Does the possibility of a Senate conviction after 20th January 2021 mean that President Donald Trump will modify his behaviour for the next few days?

17th January 2021

There is a story from ancient times about a ruler who had installed above their throne a sword that, but for being suspended a single hair, would come down and kill them.

This suspended sword would be a constant reminder to that ruler – or whoever else sat on the throne – of the anxiety of ruling, and of the reality of danger.

The intention was that such a threat would ensure that any person on the throne would always be in exactly the right frame of mind for the challenges of ruling.

This sword of Damocles is now the subject of a familiar phrase – a  phrase so familiar that many will not know the backstory.


The contemporary relevance of this fable is perhaps obvious.

President Donald Trump has been impeached, but there has not yet been a senate trial for his conviction.

Such a trial is almost certainly not to take place before 20th January 2021 – three days’ time – when this presidential term ends by automatic operation of law.

This delay is unfortunate – as if what Trump did and did not do on 6th January 2021 does not warrant impeachment and removal from office then it is difficult to conceive of what would.

But the delay is not without its advantages.

The first advantage is that it avoids the possibility of an equally swift acquittal – for it cannot  be assumed there would be sufficient support from Republican senators for conviction.

And an acquitted Trump would no doubt be emboldened and perhaps even more dangerous in these last few days of office.

And the second advantage is that the possibility of conviction now hangs over him like a sword suspended by a single hair.

A conviction – or even just a trial trial – after 20th January 2021 could still be consequential for Trump.

This is because there could also be a separate vote to disqualify him from holding office again  – thereby, at a stroke, formally removing the main claim he may have for future political significance.

There could be other votes to remove various benefits that he would have as a former president.

And, for a politician highly conscious of his place in history, he will be the first president ever convicted after impeachment.


The better behaved Trump is before the 20th January 2021, this argument goes, the less likely such consequences will come to pass.

Alternatively, any recklessness or abuse of powers now will make the sword of a conviction and other sanctions dangle even more precariously.

Of course, this approach assumes Trump to be a rational politician (and this blog has averred previously that Trump’s behaviour can be seen as rational, if taken on its own terms).

But even if there is no rationality, and instead a simple regard of a political bully for the dynamics of political brute force and the power of leverage, the threat of a conviction may still have an effect.


Perhaps this is wishful thinking – and that there is nothing which can be done in the last three remaining days to prevent whatever abuses and misuses of power that Trump is still capable of.

But if those abuses and misuses of power do come to pass then at least there is the constitutional consolation prize of an increased likelihood of a conviction, even if it too late to make any practical difference to this presidency. 

The sword of Damocles was both literally and metaphorically a suspended threat, intended to concentrate a ruler’s mind.

And over the next three days we shall see whether the possible conviction hanging over Trump will have a similar political effect.



13 thoughts on “Does the possibility of a Senate conviction after 20th January 2021 mean that President Donald Trump will modify his behaviour for the next few days?”

  1. Trump does indeed have several incentives to mind his behaviour over the next few days – and indeed after he leaves office. Nothing speaks louder to a bully than the removal of benefits, and in Trump’s case this is already happening as wealthy sponsors (brands, companies, and financiers) have been voting with their feet since 6th January. Unfortunately, he lit many fuses, some longer than others, and his bellicosity and influence will continue long after he has been stripped of office and assets.

    As another columnist observed, despite the strife that will undoubtedly continue into 2021, this episode does offer the Republicans a chance to take stock and either cloak themselves with a more enlightened form of conservatism or risk a major split. With Trump and his patronage out of the way, the conversations around this should become easier. If they disregard the sword that hangs over them, Damoclesian or otherwise, they risk either being responsible for a deeper descent into civil strife or themselves being out of power for a long time.

  2. We can speculate that perhaps there are advisers telling Trump not to pardon the Capitol invaders, due to the risk of causing more GOP senators to decide to vote to convict him. If that ended up being the one thing that prevented them from receiving what would be perhaps the most disgraceful pardon in history, there would at least be some consolation for the dreadful things which have happened.

  3. Hopefully the shadow of impeachment is having a “chilling effect” on other actors too – those who would facilitate and enable Trump in any misdeeds. Discouraging them may be at least as helpful as discouraging Trump.

  4. One aspect of the impeachment about which I haven’t read any comment is the prohibition in the US constitution that prevents a pardon from taking effect on an impeachment. As I understand it, the House of Representatives may add other articles to what is currently the single article of impeachment. This leaves open this question: would the option of adding further articles stymie any self-pardon (assuming the constitutional legality of a self-pardon, which is another matter) on the grounds that this might be an attempt to issue a pardon nullifying impeachment?

  5. I hear that the New York Attorney General will unseal a bundle of indictments, on the day after Biden’s inauguration.

    That’s a threat, too.

    I note your point that Trump is rational, within his own particular frame of reference: that insight is all to rare among people who offer threats and incentives that ‘ought to work’ on political actors who have their own logic, and a shrewd model of which ‘rules’ are actually weak conventions they can break with impunity.

    With that in mind, I would speculate that the Presidential pension – a generous Federal award that may well be untouchable in bankruptcy proceedings – is Trump’s best hope of avoiding penury in old age.

    Impeachment is a threat to that, if he has the wit to know it: and I am certain that his business affairs are a shell-game concealing a substantial negative net worth, which will not survive the legal onslaught after Inauguration Day.

  6. I’m not aware of any evidence that Damocles was a real person in the court of the Tyrant of Syracuse, rather than an invention of Cicero for rhetorical purposes, but is instructive to look at the very short original text of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 5.21 (albeit in English translation, I admit) rather than (ahem) relying on a briefing note, and considering its context in Cicero’s argument for a life of Stoic virtue:

    “At last he [Damocles] entreated the tyrant to give him leave to go, for that now he had no desire to be happy. Does not Dionysius, then, seem to have declared there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions? But it was not now in his power to return to justice, and restore his citizens their rights and privileges; for, by the indiscretion of youth, he had engaged in so many wrong steps and committed such extravagances, that, had he attempted to have returned to a right way of thinking, he must have endangered his life.”

    The story has a flavour of “be careful what you wish for” (in line with Aesop’s fable of the Old Man and Death, or the Tortoise and the Eagle) but seems to end with the tyrant and his courtier being condemned to lives of peril and unhappiness due to the bad choices made earlier. The moral is meant to be, I think, that you can only be truly happy in a virtuous life. Which may also have some bearing on the present situation.

      1. As a wise man may once have said, it is always instructive to look at the original sources (treaty, contract, legislation, judgment, etc).

        On the substantive point, Trump has a choice, and not just for the next few days: does he fade gracefully away, perhaps throwing support behind a worthy successor (probably in his family); does he try to cut a deal (e.g. give up the prosecutions in return for him keeping quiet); or does he double down on the “stolen election” stab-in-the-back conspiracy/myth with a view to seeking re-election in four years.

        1. Once upon a time I did look at the original source, and I should be grateful if you would accept that.

      2. One is reminded of the Roman Republic (and certainly the early days of the Empire) when a Senator taking up the post of a governor of a province was not only immune from prosecution during the term of their governorship, but shielded from any prosecutions started before they crossed the borders of the province they had been allotted.

        The length of a governorship providing a period of sanctuary from legal action for its holder as long as he was within the boundaries of his province.

        It was not, however, unusual for a former governor on returning to Rome after his term of office had expired to be prosecuted for one or more misdemeanours, profiteering for example, by citizens of the province they had governed. Such litigants were usually supported by someone of influence in Rome, if not a political rival of the returning ex governor.

        The lack of influential support in Rome invariably made a case against an ex governor unwinnable. And the fact that a governorship was almost always a licence to cast sestertii ensured the accused had easy access to the best legal representation.

        The exception that proves the rule as to just how lucrative a governorship might be is none other than the future Emperor Vespasian, who was mocked for having, according to gossip, made a loss during his time as a governor.

        Winning a court case in Rome on a point of law was not the done thing so having the money to pay for a bit of playing to the jury was essential.

        Rudy Giuliani sounds like he would have been at home in the last days of the Republic. Donald Trump less so.

        One imagines Trump going into a sulk whenever the name of Marcus Licinius Crassus was mentioned.

        Crassus, rich as Croesus as the graffiti had it.

        Crassus, reputedly the richest man in the Rome of his day.

        And it has been argued, Crassus is the richest man who has ever lived.

        1. It didn’t help him much at Carrhae. (After which the Parthians are said to have put Crassus to death by pouring molten gold down his throat. Too messy and a waste of gold, if you ask me. The Parthian king also killed his successful general, Surena, in case the victory went to his head.)

  7. Thank you for this!

    Although a few days ago I advocated (as an amateur foreign observer) bringing Mr Trump to Senate trial before his Presidential term ends, I am now changing my mind, on the strength of today’s good analysis from DAG. One thing, and one only, has to guide everyone, no matter how tempting it may be to become political. That thing is the achieving of justice, so far as that may be possible in the present set of contingencies. The Roman literary tradition has a saying: “Fiat ivstitia, rvat cælvm” – “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

    DAG’s analysis today makes one realize that a rapid impeachment hearing, concluded before Mr Biden’s inauguration, risks miscarriage of justice, or at any rate risks evidential deficiencies.
    In fact we might now well feel that the more slowly impeachment unfolds, the better, from the standpoint of amassing evidence (whether for or against Mr Trump).

    Key facts are coming out bit by bit, perhaps slowly, as the FBI and other authorities, and also journalists, investigate the events of 2021-01-06. It has now been suggested somewhere in the Reuters stream that Mr Trump was sincere in his podium assertion that he would walk to the Capitol with the mob, and that he retreated into the White House only on the strenuous directive of the Secret Service (who argued, according to Reuters, that Mr Trump’s personal safety would be compromised if he were now to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue with the mob). This Reuters claim raises the question of intent, which may prove relevant.

    Again, it has been asserted, elsewhere in the media, that some member or members of Congress gave a private tour of the Capitol to private persons a day or two before 2021-01-06, and that this tour was contrary to regulations, and that its purpose was to help the rioters firm up their operational plans. This again may prove relevant (was Mr Trump, for instance, somehow briefed before 2021-01-06 of the alleged unusual private tour?).

    So, to sum up: it now looks, in part on the strength of DAG’s analysis today, and contrary to what I suggested here a few days ago, that a slow impeachment would be the lesser of two evils, since it maximizes the possibility of procedurally relevant information coming to light before the impeachment has to issue its verdict.

    I have also a kind of postscript, in the form of questions. Does anyone in this forum know whether the Senate can compel a defendant in impeachment proceedings to attend, and whether, if attending can be compelled, then the defendant can additionally be compelled to answer questions?

    1. I guess a quick response to your last question is that a defendant could and would “plead the fifth”.

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