The setting is the same but the cast has changed, with different supporting actors. Better dramaturgy, too. And this second effort to convict Donald Trump – conducted with the experience of the previous tryout – has a completely different character from the original flop.
Yet with the conclusion of the two legal teams’ arguments – and Trump advocate Michael van der Veen’s assertion Friday that the entire proceeding against the 45th president was “patently absurd on its face” – the result of the second impeachment trial will be almost identical to the first one, 53 weeks earlier.
Even so, the differences between the two proceedings are illuminating about the state of a country in the middle of a defining battle that spills beyond the Senate chamber, where a second vote to acquit Mr. Trump is imminent.
Indeed, the second impeachment involved a much different case in a much-changed world and about an American president not much changed at all.
This trial had high theatre that the first one lacked. The most dramatic example Friday came when the Trump team displayed a nearly 10-minute-long video showing scores of Democrats, including the House impeachment managers, President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, employing the word “fight” much the way they argued Mr. Trump used it before a mob invaded the Capitol.
The impeachment case being examined this winter is more comprehensible than the one in 2020, both to the senatorial jurors on the floor of the chamber and to the public beyond. The first impeachment involved a complex train of events in Ukraine, nearly 8,000 kilometres from the Capitol. This trial is being conducted in the crime scene itself, precisely where the senators sit.
And, critically, this trial raises fundamental questions striking at the heart of the contemporary era that the first one did not address – issues at the centre of the current fractious American debate: What is free speech? What is political legitimacy? What are the limits to protest and the constraints on dissent?
And is there a legitimate distinction between the use of the word “fight,” both noun and verb in this era of political contention, on the floor of a legislative chamber or during an Iowa caucus – and the use of the same word moments before a raucous march and insurrectionary riot?
This impeachment proved the truth of the adage, dating to the New Deal nine decades ago, that where the lawmakers stand depends on where they sit. That notion also applies to the country beyond the Capitol, so deeply divided that Americans possess completely different perceptions of events, even ones that played out in front of tens of millions of them on television last month.
In this context, it is instructive that Mr. van der Veen Friday said that this episode represented “appalling abuses of the Constitution [that] only further divide our nation when we should be coming together” – a phrase that just as easily could have spilled out of the mouths of the Democratic legal team and applied to Mr. Trump.
Moreover, this second impeachment is being conducted amid a pandemic. It comes at a time when the far-right conspiracy group QAnon has prominence and even representation on Capitol Hill. It is occurring when the phrases “civil war” and “lost cause” – a reverential reference to the Confederacy, itself a literal symbol of national division – hang in the air.
“The solubility and volatility of this mixture,” said Robert Sprinkle, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, “was enhanced by a surprisingly high concentration of enterprising people injured first in the subprime mortgage collapse and injured again in the COVID collapse.”
The first impeachment trial freed Mr. Trump, who brandished his acquittal, from conventional political constraints, making him feel that there were few limitations on his behaviour. The threat of a second impeachment trial had the opposite effect, even though he had but a fortnight remaining in his term.
“This impeachment succeeded because in the last two weeks of his presidency, he had all his powers and was behaving erratically – but the impeachment process stunted him, keeping him from taking even more aggressive actions,” said William Marshall, a University of North Carolina Law School expert on presidential power. “It clearly made a difference.”
In this impeachment drama, the jury is part of the play, and the audience is outside the stage – in fact, outside the theatre itself.
It may come to be remembered as another in a long line of great courtroom dramas. It not only possesses an Agatha Christie sense of mystery as in The Witness for the Prosecution but also, poignantly, has the morality-drenched themes of Inherit the Wind – for in future years, the country will reap the whirlwind of this era of conflict and contention.
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