Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (centre). Picture: TING SHEN/BLOOMBERG
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (centre). Picture: TING SHEN/BLOOMBERG

What are we to make of Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the US Senate, agreeing at the Senate trial that Donald Trump incited an insurrection, yet acquitting him?

Anger won’t be confined to US Democrats. Trump's supporters will be infuriated by McConnell's damning closing speech that Trump was clearly guilty as charged, a straight betrayal of their champion. McConnell's speech showed he is one of the “weak” congressional members  against whom Trump mustered his cavalry on January 6, a traitor who will not save himself by his hypocritical vote.

But there is more to consider here than partisan passions. Trump's trial can be looked at as a legal, moral, political or constitutional case. In the moral case, McConnell was unequivocal: Trump is a disgrace. As regards the legal case, he was clear that Trump remained open to prosecution under the law, notwithstanding his acquittal by the Senate.

McConnell instead took the view that for the Senate, and each senator, impeachment is strictly a constitutional duty to follow and safeguard the constitution. And under the constitution impeachment is a political not legal process; no penalty, no punishment follows a verdict of guilty in the Senate.

Still less, McConnell argued, is the Senate appointed as moral guardian of the conduct of “the president, vice-president and all civil officers of the US” who may be impeached for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. Those impeached are to be removed from office and “disqualified to hold and enjoy any office of honour under the US”, but no more.

This narrow interpretation of impeachment had made the decision “close”, McConnell admitted, but explained and squared his condemnation of Trump’s conduct with his vote to acquit him. Except for a nagging question. Was the decision absolutely inescapable from the constitution's written words? Or did the political case, a Republican case, tip the balance in the end?

Paul Whelan
Via e-mail

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