There probably is a good time before most contests to discuss the rules, whether in sports, chess or civil trials. Trying to do so in the middle of the game almost never works.
Holding a formal, if emotional, Constitutional debate to open the impeachment trial for Donald Trump's inciting actions that built to the climax of a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol over whether the trial is exactly what envisioned 250 years ago only underscored that this contest is a baldly partisan political match. It is not anything regarding justice.
The Senate voted previously to proceed with the trial on a procedural vote, so replaying the same questions, this time with hours of precedent-citing debate and powerful video clips, was sure to come out the same way. Yes, the trial is Constitutional — as voted by a bare majority of the senators present.
Let's face it. Almost along straight partisan party lines, 56-44, with six Republican defectors, the bulk of Republican senators doubled down yesterday toward insisting that by the rules alone, there should be no accounting for rioting insurrectionists, no chance to assess Trump's responsibility. They foreshadow their inevitable vote against conviction when the trial comes to an end days from now.
Of course, the Republican bloc vote, a loser in this rules discussion, is likely to "win," since conviction requires two-thirds of the Senate.
Republican senators wanted to look anywhere but at the events of Jan. 6.
Following the rules
On some level, the Constitutional debate only helped prove that this whole impeachment trial is about following rules.
Had Trump followed the rules of the election, he would have conceded losing. We would have proceeded to a transition to Joe Biden without the daily spew of Big Lies about perceived election fraud and the rattling of militia weaponry and conspiracy theories. Had he accepted the rules that extended mail ballots during a pandemic, Trump would have had no beef with the outcome.
Waging a months-long bleat against the outcome, Trump, still president, whistled his followers to Washington for the Jan. 6 formal acceptance of certified Electoral College votes, heated them up and pointed them to the Capitol. As the mob violently stormed our center of democracy and hunted lawmakers, Trump retreated to the White House to watch television, declining to call in National Guardsmen to halt the chaos. The House voted to impeach — while Trump was still president.
But because Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell manipulated the Senate schedule to delay a trial until after the Trump departure from office, the trial raised Constitutional questions of whether a "former president" could be tried.
Thus, we witnessed a day of debate that included lawyers for Trump misstating the position of scholars on the question, a slew of legal opinions across the political landscape decrying the Trump position, senators who simply want to move on and endless discussion over a Constitutional ambiguity that was being settled by raw political power.
Actually, the House impeachment managers made clear, using arguments of conservative lawyers and judges, that they actually had done their homework to find that impeachment is an instrument to defend democracy. The Trump team, relatively speaking, had started with an opposite answer and looked for, or created, arguments to support their version. And then Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., put the emotional cherry on top with his personal story of his family hiding beneath desks. Television reported that some Republican senators refused to even look at the video.
The prosecution case on the narrow Constitutional issue was smashing on all levels, and it undercut the whole of the Trump defense.
"The president of the United States sided with the insurrectionists," Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) argued. "He celebrated their cause. He validated their attack. He told them, 'Remember this day forever,' hours after they marched through these halls looking to assassinate Vice President Pence, the speaker of the House and any of us they could find."
Playing football, the game America so loves, depends on accepting rules and rulings from umpires. But yesterday showed a Trump argument that the rules apparently are for chumps, not champs. Trump would argue that maybe the Buccaneers didn't win the Superbowl even though we all saw the game, that referee calls were biased; in that telling, the Chiefs just forgot to change the results of the game.
This trial is showing that Republicans want to start with the outcome in hand and work backward to what the rules should say.
In truth, there will be no "winners" from this impeachment. Based on the vote on the Constitutional question, it is easy to presume that there will be no conviction.
No conviction means Democrats will have lost time toward their now-majority agenda and any chance of working with Republicans in the Senate. No conviction will mean the return of a boastful Trump, who will loudly exclaim exoneration and who will refuse to leave the scene. No conviction will mean a Republican party still under the control of Team Trump, retribution against party defectors and a growing public move toward armed conspiracists and militia members.
We'll have more Marjorie Taylor Greene and conspiracy theorists in office, more divisiveness, more attacks on the Biden agenda, deserved or not. We'll see a spread of violent threats to the states. We'll see more targeting of anything that happens not to comport with a streak of perceived "populism" that is increasingly racist, misogynistic and, strangely, anti-coronavirus masks.
Sure, there will be prosecutions against now 150 or so actual insurgents, many of whom are saying they entered the Capitol because Trump told them to do so. But once again, it is the "forgotten," exactly those whom Trump had promised to represent, who are paying his bill at the Justice bar.
What we won't do is stop the militaristic language of politics — "fighting," "combating," "crushing" and the like for the opposition. There is a chance here to cool the rhetoric just a bit.
And, when we don't like the outcome, we can always blame the rules.
You wouldn't teach that to your kids.