This last act in the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump, his second impeachment, is making the same mistake that so many people made during his first four years.
It’s getting lost in his funhouse of words. What it should be laser-focused on is his deeds.
It was a local Republican congressman, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, Yakima County, who highlighted this recently. In his most in-depth account to date, given to local reporters and shown on the NCW Life Channel out of Wenatchee, Newhouse made the strongest case I’ve heard for why Trump deserved to be impeached last month — and now should be convicted in a Senate trial.
“I kind of had a front-row seat to it all,” Newhouse said.
Trump probably will wriggle off the hook for inciting the mob that then attacked the Capitol. Because in the end, it’s difficult to prove what the president intended when he started speaking around noon that day near the White House.
Trump in his meandering 70-minute speech covered all the possible bases, suggesting everything from peaceful resistance to “fighting like hell or you’re not going to have a country anymore” to just taking a nice stroll down the street.
What Trump’s rhetorical salad means is that we’re back straddling the central fault line of his presidency, which is: Do his words matter? Trump’s attorneys already have signaled this will be the core of their defense — that the rioters deserve to be punished, but that Trump was just talking and had nothing to do with what happened next.
Newhouse says the words weren’t the main point for him anyway. It’s what Trump did after the riot started. Mostly what he didn’t do.
I was there, Newhouse told the reporters, and so “I know he knew what was going on” inside the Capitol.
“Many members of Congress were trying to communicate with him, and ask him for help,” Newhouse related. “Only he, I think, had the power to be able to quell the siege that was happening, as people’s lives were being threatened, as people’s lives were being lost. He didn’t do that.”
Newhouse conveyed how then-Vice President Mike Pence was pulled out by security moments before the Capitol was overrun, and even after that, Trump sent out a tweet “saying something like ‘Pence is a coward.’ Almost immediately,” Newhouse recalled, “the crowd starts chanting ‘hang Mike Pence, hang Mike Pence.’ ”
But even after that, “he [Trump] did not call for reinforcements,” Newhouse said. “He did not activate the National Guard. It ended up having to be Vice President Pence, who was hunkered down being protected in a secret location, who had to make that call.
“So I think that all this inaction, it was just as egregious as the actions … We had a domestic enemy at the door, and he did not respond.”
This is an utterly damning account. It sets aside the core of the Democrats’ case — that the riot was Trump’s fault — and instead argues that Trump went absent from his core duties for hours while the U.S. Capitol was under siege. The vice president, who was being hunted by the rioters, effectively had to assume the role of commander-in-chief, because the real chief had gone AWOL.
This is what the impeachment trial should be about. Rather than showing videos of how violent the riot was, they should call people who can testify to what Trump was actually doing during this time. Heck, they should call Mike Pence.
Trump’s lawyers now are contending that Trump was “horrified” that his rally about “electoral integrity issues” mystifyingly turned into a riot.
But there’s a smoking gun that rebuts that, this statement Trump sent out after the riot was over and one person had already been reported dead:
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump tweeted. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Sound horrified to you?
Newhouse said he didn’t want to impeach Trump — he had just voted for him in November. But setting aside what was said and focusing on what was done, he was forced to conclude this, he said: “Our country needed a leader in that moment, and President Trump failed to fulfill his oath of office.”
The story of America’s unsettled relationship with Trump is that we have never come to a common understanding about what do with his words. His backers say it’s like performance art, not to be taken at face value. His antagonists take him literally and so have been on a Pavlovian loop of constant outrage. In this gap lay Trump’s superpower — his ability to set the broad terms of any debate, but with such slippery language that none of it sticks to him.
The Capitol riot is the biggest test of this yet. Democrats probably won’t listen to Newhouse, a Republican from our state’s reddest congressional district, but they should. A fight about words is Trump’s turf. A trial about deeds might finally change the course of this story.