Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
There was never a doubt that former President Donald Trump would escape conviction in his latest impeachment trial. The “jurors” were, after all, politicians. And in a 50-50 Senate, the constitutional bar of 67 votes was never achievable. Not in these bitterly polarized times.
But even as the final chapter was known from the start, it was essential that the story of Trump’s brazen acts be told.
It was the story of the months, not just the moment, of calculated incitement; of Trump’s cold-blooded indifference to the lives he put in jeopardy at the US Capitol on January 6, including, most shockingly, that of his faithful Vice President Mike Pence.
It was the story of a president, desperately trying to cling to power, weaponizing those he had radicalized to believe the election was being stolen from them and that it was their patriotic duty to prevent this.
He summoned them to Washington, DC, that day as Congress convened to make his defeat official. He revved them up with talk of losing their country. He filled them with martial rhetoric and sent them down Pennsylvania Avenue to “stop the steal.”
And he watched the horror he unleashed unfold on television, spurning pleas to call off the mob and send in reinforcements to buttress the badly outmanned Capitol Police. Seven people would die, including three police officers and one of Trump’s followers.
It was, in short, the story of a commander in chief who flouted his oath and plotted to undermine the most basic of democratic institutions, free and fair elections.
As in the House, a handful of Republicans senators had the courage to place country over tribe and vote to hold the former president accountable. They did so with eyes wide open. They had seen what happened to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and nine other Republicans in the House who voted for impeachment. They put themselves at similar risk of primary challenges and, at a minimum, a lot of grief.
The rest of the Republicans fell in line as expected. They knew that the brooding, defeated president was watching and taking names, just as he was on January 6 — ready to unleash the fury of his still-loyal base on anyone who dared to step out of line.
His lawyers, who fumbled their way through the early part of the trial, concluded their arguments by channeling Trump himself with blatant lies, partisan attacks and pretensions that his actions were “totally appropriate.”
It was a crazy stew of red meat for the base and red herrings about rules and procedures. They questioned the constitutionality of impeaching a former president. They argued his First Amendment right to inflame the crowd. They did everything but defend his actions.
And it was more than enough for a majority of Republican senators, some of whom declared their position long before the opening gavel fell.
But this was far from a triumph for Trump.
Though he avoided sanction, the trial imposed a more enduring penalty on him by laying bare for the world and history his craven role in orchestrating the seditious mayhem at the Capitol.
In a few riveting days, the House managers shined a light on Trump’s central role in the tragic events of January 6, relying heavily on his own incendiary words over months, not just on that day. Ironically, Trump was betrayed by his favorite tools, Twitter and video.
And so Trump goes down in history as the only president to have been impeached twice, with both cases involving nefarious schemes. The first was his attempt in 2019 to enlist the president of Ukraine to open an investigation to smear Joe Biden, the Democratic opponent Trump rightly feared. The second was his monthslong stratagem to improperly overturn Biden’s victory through flagrantly false claims about the integrity of the election that culminated in the January 6 insurrection.
By escaping conviction Saturday, he also avoided official disqualification from holding public office in the future. But the story laid out in the trial — which was powerful and convincing — will disqualify him in the eyes of a majority of Americans.
He was spared today. But this trial has ensured that Donald Trump won’t escape the verdict of history.