Cardinal Wolsey was a successful politician. He rose through years of faithful, clever service to become Henry VIII’s lord chancellor. He enjoyed his power and the king’s favor until he failed to secure the Pope’s permission for Henry to divorce his first wife, a crime for which Wolsey was summoned to stand trial for high treason.
He died before he could be tried and beheaded. As he lay dying, he reflected on his pursuit of power and his compromised principles. “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king,” he said, “he would not have given me over in my gray hairs.”
He remembered on his deathbed that doing what’s right is more important than chasing after ambition. Honoring the truth is more virtuous than pleasing any king.
Last Saturday, Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate for the second time in as many years even though the 43 Republicans who voted to acquit him know he’s guilty.
Trump and his supporters claim his impeachment trials prove he’s the victim of a Democratic witch hunt. Al Capone’s associates likewise complained in court that his frequent arrests and trials were evidence of “persecution by the government.” Like Trump’s henchmen, they preferred to ignore the connection between his life as a criminal and his life as a perennial defendant.
Trump was instrumental in orchestrating the insurrection throughout the months before Jan. 6, in the days immediately preceding Jan. 6, and on Jan. 6 itself. He scheduled his “stop the steal” rally for the day Congress would count the electoral votes and officially announce his defeat. The attack on Congress was instigated by, and mounted for the benefit of, Donald Trump.
The months of lies Trump told about a “stolen” election; his own repeated attempts to corrupt and steal it; his calculated, sustained efforts to undermine voters’ confidence in the democratic process; his intimidation of election officials; his inflammatory provocations as he launched his mob at the Capitol; his presidential license that “when you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules” — each considered separately is sufficient to impeach and convict him.
So is his failure and refusal to call off his mob.
So is his failure and refusal to send help.
So is his tweeted incitement against his hunted vice president.
So is his declaration that the attack was conducted by “great patriots” and simply what happens “when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away.”
So is his delight while he watched on television as the Capitol fell.
Hitler enjoyed watching movies of his enemies hanged by piano wire.
Trump’s legal team countered plain-sense reasoning and evidence with language tricks and constitutional sophistries worthy of the worst kind of Philadelphia lawyer.
When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, British law and existing state constitutions permitted the impeachment of former officials. Both the first federal impeachment during John Adams’s administration and the 1876 Belknap case offer precedents in which officials were impeached after leaving office. The weight of historical and legal evidence prompted 150 constitutional scholars across the political spectrum to conclude that “the Constitution permits the impeachment, conviction and disqualification of former officers, including presidents.”
Trump’s defenders and acquitters chose to ignore this conclusion.
Instead, his lawyers argued that, since the Constitution never specifies “the former President,” it must always be referring to the sitting president. Strict adherence to this interpretative principle would preclude making any sense of the familiar refrain, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”
They ignored the fact that the founders designed disqualification from future office as the ultimate sanction to protect the republic. The founders didn’t intend that an insurrectionist president could escape that sanction and safeguard by leaving office before he could be tried and disqualified forever.
Also, his lawyers ignored that Trump was impeached while he was still president for high crimes committed while he was still president.
Trump’s lawyers tried to exploit the common confusion between “cavalry” and “calvary.” They contended that, when a militant Trump supporter tweeted she was bringing the “calvary,” she hadn’t made a spelling mistake and didn’t mean reinforcements but was instead referring to Christ’s crucifixion, “a symbol of faith, love and peace.”
Trump’s lawyers claimed that when he launched the mob at the Capitol, he only wanted them to protest peacefully outside. Except how would standing at a safe distance behind barriers “stop the steal” or “take back our country?” How do you conduct “trial by combat” and “fight like hell” under “very different rules” if you’re not expecting to get inside the door?
Trump’s lawyers correctly asserted that the insurrection was premeditated but insisted that proved he couldn’t have incited it. Except Trump’s months of lies and manipulations place him at the heart of the premeditation.
Trump’s lawyers contended his speech is protected under the First Amendment. First, speech that incites violence isn’t protected. Second, as an American, FDR had the constitutional right to root publicly for Japan, but as an American president bound by oath, he would likely have been impeached if he had.
Sen. McConnell charged Donald Trump with feeding “wild falsehoods” to his supporters and then “feign(ing) surprise” when they believed him. He described Trump as “determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.” He characterized Trump’s conduct as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and condemned him as “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the insurrection.
McConnell voted to acquit.
Sen. Thune denounced Trump’s extended campaign to “undermine faith in our election system and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power” as “inexcusable.”
Thune voted to acquit.
Sen. Capito described Trump’s conduct as “disgraceful” and predicted that “history will judge him harshly.”
Capito voted to acquit.
Sen. Lee proposed that Trump deserved a “mulligan.” A mulligan is a do-over in golf. Who knows what Trump could accomplish with a second shot at overthrowing the government. He might succeed next time.
Trump has told us what he intends. He says his “historic, patriotic, and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again “has only just begun.”
If this is the beginning, imagine the end he has in mind.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.