On Tuesday afternoon, a procession of U.S. representatives and attorneys gave their best constitutional arguments for why former President Donald Trump should or should not be tried in Congress on a charge of inciting an insurrection, and in the middle of this, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told a story.
The lead impeachment manager had buried his only son on Jan. 5, he told a roomful of his silent colleagues. One day later, he went to the U.S. Capitol to carry out his patriotic duty: participating in tallying the electoral votes for the 2020 presidential election. His daughter Tabitha and her brother-in-law had come with him.
“They wanted to be together with me in the middle of a devastating week for our family,” Raskin said. “I invited them instead to come with me to witness this historic event, the peaceful transfer of power in America.”
Instead, from inside the gallery, Raskin heard something he said he would never forget: “The sound of pounding on the door like a battering ram.”
The Capitol was breached and sacked, people died, and if you have seen even a few moments of news footage, the terror described by Raskin would reveal no new information.
But then came Raskin’s description of what happened afterward — not to the invaders or the Capitol or the Constitution, but to him and his family. Once he was able to reunite with his daughter, he promised Tabitha that the next time she came to the Capitol, nothing like this would happen. “She said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol again.’ ”
Here in this sentence, Raskin’s voice broke, into something between a gasp and a sob. This revelation from his daughter had been as devastating to him as anything else he’d seen on that “terrible, brutal” day, he said.
It might have felt like he could not protect his children. Not the son who had tragically died the week before, and not the daughter who had come to his workplace to be closer to him. It might have felt like he could not protect his country, that he could not even guarantee the routine task of tallying certified election votes, validating the election, ensuring the transfer of power
It might have felt like the things he believed in and knew most deeply — as an American, as a father, as a man — were all shattering in front of him.
Trump reportedly was watching the impeachment proceedings on television, presumably from his residence in Florida, and would you have expected anything else? CNN’s chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins tweeted that she heard from “multiple sources” that Trump was “basically screaming” as he watched one of his defense attorneys meander through opening arguments.
Presumably, the ex-president watched Raskin’s speech too, and I can’t imagine what he made of it. Trump’s presidency was four years of celebrating a caricature of toughness — not the quiet and dignified kind but the flex-’til-it-hurts kind. Of never apologizing, never admitting fault or weakness. His term ended with angry, aggrieved rioters breaking Capitol windows and chanting “No Trump, no peace,” rifling through private offices and desks, and violently beating law enforcement officers. One of the officers died of his injuries. One, the rioters beat with a flagstaff with an American flag attached.
What would Trump have made of Raskin’s public display of not grievance, but grief? How to take the idea of this thin, unassuming congressman using part of his time in the spotlight to cry over his love for his children? How would Trump have processed the idea that when you watch something important shatter around you, it is possible for your emotion not to be rage but profound sadness?
I watched all 4 ½ hours of Tuesday’s impeachment proceedings. They ranged from well-organized to slapdash, from plain-spoken to legalistic. All of the words were important, but the only ones I will later be able to quote, or even to remember, were from two minutes of an address by Raskin, which spoke to what it has meant in recent years to live in this beautiful, self-destructive country. To love it, and to be scared for it.
The correct political response to what America saw on Jan. 6 is to impeach the man responsible.
The correct human response is something between a gasp and a sob, followed by a vow — to your children, to your loved ones, to your countrymen, to your country — that you are going to do your best to make it so that next time, they’ll be safe.
That could still not be enough. The pounding at the door may return. They may rip the doors off their hinges. Watching Raskin on Tuesday felt like watching a man who knows that just because something is precious doesn’t mean it can be repaired.