The GOP Didn’t Just Acquit Trump, It Endorsed Him

By failing to hold him accountable for the Capitol insurrection, Republicans have co-signed Trump’s attack on democracy

Jill Filipovic


Sen. Josh Hawley gives Sen. Ted Cruz a thumbs up before the conclusion of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump’s lies led to a bloody riot, desecration of the Capitol building, mass violence, and the tragic deaths of seven people. Now that he has again been impeached by the House but avoided conviction in the Senate, one thing is clear: His party has learned nothing.

Or perhaps more troubling, they’ve learned to imitate him.

The shameful January 6 display at the Capitol began long before that day. It began as soon as Trump started telling what critics have called “the big lie”— the claim that the election was stolen by Democrats. Trump didn’t mean the election rules were unfair because the Electoral College system undermines the ideal of one person, one vote. He didn’t mean that voter identification laws functionally disenfranchised a great many Americans. He didn’t even mean that hostile foreign actors may have used social media to exacerbate political polarization and spread disinformation.

No, he literally meant that votes were stolen or faked. He meant he actually won, but there was a conspiracy to take that victory away from him. Trump claimed that America’s decadeslong history of free and fair elections ended in November 2020, and he urged his supporters to rise up on his behalf.

Trump and his legal team brought these claims of voter fraud to court in the weeks after the election, where they failed spectacularly, over and over again, for lack of evidence. This much has been definitively proven: There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Biden drew more than 7 million more votes than Trump and won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232.

Why were 43 Republican senators unwilling to do the difficult work of engaging in an honest inquiry into what led to the events of January 6?

Months later, Trump had still not conceded the election results were legitimate. Instead, he pushed the lie further and further. Many members of his party went along with it, lending credence to his false claims. On January 6, it all came to a head. His supporters, having been told by a man they trust in the highest possible position of authority that their country was being taken from them, that the election was rigged, and that he needed them to do something about it, heeded his call. They stormed the Capitol, demanding that Congress and the vice president “Stop the Steal.”

They left seven dead, some 140 police officers injured, and a deeply shaken nation in their wake. Many of the insurrectionists have been arrested and criminally charged.

With the impeachment, the Senate had a chance to level the most reasonable of consequences against the former president. If they had convicted him, our elected representatives could have prevented Trump from being able to run for office again. And yet, 43 Republican senators voted to acquit. This offers all of us a moment of clarity. Why were so many of our elected officials unwilling to hear the evidence impartially and make a fair decision? Why were 43 of them unwilling to do the difficult work of engaging in an honest inquiry into what led to the events of January 6, what happened that day, and how we can prevent a repeat?

It’s because the answer indicts them, too. A president they supported, and whose lies they lent credence, caused the riot. Preventing a repeat would mean taking responsibility—an obligation to which Republicans in Congress seem allergic.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these impeachment hearings is the fact that Trump’s lawyers seem to have taken a page directly from Trump’s playbook and simply lied to their audience. They tried to change the subject to Black Lives Matter protesters, despite the fact that BLM marchers were neither organized by nor directed by nor even particularly supportive of Democratic politicians. They argued the trial was about free speech and “cancel culture,” that Democrats were simply trying to shut down conservative discourse. They said this was about a majority using its power to crush a minority.

David Schoen, Trump’s lawyer, claimed that the House managers took Trump supporters’ tweets out of context, citing the example of a woman who was retweeted by the president after she wrote “We are bringing the calvary” to Washington, D.C. The woman, Schoen claimed, wasn’t simply misspelling “cavalry,” the most obvious and plausible explanation, but rather was referring to “a public display of Christ’s crucifixion, a central symbol of her Christian faith with her. A symbol of faith, love, and peace.”

Viewers were treated to montages of Democratic politicians using the word “fight,” as if Trump saying “fight” was the central issue of the impeachment case. The Trump team played footage of elected Democrats and liberal celebrities making jokes Trump’s lawyers suggested were akin to promoting political violence. The apex of one compilation showed Ellen Degeneres asking Vice President Kamala Harris who she’d rather get stuck in an elevator with, Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, or former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Harris replied, with a laugh, “Does one of us have to come out alive?”

Deflection is not new for either politicians or lawyers. Of course, politicians and lawyers alike are known to present their policies and their cases in the best possible light. But flat-out lying about the facts and your opponent’s motivations should be beyond the pale.

Trump’s lawyers are not stupid people. They know the woman who tweeted, “We are bringing the calvary Mr. President,” was not talking about the love and light of Jesus Christ. They know no one was trying to impeach Trump because he said the word “fight.” They know Democrats were not trying to stifle the views of the minority party — unless they want to claim violent insurrection and lies about voter fraud are now mainstream and legitimate conservative positions. They know no one seriously believes that Kamala Harris wanted to kill Trump, Pence, or Sessions. But they made the same bet Trump did: That most people won’t bother to check their claims, and that many of those who do and find them false won’t care.

They were right — at least about the GOP.

This would be cynical at any time, but it’s especially troubling right now. Trump’s lawyers saw the same footage we all did of the Capitol attacks. Many congressional Republicans were in the building and were forced to hide out or run for their lives. We may not know every detail of what happened during that riot, but we know why the rioters were there. Because they were lied to by their president.

The president of the United States is vested with incredible authority, and his words have incredible power. So do the words of members of Congress and the nation’s most prominent lawyers. We’ve all just seen the consequences of lying to a credulous base that desperately wants to believe what you say and is willing to act accordingly.

During this week’s hearings, though, that’s exactly what Trump’s lawyers did. They misled and obfuscated in his defense so that the Republican senators who desperately want some pretext for acquitting the former president might find it.

And acquit him they did. Now all of America has seen there are no consequences for a president who lies to the public, puts at risk the lives of law enforcement and his own vice president, and undermines the American political process and the peaceful transfer of power. With their votes today, the GOP has not only fully embraced the worst of Trumpism—they’ve begun to emulate it.