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Trump impeachment trial video means GOP can't pretend the former president is innocent

Republicans are criticizing Democrats for playing politics with a trial they know will end in acquittal. But the proceedings' importance goes beyond the outcome.
Trump supporters storm Capitol building in Washington
Police clash with rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Mostafa Rassim / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Republicans would have you believe that Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial is just a waste of time engineered by publicity-seeking Democrats. But even if Trump’s acquittal is a near-certainty because the majority of GOP senators won’t vote to convict him, the justification for the proceedings goes beyond the outcome.

Even if the outcome is the acquittal of Trump, it’s important to show Americans — particularly Republican voters — what their GOP leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to.

Democrats’ powerful minute-by-minute accounting of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol laid out at the start of the trial on Wednesday is a critical step in our national attempt to piece together what really happened, and for the American people to see with their own eyes how dangerous and unpatriotic the riot aimed at overturning the 2020 presidential election actually was.

And, of course, even if the outcome is the acquittal of Trump, it’s important to show Americans — particularly Republican voters — what their GOP leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to. The evidence presented by the Democratic House impeachment managers damns congressional Republicans for making terms with the existential threat of right-wing extremism instead of leaving the party in protest. And regardless of how lawmakers vote, Wednesday’s honest accounting will play a critical role in helping our nation assess the sweeping damage Trumpism has inflicted on our institutions.

Wednesday’s opening argument exposed a president who gleefully ratcheted up his acid rhetoric to the point of violent insurrection, and a Republican Party mostly unwilling to face the terrible cost of their attempts to undermine the integrity of our recent election. The GOP’s blindness isn’t merely symbolic: When footage was played of rioters reading Trump’s tweets through a megaphone, multiple Republicans turned away rather than accept what their party enabled. The impeachment prosecution means GOP senators can no longer feign ignorance.

As a result, the tears of an overwhelmed Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and the statements of an unnerved Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah showed Republicans forced out of their sanitized right-wing media bubble and momentarily confronted by reality.

Lankford, who earlier decried Trump’s impeachment as an unconstitutional show trial, appeared deeply shaken as video played of Capitol rioters crushing a police officer in a revolving door. At one point Lankford was so distraught that Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, a fellow Republican, crossed the chamber to comfort him, a stunning display. Those tears would be more meaningful to the families of the officers who were wounded or died in the riot had Lankford not spent the days before Jan. 6 sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.

Romney, who called the newly released footage “very troubling,” condemned the “great violence that our Capitol Police and others were subjected to,” describing Wednesday’s reality check as “overwhelmingly distressing and emotional.” That’s a good description, given how close Romney now realizes he came to a potentially fatal encounter with Trump’s mob.

Yet that reality is still being blatantly denied by other Republicans. Perhaps the strongest use of video evidence came when Democrats pointed to prominent Republicans, including former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, posting terrified tweets and making panicked on-air calls to Fox News in which they begged Trump to “call off” his mob on Jan. 6. Now Gallagher says impeaching Trump is “unconstitutional” and “accomplishes nothing.”

They are being aided in this attempt to rewrite history by conservative media outlets. On Feb. 8, a full month after the attack, Newsmax anchor Greg Kelly falsely claimed that “only one person died on that day,” a ridiculous assertion undermined by even a brief reading of the facts. During the impeachment trial, Fox News broke away from its live coverage when Democrats began airing uncut security videos of violent rioters forcing their way toward elected officials in the Senate chamber.

After four years of corrosive disinformation and nonstop spin, our public sphere is in dire need of a return to consensus reality. The Democrats meticulously detailing the chain of events surrounding the Capitol insurrection are logging a full and accurate account of the riot into the historical record. And it’s important that they’re compelling Republicans to see what their “Stop the Steal” rhetoric looks like when it’s being hurled by domestic terrorists festooned with Trump campaign gear, beating officers with flag poles and gouging out the eyes of the blue lives they claim to revere.

Equally important is documenting the Republicans who refuse to take seriously the perilous moment in which we find our country, such as Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who called Wednesday’s wrenching videos a “complete waste of time.”

At the head of that group is Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who helped lead the charge in questioning the election results during the counting of Electoral College ballots on Jan. 6. On Wednesday he kicked his feet up to watch Democrats’ opening statement from the Senate gallery instead of joining the rest of his colleagues on the floor.

The move not only enraged viewers who correctly view Hawley’s mockery of this serious moment as a slap in the face to those who bled and died protecting the Capitol, but Hawley’s vacation in the gallery — traditionally a place for observers to watch the Senate conduct its business — marks him out as a lawmaker more interested in causing crises than solving them.

The callousness of lawmakers like Hawley is now a distressing image that stands beside the shouts of rioters calling for the lynching of then-Vice President Mike Pence as testaments to how far the GOP has fallen.

Republicans like Hawley may flee to the gallery when our nation needs leadership, but they won’t be able to outrun their complicity in supporting the far-right radicals who raided their workplace. If they aren’t held accountable by voters at the ballot box, the impeachment trial will forever serve as a testament to their dark role in American history.