Trump acquitted and guilty

CNN, 13 February 2021

            The US Senate’s second impeachment trial of the former United States President, this time for “incitement of insurrection”, ended in the evening of Saturday, 13 February with a new acquittal. Donald Trump deliberately didn’t  boast about it, as he had done the first time by brandishing at a press conference a major national daily with a single-word headline: “Acquitted!”.

This time the Senate vote did not completely close the case even though, as was predictable, the two-thirds majority required for “impeachment” had not been obtained. The procedure the Senate followed will, whatever happens, have medium- and long-term legal and political consequences.  At judicial level, lawsuits are expected to be brought before the civil courts in some of the country’s states. Nevertheless, at the political level, Trump was convicted by a majority of Senators (57-43). This result, short of the majority required for conviction (NB: 67 Senators), is a clear one in what is after all a fairly evenly divided America, where Donald Trump won 74 million votes in the last presidential election, which was more than any of his predecessors. Moreover, seven Republican Senators, described as “moderate” – with the best known being former presidential candidate Mitt Romney – saving their party’s honour by voting for the motion “incitement of insurrection” introduced by the Democrats.

It is unfortunate that political ulterior motives – because of the sway Donald Trump still holds over the party and his public support – have prevented most of the Republican Senators from giving substantive answers to what is in fact the key question: can violence be an alternative to the rule of law in a democracy? Could the Chief Executive of the US incite his supporters to resort to violence against one of the main state institutions he was meant to be leading?

There is therefore no solution whatsoever to the problem of the undesirable consequences of democracy whose causes are complex (cf. delayed and prolonged effects of global economic and social change; upsetting of the balance of power; new technologies allowing everyone to express unmonitored what they view as true and thus also what they deem untrue; failure to regulate the new media and thus prevent operators’ arbitrary decisions, etc.).  As far as the United States is concerned, it won’t be that easy to turn the page. First of all, it won’t be possible to forget the victims of the violence of 6 January fomented by the very people who – cynically when you think about it – were claiming to act in support of “Law and Order”.  The surroundings of the Capitol on 6 January resembled Maidan Square (Kiev) and the interior of the venerable Washington institution that of the Tbilisi Parliament when Mikhail Saakashvili and his supporters seized power – hardly positive comparisons.

If we nevertheless want something positive to emerge from the chaos, we have to admit that a chapter has nevertheless ended. President Biden, reluctant to embark on a new round of elections after 3 November, has constantly kept himself at arm’s length from the impeachment procedure, considering it to be the responsibility of the Senate, of which, incidentally, he is an expert having spent 36 years there. He has confined himself to declaring, shortly after the acquittal: “This sad chapter in our history reminds us that democracy is fragile“. The President will now be able to get on with forming his teams, for which approval is sometimes required from the Upper House, and above all step up the fight to combat the virus and stimulate economic recovery.

The Republicans are emerging from the ordeal divided. Their elected representatives, without being as simplistic and showing as little respect for the rule of law as Trump’s lawyers, were particularly ambiguous on the issue of whether the trial of a President no longer in office was constitutional and could go ahead, even though this was decided by the Senate as a whole, and the distinction between accusation and conviction (cf. the dialectic Verurteilung/Anschuldigung, also abundantly developed in the German press) has often depended on the particular circumstances.

The paradox is that the United States’ future is now more in their hands than in Trump’s, whose legal woes are far from over. Will the regained honour of the Senate’s Seven Samurai be enough to launch the transformation of a party, reputedly reluctant to reform, and restore American “values” to the country and its militant base? This mammoth task quite obviously falls first and foremost to President Biden, of whom the historian Jon Meacham, author of “The Soul of America – the battle for our better angels) is now an open supporter.

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