Donald Trump’s tarnished acquittal

In a country as split as the US, a 57 to 43 majority for any proposition is remarkable. When the proposition is that a former president must be convicted for inciting insurrection, it is historic. Donald Trump survived his trial in the Senate for the Capitol siege that he helped to whip up on January 6. But the process has been anything but an exercise in futility. Three legacies stand out in particular.

At the very least, it has drawn a line between the principled wing of Republicanism and the (regrettably dominant) rest. Seven of the party’s senators — Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Patrick Toomey and Susan Collins — contributed to the most bipartisan vote for presidential conviction in US history. The party is often written off as unreformable, and perhaps it is. But that makes their stand all the nobler: it was done in the almost certain expectation of abuse and ostracism from colleagues and activists. Moderate conservatives should use their display of conscience as a platform on which to build.

The trial also has implications for Trump himself, even if they do not extend to a bar on holding office again. Through the video evidence that senators made public, it is clearer than it was a month ago how close the siege came to something far worse. Rioters were a matter of seconds and metres from Mike Pence, the former vice-president and object of their rage. Romney was another beneficiary of fine margins and brave security staff. This evidence will and should be brought up if Trump mounts another bid for the White House in 2024. The US has not officially purged him from its public life. But through sheer moral pressure it can make a comeback trickier than it might have been.

Nor need the pressure stop at the abstractedly moral. The Republican grandee Mitch McConnell, after voting with Trump, hinted that his troubles are not quite over. “We have a criminal justice system in this country,” he said, in his gnomic way. “We have civil litigation.” Those words, from an ally of sorts, should discomfit the former president.

As welcome as these ramifications are, the impeachment process may turn out to have a yet higher consequence. It has restored some of the republic’s good name. From start to end, the action was swift, confounding expectations of a saga that would drain voters of patience and President Joe Biden of early momentum. Despite this speed, there was no shallowness, other than from Trump’s hapless defence team. Nor was the process marred by another much-feared round of civil disturbances. As the new president stood wisely aloof, Congress, so enfeebled at times, was central to national life again. An assault on its bodily integrity has led to renewal of its role as a check on the executive.

At the end of this brisk, peaceful, constitutional procedure, the vote was taken and yielded a decisive repudiation, if not quite the two-thirds majority demanded by the Founders. This is not the rebirth of American democracy. Trump is still free to menace that troubled project. His hold over a large minority of the nation remains absolute. All the same, 57-43 is a more bipartisan outcome than many would have credited just a month ago. It falls to sensible Republicans to ensure that it is the start of something, not a blip in the ongoing debasement of the US right. The party must reject not just Trump, but the paranoia and extremism that led to the deadly violence of January 6. It has seven outstanding examples to follow.

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