This blog was originally posted on Chatham House on 4th February 2021.
The Senate trial of Donald Trump less than three weeks after the inauguration of President Joe Biden has ignited controversy across the US. Many say the trial will do more harm than good, further dividing an electorate and a political establishment already deeply polarized. But intense division in the face of calls to prosecute a head of state, sitting or former, is not uncommon.
Democracy in the US has undoubtedly been under assault but it is strong enough to withstand these challenges and the benefits of accountability far outweigh the costs. So it is a good thing that, as a first step, the Senate trial is proceeding even if the practical benefit may seem difficult to discern given that democracy in America worked – Donald Trump was defeated at the ballot box and has left office.
The one tangible benefit of a conviction is that he could be banned from holding a future elected office, but the likelihood of a conviction seems remote since it requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and some fear the trial will make Trump more rather than less popular.
Worse, it could lead to ongoing instability or even violence. Some have expressed their concern that Donald Trump will use the Senate platform to rile his base, and President Biden has been understandably reluctant to have his first 100 days derailed by impeachment proceedings especially when thousands of Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. The overwhelming priority is to disseminate the vaccine which already faces an uphill battle, so countering disinformation campaigns surrounding vaccine safety could be hindered by if a Senate trial further undermines trust in the system.
Those who fear a trial could create instability and impede progress do have legitimate concerns. America is divided and the barrier the Biden administration faces in restoring the health of America’s democracy is considerable. Nations which have experienced violence often face a trade-off between looking forward and looking back. But both the short and long-term cost of overlooking a situation as serious as the 6 January attacks should not be underestimated.
The trial will be critical not only to consider the legality of Donald Trump’s actions but also to create an official record of the Capitol attacks. A decision not to prosecute would have undermined the legitimacy and institutional authority of the Senate itself.
In making their choices, Republicans in the Senate are keenly aware popular support for Trump is still high – this will undoubtedly influence their arguments and ultimately their vote in the weeks ahead. One recent poll shows half of GOP voters believe Trump should continue to play a major role in the Republican Party, while 75 per cent say they would disapprove of his conviction.
Those House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump face a backlash from their own party and look set to face early challenges in the primaries. Because of this, some – most notably Robert Reich – have suggested the vote to convict should take place by secret ballot. This could, though, undermine a key value of a Senate trial, which is to create a public record. It would also lessen the influence of leaders in the party over how other more junior members choose to vote.
The outcome of a Senate trial is not pre-determined, and the situation is far from static. As more people are arrested, and as the public learns more about the planning behind the Capitol attacks, attitudes may change. Trump’s own testimony will likely provoke a strong reaction and shape how impeachment is viewed across both the broader public and the Republican Party – already his advisers have warned against any plan to use the trial to re-litigate the legitimacy of the election.
Crucially, the decision by President Biden and House Democrats to take steps towards passage of the American Rescue Plan by a party line approval may not only reflect the existing partisan divide on fiscal stimulus, but also the anticipation that a Senate trial will soon make securing bipartisan approval for new legislation even harder.
Much will hinge on the signalling, the vote by key Republican members of the Senate, and especially Mitch McConnell. Once a trial begins, it cannot be entirely predicted and could set off any number of different reactions. But a formal legal process is ultimately quite limited when the need is for a fuller accounting of the assault on democracy as grave as the one that took place at the Capitol.
A Senate vote which fails to assign responsibility for the attacks to Trump could be used to fuel the narrative among more extreme elements in the US that the election was stolen, and to stoke further division and violence.
Strong justification for full investigation
Given the gravity of the situation in the United States and ongoing disagreement over who exactly was behind this, there is also strong justification for setting up a commission in the style of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States – known as the ‘9-11 Commission’. It is welcome news to many that Nancy Pelosi has now signalled her interest in doing this.
To grapple with what exactly did take place on 6 January, the charge of incitement to insurrection may be not only incomplete, but also incorrect if those who argue this was actually a coup are right. This would have grave implications in that it would essentially be saying the threat to democracy in America comes from within the political system itself, and maybe even within the Republican Party. The internal war currently raging within the Republican Party serves as a formidable backdrop that makes a commission even more important.
The attacks on the Capitol are not just one of many other assaults on democracy in the US, they stand apart as a uniquely destructive attempt to undermine democracy. For America, and critically its renewed internationalism, it is imperative the call for a bipartisan commission is heeded and a full plan for its investigation agreed before the Senate trial concludes and a vote takes place.
A commission providing thorough accounting and creating a careful public record of the events that led up to the 6 January attacks is a crucial step in helping create a national understanding of what happened. The need to counter the disinformation that has surrounded the Capitol attacks, and the events that led to them, is urgent. This then helps begin the process of understanding how to restore democracy in the US.
US global leadership is also at stake as America continues to exert its influence through its diplomacy. Already Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have been resolute in their demands that democratic norms be respected in places such as Russia and Myanmar.
America’s moral authority and its credibility in the wider world also depend, though, on the power of its example. And so it is imperative that America get its own house in order. A domestic reckoning with Donald Trump’s role in the attacks is therefore essential but a trial – while necessary – is not sufficient alone to achieve this.
Dr. Leslie Vinjamuri is a Reader in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies. She is currently also Director of the US and the Americas programme and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs.