One of the byproducts of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial has been to show how many opportunities the 45th president had to pull back from or mitigate his impeachable conduct on January 6. He didn’t have to address the “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse; he could have sent participants a supportive but vague message that would have cast some doubt on his responsibility for the ensuing violence. In his speech before the riot he could have more clearly and forcefully discouraged such violence. Once violence broke out, he could have instantly condemned it and instructed his loyal followers to stand down right then and there. He could have also refrained from expressions of solidarity and even “love” for the vicious mob. And he’s had plenty of time since then to show some remorse for what happened.
Trump’s refusal to take advantage of any of these opportunities is an important part of the House impeachment managers’ case against him: His conduct was wrong on many crucial levels. But what is most amazing is that his conduct was fundamentally stupid as well.
As I tried to explain on January 18 in an examination of Trump’s many months of preparation for a theft of the 2020 election, by January 6 the game was up:
[A] real “stop” to the [electoral vote] count wasn’t feasible; the only real deadline was Inauguration Day on January 20, two weeks later. There was no way the “patriots” could have kept control of the Capitol for that long.
We’ll never know for sure how many states’ electoral votes pro-Trump members of Congress might have challenged had the assault on the Capitol not cast a pall on the whole enterprise (apparently five instead of the two, Arizona and Pennsylvania, that drew the requisite bicameral support to compel a vote). But they clearly didn’t have the votes in either House to pull off any of them (a majority in both Houses is required to overturn a state-certified and state-announced electoral vote slate).
Because the January 6 gambit in Congress was doomed to fail, I even speculated that the electoral vote protest must have an alternative rationale, perhaps to “put Republican feet to the fire in a final litmus test of loyalty to Trump, presumably to create a foundation for a comeback in the future.” But by turning the protest within Congress into a deadly and terrifying mob assault on Congress, Trump reduced the incentive for Republican politicians to back his final gambit, and directly endangered his comeback prospects. No, he will not be formally barred from future officeholding via a Senate conviction, but the images so evocatively presented during the trial are going to follow him to the end of his days. Doing what he did on January 6 was entirely self-destructive, and could have gone much worse for him, had his bravos gotten hold of and wreaked vengeance on actual members of Congress as they clearly wanted to do.
To be clear, there were moments before January 6 when Trump’s relentless campaign to delegitimize any election defeat might have struck some sort of pay dirt. Had he called out the sort of mob that assaulted the Capitol to stop vote-counting immediately after Election Day, that might have obscured his defeat in a useful way. Had he successfully appealed to Republican state legislators to seize control of the naming of electoral votes in the key states they controlled, that could have at least generated a constitutional challenge to the popular vote results. Had he hired a more competent legal team, state certification of the results might have been delayed. And if Mike Pence had gone along with his demands to refuse to count Biden electors in “disputed” states, throwing the election into the House or at least creating litigation, that could have definitely created a constitutional crisis, though not one Trump was likely to win.
But Trump chose to go fully nuclear at the precise moment when it no longer made any sort of sense. This decision not only led to his impeachment and trial, but in terms of his legacy, ties him inextricably to the most extremist and disreputable elements of his MAGA base.
It would have been much, much smarter for Trump to have told his people going into the electoral vote count that having been betrayed by Pence, he had no viable options left, and was looking to the future for vindication, while MAGA militants kept their powder dry and focused on waging holy war against the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress. But he went the other way. It’s actually fitting that a president who represented a constant threat to constitutional governance for four long years made his final act another demonstration of his complete recklessness and irresponsibility.