The acquittal of Donald Trump – a silver lining

St Valentine’s Day, 2021

Of course: former President Donald Trump should have been convicted yesterday.

The reasons for this are neatly summarised in this statement by one of the republican senators who voted to convict on impeachment:

If anything justified a conviction on impeachment, and thereby a disqualification from holding office again, then it was what happened on 6 January 2021.

Yet Trump was acquitted.

Whatever the reasons for his acquittal – and it is difficult to see anything other than hyper-partisanship as the motivation for those voting against conviction – the brute fact remains.

This impeachment failed to result in a conviction.

And so Donald Trump goes from being the only president of the United States to have been impeached twice to now also being the only president to have been acquitted twice.


Failure sucks, defeat sucks.

It was absolutely the right thing to do for the house of representatives to impeach Trump.

And nothing in this post should be taken to mean that it is somehow a good thing in and of itself that the trial on impeachment failed to obtain a conviction.


There is a silver lining.


An impeachment is and should be an exceptional thing – it means that an official (or former official) faces a sanction other than in the normal course of the operation of the constitution.

So, for an elected office holder, it means a sanction other than removal by means of the election cycle (or term limits).

And for a former elected office holder, disqualification means that he or she cannot be elected again, regardless of their popularity.

Impeachment and disqualification mean a thing so bad has happened that it should not just be left to the voters at the next election.

One problem, however, of Trumpism – that authoritarian nationalist populism for which some fairly would use the ‘F’ word –  is that it would not have automatically have disappeared if there had been a conviction.

Trump and Trumpism are not going away.

Trumpism – and Trump himself – would have weaponised the conviction as a mere technicality – a Washington device to prevent Trump from standing again in four years’ time.

It would have been presented as – and no doubt widely seen as – an attempt to defeat Trump and Trumpism by non-electoral means.

A stab in the back.


Trump and Trumpism are not going to be defeated just by constitutional procedures.

Instead: Trump and Trumpism have to be defeated electorally, and be seen to be defeated electorally – and, if need be, this has to be done again, and again, and again.

Trump and Trumpism have to fail politically – and to keep on being seen to fail politically.

For it is in the nature of Trumpism that any other setback will be exploited as evidence that the ‘elite’ are somehow frustrating the supposed will of the people.

Of course, this is not easy – and Trumpists are are already ‘poisoning the wells’ by seeking to discredit the electoral system itself.

But they would not even have to resort to this if they could point to Trump’s exclusion from standing again by anything other than his own electoral unpopularity.

The failure to convict Trump – and thereby the failure to disqualify him from office – is a huge setback for liberal democracy.

But it is also an opportunity to electorally defeat him, and the horror for which he stands, all over again.

(And to aver this is a silver lining is certainly not to deny there is a dark cloud, for a dark cloud is always what any silver lining presupposes).


During the first part of the Trump presidency there was the tendency for some liberals and progressives to look at the Mueller investigation as a form of cavalry of knights who would ride in and save us from our distress.

While more hard-headed and worldly campaigners knew that the next election had to be won precinct by precinct, in the environs of Atlanta and elsewhere.

The reason for this lazy tendency was the political trick of mind that prefers the easy quick-wins of legal and legalistic processes, instead of the work of winning elections (and referendums) and defeating illiberals.

(A similar frame of mind in the United Kingdom led to some looking to the Electoral Commission and police investigations of Leave campaigns to save us from the result of the 2016 referendum.)

And although the complaint is often made of legal commentary on public affairs that it overlooks and underestimates the political element, often the reverse is true.

Laws and legal process are tools for certain tasks – but they are not a substitute for what should be left to politics and elections.

So: yes, the second impeachment of Trump should have ended with conviction – we all know this.

That is what impeachment is for.

Trump should have been held directly accountable for what he did and did not do on 6th January 2021.

He should have been held accountable.

But impeachment is not the only form of accountability.

There may be better and more effective ways to hold him and what he stands for accountable too.

And any defeat will then be all the more emphatic.


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23 thoughts on “The acquittal of Donald Trump – a silver lining”

  1. You make a fine point and a lesson to be taken for challenging the current government hovering dangerously around the toilet bowl of corruption. Legal cases give voice and evidence of transgression but they do not remove governments. Also with the current narrative of any legal defeat being that judges are enemies of the common man then voting is all that remains. If parties want to win they need to be smarter than the government and learn how to win. It’s possible but requires political bravery and probably a cross party alliance to do it.

  2. The obvious concern is that his dark minions will be using his false claims of a rigged election to justify racist voter suppression & extreme gerrymanders all across the US so that in future elections, beating Donald Trump by 7 million votes won’t give his opponent a narrow win but a thumping loss. Congress can’t shore up democracy to prevent this without a supermajority in the Senate that Democrats cannot ever hope to attain in the system as currently configured,let alone once Trump’s white nationalist/Christian taliban coalition deliver their counter-majoritarian voter suppression coups. Trump, or a smarter Trump, only has to regain national power once & that’s it for US democracy forever, absent a civil war or a revolution.

  3. Just one point. You, the BBC, and pretty well everyone, talk about Trump being ‘acquitted’ or ‘cleared’ when a majority – albeit insufficient – voted to convict.

    Surely the better term would be something on the lines of ‘hung jury’ or failure to agree rather than some term suggesting that he left court “without a stain on his character”.

    1. Acquittal is the accurate term for what happened. The rules of the game are that a supermajority is required for conviction and any number of votes less than that results in acquittal, whether that is 1 vote or 57. You can’t just invent some sort of ambiguity to the result in order to make it more palatable. Andrew Johnson was also acquitted even though 35 senators voted for his conviction and a supermajority was 36.

      There was an article somewhere (I forget where) which ran with the headline “Senate fails to convict Trump” which I thought was rather cute but accurately made the point that the outcome was the result of 43 Republicans making the obviously wrong decision.

  4. A silver lining yes, but my concern is Trump running as an independent in 2024, as he isn’t likely to run as Republican again.

    The danger would be the ‘reasonable’ voters will split Rep/Dem, but there may just be enough to get him into office again.

    That will then be a very trying time for American politics.

    1. I can’t see many Democrat voters changing in 2022/24 and the real fear of the GOP is a Trump party splitting the Republican vote thereby handing victory to Biden/Harris again. Yesterday’s crop of Republicans voting against conviction did so (mainly) because Trump still has immense power to ruin their career especially if he remains in the GOP and doesn’t run independently. If the Trump Party arrives 50% of their constituents would jump ship. Republicans sold their soul and are now paying the price.

  5. Wise words. But Democrats have a huge mountain to climb to address the real grievances which are a part, if only a part, of the appeal of Trumpism.

    As for the Constitution, we now have it on the authority of the minority leader in the Senate that a constitutionally arrived at decision of the Senate can be ignored if you don’t like it.

  6. Yesterday the 55-45 vote to allow witness testimony was a golden opportunity for the Democrats to dig deep into the events leading up to the 6th January and focus more Republicans on what Trump did to justify voting for conviction. They backed down when defence counsel agreed to enter into evidence a statement to the effect that Trump had not acted to stop the riot subsequent to a call with Kevin McCarthy in which the latter had to insist that the protesters were Trump supporters.

    Linsey Graham’s support also spooked the process as it opened the door to weeks of probing Democrats too so there must have been good reasons other than to avoid holding up the Covid Relief Bill. Nevertheless, the decision taken yesterday handed a mighty weapon both to Trump and his supporters in the form of confirmation he was not guilty. Appeasement has a history of leading to war and I think this is no different.

    1. The House Managers denied that they backed down, rather they accepted that the majority of the Republicans would vote to acquit on grounds of “constitutionality” no matter how much witness testimony was produced. McConnell had already decided, and informed the Managers, that Republicans would ignore the prior Senate decision that had confirmed that the trial was constitutional.
      No amount of witnesses, or digging deeper, would have made any difference, the pertinent information was now in the public domain in any case and the only effect of taking witnesses would be to delay matters to the detriment of the American people.

  7. DAG is right in stating that it is Trumpism which must be defeated, not just Trump – and through the electoral system. The difficulty is that, just as Trump/McConnell packed the federal courts with GOP judges, the GOP also has an advantage in local legislatures, where the Democrats have been losing ground for years.

    The Chair of Republicans Overseas UK has written:

    “The Republicans maintained 60 per cent of the state legislature races. It’s the first time since 1946 so few chambers have switched hands, and this is massively important when it comes to the redistricting of congressional districts, which will take place in the next year or so. With Republicans in control of most state legislatures, it means that they will be responsible for determining the boundaries for 175 districts, whereas the Democrats only 47. This has long-term consequences on future congressional contests.”

  8. Mitch McConnell quoted in the Observer today seems to be saying much the same. Acquittal doesn’t mean it’s all over for Trump. “He didn’t get away with anything yet”

  9. Dear Mr. Green, Your admirable comment“A huge setback for liberal democracy” would probably be the caption editors would have picked for your piece, although for me ‘a hugely disappointing setback for democracy’ would have worked as well. Why ? Because many people are shocked and deeply saddened that the awful DT once again escaped accountability and punishment for manifestly criminal conduct.
    This prompts inquiry into the apparent violation of their oath of office by those who voted to acquit the scoundrel. It would be interesting if you explore this further.

  10. Lawyer101:- In the Common Law countries a trial is NOT an exercise designed to discover the truth.

    Donald lives to fight another day, but he is a little more exposed. Nevertheless he is still useful and powerful, he puts the Democrats under pressure not to make too much of a mess of things. He puts the Republicans under pressure to up their game. The clock is running on 2024, it looks an interesting ride.

    Whatever the lawyers do the fundamental reasons for Trumpism are still there. Global economics is not going away, there is still no high priced use for many Americans (or British or French or Germans for that matter). But there is a high priced use for some. That is still the problem for all politicians, especially Biden and Boris.

    The impeachment trial has put a crack in the Republican facade, many are repelled by the riots but… The trick will be to spin that into an affirmation that the Democrats are a failure and should never have ‘won’ the vote – true Americans were right all along. An ugly trope but surely one we shall see exploited for all it is worth. November 2024 will be interesting, get the popcorn ready.

  11. I don’t think I have ever agreed with anyone 100% before, but today was that day and this was the post that occasioned my agreement. It is indeed political activity that will defeat Trump, it was political activity that defeated him this time and it is political activity that will defeat him next time.

    What effect this has on the defeated remains to be seen, but David is absolutely right however morally correct an impeachment trial was and it was, and however immoral the failure to convict him was, and it was, defeat by millions of people is the way to put this down.

    The populist Trump having to look in the mirror and realise that a man even older than he is, a quiet, thoughtful man, garnered millions more votes than the loudmouth. Democracy when properly practiced is and was intended to be a great leveller.

  12. Just as Brexit now hangs like an ever-tightening noose around the fat-swathed throat of the Tory party, so, by not taking the opportunity to jettison Trump, the Republicans have created their own noose for their own richly-deserving-to-be-hanged throat. Presumably the Republicans are hoping that some attention-seeking District Attorney somewhere will bring Trump down in short order, so that they don’t have to stain their hands. But their rank cowardice will stain the individuals forever and their party for a generation. It is now for the Democrats to make sure that the Republicans pay the price for Trump – and especially the price of Trump’s post-election behaviour.

  13. This is a result with many possible sequels. One is that, as Mc Conell said, a former president does not enjoy immunity from civil or criminal procedure. It is plausible that at least one existing and possible future suits will stick and be concluded before the next presidential election. Many states have statutes barring convicted felond from voting and standing for office. A second is that Mr Trump will continue to appeal to a reltively small minority (say 25-30 million) of the active portion of the US electorate and do so within the Republican Party. They will not get rid of him easily but his presence will not enhance their chances of victory in many senatorial races. The House is a different matter, but probably there Trumpism hasa peaked already. So probably, Trump unconnected will be an asset for the Democrats, if they play this well.
    Yet another consequence is that he could metastase (Sons, Trumpist politicians, etc). In that case he would provide a variety of resources (money, exposure, possibly even Trump media) to politicians that he favours, or even his own family. That will probably fail. T%he Trump brand is not very strong yet (look at the fluctuations of his approval ratings combined with periods of relative quiet during 2020. Even with a largely inactive opponent during most of the year, he did not get much of an uptick when his self-destruction had a bit of a rest.
    Conclusion: Trump is gone and may be facing some very unhappy experiences in the near future. But his brand may not robust enough to make much of a difference in 2024, and a negative one (for the GOP) in 2022. But of course the underlying problems that Trump exploited are not going away, so maybe ther will be a more competent political entrepreneur who will be able to truly cash in. The US has the best institutional democracy I know but it can be captured. Trump did not succeed.

  14. In some ways I suspect that the acquittal has indeed made it easier to defeat Trump electorally. McConnell’s statement for example, although it illustrates his hypocrisy, has gifted the Democrats and Republican Primary challengers with perfect ammunition to attack Trump in the future. “Look – even his own Senate leadership says there is no doubt this insurrection was his fault”.

    In a sane world this would make Trump (or anyone running on total support for Trumpism) totally unelectable. I would hope that even in this somewhat less sane, hyper-partisan world, it would still hold enough sway with the critical swing / independent voters to have the same effect.

    A lot can happen in the next 3 years though!

  15. Someone pointed out that the members of the Senate who voted to convict Trump represented 84.5% of the electorate. It’s only due to small conservative states like Wyoming, which are proportionally over-represented in the Senate, that give the GOP their power.

  16. Smallish observations: Not sure I would call your point a silver lining. As you said, there remain a number of more significant paths to minimizing Mr Trump’s effects. But it is unclear to me that the failure to convict will somehow minimize the hazard of a stab in the back argument, if only because if those folks have demonstrated anything, it’s that a successful narrative requires no relation to reality.
    The only other point I didn’t see here is a simple one. Whatever Mr Trump’s legal state might be, it is unlikely that anything would be definitively resolved by 2024. And he will certainly put up some semblance of a campaign, if only to keep on taking cash from the faithful, as certain preachers do. But he’s going to be older (less well, as he doesn’t do fitness) mired in difficulties and much of his popularity will turn out to be as ephemeral as every other celebrity spasm in the US is. Americans don’t do memory. If an example is desired, look at the claims of what would occur all over the US in January. Essentially nothing materialized and, really, while I don’t minimize the damage, after all that propaganda and frenzy, really only a tiny number of Americans showed up in DC.

  17. David, could I just ask you a personal question arising from the fact that a simple majority in the Senate was not enough to convict Trump? Do you believe (with me, I suppose) that such arrangements are not fair, and that a simple majority should be enough to decide any issue?

  18. Very interesting. Thankyou.

    ‘The reason for this lazy tendency was the political trick of mind that prefers the easy quick-wins of legal and legalistic processes, instead of the work of winning elections (and referendums) and defeating illiberals’

    In hindsight could this be seen as the position Trump ended up in. He seemed convinced he was going to win the election for whatever reasons. As events unfolded he became convinced he could use the law to achieve that aim.

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