The outcome of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump never really was in much doubt, but that doesn’t mean that the whole exercise was a waste of time.
What the week’s events showed is the need for much more investigating and scrutiny of the events of January 6, the kind of who knew what and when that the attack on the Capitol, unprecedented in American history, deserves.
The trial, which seemed to move at light speed compared to most Senate business, was about more than just whether Trump would be barred from running for office once again. It was an opportunity, before a national audience, to lay out a narrative of what happened, to make sure that the Capitol siege wasn’t just another story among the many other extraordinary events of the past four years. There certainly was interest in the proceedings, as roughly 10 million to 12 million watched. That’s not a gangbuster number, but it’s not a bust, either.
The decision by House impeachment managers to focus so much of their presentations on audio and video may not have swayed all that many votes their way, but the sounds and images likely will be among the standout memories of the trial. A number of reporters and staffers on Capitol Hill are still in a bit of a state of disbelief, even trauma, over what happened.
One of the more surreal scenes was watching senators view security footage of themselves evacuating the chamber just several weeks earlier, with a mob of rioters just down the corridors. As one reporter covering the proceedings noted, the carefully laid out case could be transcribed, rather easily, into a book. But the lack of witnesses throughout the proceedings felt like the removal of a third act, as so many questions remain unanswered about what happened.
What’s unclear is what happens next. Mitch McConnell may be trying to have it both ways by voting to acquit Trump and holding him culpable at the same time, but his insistence that the former president could still face criminal prosecution begs the question of whether there will be any kind of large-scale congressional investigation of what happened. There already have been calls, with support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to create a 9/11-style commission. Pointing to the prospect that Trump could now be charged in a criminal case, McConnell said the former president “didn’t get away with anything yet.”
McConnell’s statement, as contradictory as it was, exposed a pervasive aspect of right wing media: Whataboutism, or the tendency to change the subject once attention turns to the bad behavior of Trump. That was at the heart of the former president’s case, that his provocative rhetoric in the lead up to the siege was no different than what Democrats have said before.
McConnell rejected that. “This was different,” he said. “This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”
Trump’s acquittal likely won’t be the end of the “crescendo of conspiracy theories,” which is why it’s all the more important that the impeachment trial not be a cue to just move on from the Capitol siege. The impeachment managers made an emotional and visually intense case in the past week, but there’s still more to the story.