'Accomplice' senators who amplified Trump's lies now get a say in his fate
Republicans Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and others unabashedly endorsed the former president’s assault on democracy
A desk in the US Senate was notably empty for chunks of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial on Wednesday.
Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, was instead lounging in the upstairs public gallery with a pile of documents. He explained to CNN: “I’m sitting up there A, because it’s a little less claustrophobic than on the floor, but B, I’ve also got a straight shot,” – a reference to his seating location that also conjured an unfortunate image.
But some critics would suggest that Hawley’s rightful place is in the dock, along with his colleague Ted Cruz of Texas and others who unabashedly endorsed Trump’s assault on democracy.
This week’s trial necessarily has a narrow focus on the ex-president but that means little scrutiny of Hawley, who was photographed saluting Trump supporters with a raised fist hours before the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January.
The Kansas City Star newspaper in his home state wrote in an editorial: “No one other than President Donald Trump himself is more responsible for Wednesday’s coup attempt at the US Capitol than one Joshua David Hawley, the 41-year-old junior senator from Missouri, who put out a fundraising appeal while the siege was under way.”
Undeterred by the deadly violence, Hawley and Cruz were prominent among eight senators and 139 representatives who objected to certifying Joe Biden’s electoral college win. Both faced calls to resign. Yet now they get a say in whether Trump should be held accountable for his actions.
Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and first lady, tweeted on Thursday: “If Senate Republicans fail to convict Donald Trump, it won’t be because the facts were with him or his lawyers mounted a competent defense. It will be because the jury includes his co-conspirators.”
In detailing how Trump’s tweets and rally speeches fuelled false claims of election fraud and spurred supporters to “fight like hell”, the House impeachment managers have been careful not to dwell on how Hawley, Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul were among the senators who enabled and amplified those same incendiary lies.
It is a pragmatic choice by prosecutors who need some 17 Republican senators to join all 50 Democrats to secure the two-thirds majority required for Trump’s conviction – still something of a mission impossible.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, said: “It’s one of the great ironies of this trial, and one of the reasons why the Senate Republicans will not convict Trump, that most of these Senate Republicans have been Trump’s accomplices. If they convicted Trump, they would have to convict themselves.”
To an outside spectator, the stripped-of-context prosecution case might imply that Trump was imbued with superpowers that enabled him to singlehandedly summon, assemble and incite the mob when, in reality, he was lifted by an ecosystem of Republican politicians, conservative media personalities, social media platforms and far-right extremists.
Walsh added: “Donald Trump is on trial. He’s the one who originated the big lie, the stolen election lie, but why the hell isn’t [Fox News host] Sean Hannity on trial? Why isn’t Ted Cruz on trial? Why isn’t [congressman] Kevin McCarthy, [congressman] Jim Jordan, [radio host] Rush Limbaugh? I mean, anybody over the last eight months in any position of power or influence who spread the big lie is every bit as culpable as Donald Trump.”
For their part, Hawley and Cruz will not necessarily escape scot-free. Both men are facing an investigation from the Senate ethics committee over their conduct before the siege and leadership of the Senate challenge to the electoral college vote. Bob Casey, a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, told CNN that the pair should face censure as a “bare minimum”.
Other Republicans could still face a backlash from donors and voters for their complicity. Last November Graham, a Trump loyalist, called the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who alleges that the senator seemed to suggest he find a way to throw out ballots that had been lawfully cast; Graham denies this was his intention.
The senator from South Carolina tweeted about the trial on Wednesday night: “The ‘Not Guilty’ vote is growing after today. I think most Republicans found the presentation by the House Managers offensive and absurd.”
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory until it was certified by the electoral college in mid-December. He has twice voted that the impeachment trial is unconstitutional because Trump is now a private citizen but, according to media reports, continues to keep an open mind as to his final verdict.