Observations on the Impeachment Trial of Donald J. Trump
By Aprille Russell
If you thought Bruce Castor Jr. was ad-libbing and completely unprepared to speak on day one of the second impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump on February 9, you’d be right.
Shaken by the powerful opening prepared by the House impeachment managers, the Trump defense team of Castor, David Schoen, and Michael van der Veen tossed their original plan and called Castor, who had not planned to speak, to the senate floor. Castor delivered a rambling, word salad, free association of thought that would become the unedited fodder of late-night comedians.
It takes a particular mindset to stand before the entire U.S. Senate so ill-prepared to speak on an issue as important as whether the president of the United States incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to retain power after losing an election. It takes a particular arrogance to be so cavalier, to waste the time of the full Senate as well as the American people watching the proceedings. It is the ultimate display of privilege. Castor seemed to think he could act without consequence to his case, without consequence to his client, and without consequence to the outcome. And he was right.
Castor wasn’t the only man acting without consequence during the trial. Now, the senate-as-jury structure of an impeachment trial inherently means the jury is not truly impartial. And in this case, the senator-jurors were victims of and witnesses to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. However, some Republicans took their disregard for any semblance of being open to the evidence to new levels: Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) all were seen meeting with Trump’s defense counsel.
House impeachment managers, however, did not have the luxury to be unprepared or unprofessional. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) led the diverse team that included Madeleine Dean (D-Pennsylvania), Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Joe Neguse (D-Colorado), Ted Lieu (D-California), Stacey Plaskett (D-U.S. Virgin Islands), and Eric Swalwell of (D-California).
Breakout impeachment star Del. Stacey Plaskett noted, the “nine managers look like this country, and we are bringing accountability to a man who believed that with his wealth and his Whiteness, he is unaccountable to anyone. I want them to hold that image in their mind when they see us arguing this case for the American people.”
Plaskett is the Brooklyn-born daughter of immigrants from the Virgin Islands. After graduating from American University’s Washington College of Law (where she was a student of lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin), Plaskett served as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. Raskin said of Plaskett in his opening, “She was an A student then and an A-plus student now.”
On day two of the impeachment trial, Plaskett introduced into evidence new security video and police officer audio, a detailed timeline of the attack, and renderings of where insurrectionists had breached the Capitol in relation to where senators and representatives were still present. Rioters, angry that Vice President Mike Pence would not intervene to subvert the election results during his largely ceremonial role presiding over the Electoral College vote count, had shouted “Hang Mike Pence.” Shockingly, rioters came within 100 feet of where Pence and his family were sheltering.
To counter the House impeachment managers’ effective visual presentation, the defense’s David Schoen aired his own video montage of virtually every Democratic elected official (and Madonna, for some reason) using the word “fight” in a political speech. The defense played the same footage no fewer than three times. That’s one way to fill time when you haven’t prepared another argument. The video dominated the bulk of the defense time, and was used to explain that Trump’s January 6 command for his supporters to “fight like hell” was a free speech matter that shields him from any and all accountability.
On Saturday, February 13, all 50 senators in the Democratic Caucus voted to convict, joined by seven Republicans: Richard Burr (North Carolina), Bill Cassidy (Louisiana), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mitt Romney (Utah), Ben Sasse (Nebraska), and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania). It was the most bipartisan impeachment vote to convict ever.
Forty-three Republican senators voted to acquit, many citing they did not believe the Senate had jurisdiction to hold an impeachment trial for a former president. That sounds less like a reason and more like an excuse to do what they were planning to do anyway. The precedent for impeaching a former official was established at the start of the trial. Further, Donald Trump was impeached by the House while president for actions he committed while president. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to call the Senate back into session, making it impossible for the House to deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate before Trump left office.
McConnell cited the delay he himself created as the reason he voted to acquit in a statement from the Senate floor. In that statement McConnell also admitted, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.” McConnell’s verbal and moral gymnastics are insulting to one’s intelligence.
Despite what we all witnessed on live television on January 6, despite the strong case presented by the House impeachment managers, despite the mediocre defense presented by Trump’s defense counsel, and despite some Senate Republicans conceding President Trump was responsible for the events of January 6… Donald J. Trump was not convicted in the Senate.
There are some in this country who can afford not to do the work of presenting a legal case. Some who can violate their oaths to do impartial justice as jurors in an impeachment trial. Some who can participate in an armed insurrection of the U.S. Capitol while proudly posting their faces on social media. Some who can incite a violent insurrection that results in the deaths of at least five persons including a police officer. Some in this country who can act without personal consequence. That privilege has deadly consequences for the rest of us.
Aprille Russell is an opinion contributor. She is also a nonprofit and communications professional who has served organizations dedicated to housing for homeless persons, early childhood education, pulmonary research, civil rights and women’s rights.