WASHINGTON – Republican senators acquitted Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection.
History isn’t likely to be so kind.
The video evidence of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol, threatening politicians and trying to overturn a democratic election, will probably haunt Trump for as long as people write about American presidents, political analysts and historians said.
Brenda Wineapple, author of a book on another impeached president, Andrew Johnson, said the Senate trial demonstrated that Trump was willing to pressure officials into breaking the law and permit violence to stay in office – an unprecedented abuse of executive power.
“He knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it,” said Wineapple, author “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.”
“Trump moved from demagoguery to tyranny,” she said.
Many historians had already said Trump would rank low for a tumultuous single term that included the COVID-19 pandemic, a previous impeachment, lies about his actions and those of others, business conflicts of interest and alienation of global allies.
Then came his election loss to Joe Biden and the aftermath.
Trump’s unprecedented efforts to reverse the results, his demands that supporters “fight” before the attack Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol, the resulting second impeachment and the Senate trial solidified Trump’s probable rank in the lower tier of the nation’s 46 presidents, political analysts and historians said.
“It will always be remembered by how it ended,” presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg said. “It will also be remembered for its divisiveness and his personal attacks and his lack of respect for political institutions.”
Trump and his backers plan to keep making history.
During the trial, they promoted his accomplishments, including tax cuts, deregulation, a thriving economy (pre-COVID-19) and a record number of judges. This, they said, despite constant attacks by Democrats, the media and left-wing academics who never liked him in the first place.
Trump attorney Michael van der Veen played to history by arguing at last week’s trial, “Like every other politically motivated witch hunt the left has engaged in over the past four years, this impeachment is completely divorced from the facts, the evidence and the interests of the American people.”
The Senate decision to acquit Trump – 57 senators, including seven Republicans, voted against him, but conviction required 67 – frees the ex-president to run again in 2024 if he wants.
In a written statement after the verdict, Trump said, “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a vocal Trump defender, said Sunday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s criticism of Trump after the impeachment trial Saturday isn’t representative of the party.
McConnell, R-Ky., said in a lengthy speech that Trump’s “crescendo of conspiracy theories” caused the Capitol riots for which he was “practically and morally responsible.”
“I think his speech is an outlier regarding how Republicans feel about all this,” Graham said.
Already a controversial president
Trump was fated to be a poorly rated president before the insurrection, historians said, thanks to a term filled with contentiousness.
There was Trump’s divisive rhetoric; immigration policies that separated families at the border; alienation of allies and embracing of despots such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
At times, Trump seemed to invite the support of white supremacists and political extremists, the kind of people who staged the insurrection Jan. 6, historians said, citing his sympathetic comments about “very fine people, on both sides” after a white nationalist demonstration in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was killed.
Trump refused to release his tax returns and to create a blind trust for business holdings that made money during his presidency. He sought repeatedly to interfere in investigations into Russian interference in his 2016 election victory.
Trump’s pressure on the Ukraine government to investigate Biden and his son before the 2020 election led to his first impeachment. The Senate, then controlled by Republicans, acquitted him.
Though COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 485,000 people in the USA, Trump downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, promoted untested therapies and pressured state governments to lift economic restrictions designed to block the spread of the virus.
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” said that for all his “norm-shattering” – “the mad tweeting, the rampant corruption, the science denial, the war against immigrants” – Trump will be remembered in history for two things.
“His fumbling of a lethal pandemic that cost half a million American lives and his incitement of a bloody insurrection against a free and fair election,” he said. “Weighed against those twin legacies, nothing else will matter.”
On Politics:It’s official. Trump can run for office in 2024.
Some of the insurrectionists said they acted on Trump’s exhortations. The impeachment trial featured graphic video of the attack: smashed doors and windows, attacks on police, vandals roaming the hallways looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and even Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence.
Trump “will be remembered as the president who prevented the peaceful transition of power,” said Jennifer Mercieca, author of “Demagogue for President: the Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”
“He refused to accept that he lost, he spread conspiracy theory, threatened officials and called his loyal followers to Washington and incited insurrection,” she said.
Will Trump try for a political comeback?
It takes decades to fully evaluate a president’s performance in office. Reputations oscillate over time and change in light of new developments – such as whether Trump can make a political comeback in a future presidential campaign.
Presidents who have been ranked low over time are often faulted for how they handled crises: Franklin Piece and James Buchanan and the run-up to the Civil War; Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction; Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression; Richard Nixon trying to cover up the Watergate break-in; Jimmy Carter and the economic recession of the 1970s; George W. Bush authorizing the Iraq War in response to 9/11.
Trump may wind up in a whole new category, historians said, thanks to the events of Jan. 6.
The insurrection seals Trump’s fate as “the worst president in history,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. In an article for The Atlantic, Naftali said there are three reasons for his verdict, all based on Trump being “a serial violator” of his presidential oath.
In addition to inciting an insurrection, Trump “failed to put the national-security interests of the United States ahead of his own political needs” and was “grossly derelict” in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Naftali wrote.
Playing to presidential history
Throughout the trial, both House prosecutors and Trump’s defense attorneys urged senators to consider how the insurrection and impeachment will be viewed in the decades to come.
Impeachment supporters said they fear the insurrection was not the end but the beginning. Urging conviction, prosecutors said failing to hold Trump accountable for the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the citadel of democracy, would encourage political violence.
“What we do here, what is being asked of each of us here in this moment, will be remembered,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa. “History has found us. I ask that you not look the other way.”
If the Senate had convicted Trump, it could have voted to disqualify him from holding future office, sinking any 2024 presidential bid.
In his comments to senators, Trump attorney Bruce Castor described impeachment as nothing more than “politics.” The Democrats’ goal “is to eliminate a political opponent,” he said, “to substitute their judgment for the will of the voters.”
Future of MAGA?
Trump’s supporters won’t stay silent as history begins to assess the Trump presidency. In addition to tax cuts, deregulation and judges, Trump backers highlight how Trump confronted China over what they call unfair trade policies and sped up development of COVID-19 vaccines.
During the impeachment trial, Trump supporters on Twitter called him “the greatest president of all time.”
Felzenberg, author of “The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game,” said Trump does deserve credit for addressing issues that previous candidates preferred to ignore.
The loss of manufacturing jobs, questionable trade deals that did not benefit the USA, seemingly endless wars, an economy that works mainly for people at the top and an out-of-touch federal government are among the issues that propelled Trump’s rise to the presidency, analysts said.
Trump did not address many of these issues well, Felzenberg said. Referring to Trump’s inaugural address about inheriting “American carnage,” Felzenberg said he “spent four years creating carnage, or at least allowing it.”
Looking ahead, book writers are busy tracking down details of Trump’s private actions and dealings in office, especially after the election. Their findings will feed Trump’s historical reputation.
“He’s certainly in the bottom tier,” Felzenberg said. “Maybe at the bottom.”