what it will take to reclaim the majority, and if any public or private polling hits his desk in the next week that shows Americans in states with marquee Senate races favoring impeachment, we may yet see McConnell and a slew of Republicans embrace convicting Trump and barring him from future runs for office.
It wouldn’t be popular with Trump’s base of voters, but it may be the only thing that keeps the Republican party intact beyond 2022, and either way, it is a delicious irony that Trump’s political fate rests squarely in the hands of the man that helped make Washington a swamp in Trump’s eyes in the first place.