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The Night of the Rubber Knives

David Frum
Senators exiting the chamber
SAMUEL CORUM / GETTY
Forty-five senators voted yesterday not to proceed with a second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. That should come as some relief for the ex-president: Twice impeached, he will likely be twice acquitted. But how much relief?

The Senate will still hold a trial. The whole country will again view the video of Trump inciting a crowd to attack Congress as he aimed to coerce his own vice president into somehow overturning the 2020 election. They will see the scenes of violence and death wrought by Trump supporters—supporters who plastered their crimes all over social media because they trusted Trump to protect and pardon them.

Trump wants Senate Republicans to defend him; most Senate Republicans want Trump to go away.

The table is set for both to be badly disappointed—and to turn on each other.

On January 13, 232 House members voted to impeach Trump a second time. Ten House Republicans joined all the House Democrats. That day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement declaring that the Senate would not proceed until after Trump left office on January 20. McConnell’s decision, taken on behalf of the Republican caucus, pushed the trial into the next presidential term—and opened the question of whether a president can be tried after he leaves office.

By postponing the start of the trial in this way, McConnell created the excuse that Senator Rand Paul invoked in his motion yesterday: that it is illegal or improper to try a president after he leaves office for an offense he committed while in office. Whatever the merits of that argument—precedent goes the other way—it’s not one that will please or assuage Trump himself.

The Senate is full of split-the-difference personalities grateful to take refuge in the argument: What Trump did was wrong, but it’s too late to hold him to account. Like Nikki Haley, we think that “what happened on January 6th was not great.” But alas, our scrupulous attention to constitutional detail forbids us to do anything about this violent act of not-greatness.

This is an approach that protects Trump from consequences, but it won’t satisfy him. He will always insist that what he did, no matter how lawless, in fact was great—perfect, actually. And he will seethe against—and seek revenge upon—anyone who says otherwise, no matter how abjectly they vote in the Senate trial. Saving Trump from himself is not enough. He demands flattery too.

And Trump won’t go away. His eyes seem to be fixed upon 2024, while many senators must first worry about 2022. The midterm elections could be a big opportunity for Republicans, a chance to offset the pro-Democratic swings of 2018 and 2020, particularly if Joe Biden’s program encounters bumps and discontents, as it surely will.

There’s only one impediment: Trump’s insistence that every U.S. election be a referendum on him, him, him. That’s how Trump cost Republicans two Senate seats in Georgia, and with them the majority in the Senate in 2021. Unless Republicans deal with him now, he will do the same to them in 2022.

The Biden coalition of 2020 stretched from Bernie Sanders progressives to Mitt Romney center-rightists, but it was riven by disagreements and contradictions. Only one thing holds it together now: antagonism to Trump. Remove Trump, and the coalition will start to come unstuck. Remove Trump, and savvy local Republican politicians will have a chance to advance. But Trump refuses to be removed. He will insist that 2022—like the Georgia election of 2021, like the national election of 2020, like the congressional elections of 2018—be a referendum on him, him, him. And that referendum, he will always lose, taking Republican hopes of returning to House and Senate majorities down with him.

Republican senators are shrinking from doing justice in the impeachment trial because they are afraid of Trump and his supporters. Trump is not afraid. Trump is not driven by the same political calculations as the Republican senators. They are alert to danger—and nimble enough to jump out of the way. Trump, by contrast, is a terrible risk-calculator. That’s why he went bankrupt so often. He doesn’t react to political danger like a normal politician. He plunges ahead. That is a kind of superpower, especially when the costs of his miscalculations fall on others: the defeated Republican House incumbents of 2018, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in 2021, and aspiring Republican candidates in 2022.

In the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, for a brief moment, McConnell seemed to discover in himself some long-corked cask of courage and integrity. That moment did not last. What instead is being planned for February is a Night of the Rubber Knives (to borrow a phrase from political history)—a flinching from reality that will protect Trump, betray the country, and ever more abjectly subordinate a party that calls itself “constitutional” to the ego, whims, greed, and violence of a disgraced ex-president.

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