When students of the American story ask 100 years from now how the United States began to find its way back from the mob violence, destruction, and death that Donald Trump unleashed on this country, they will recall the prose and poetry with which Representative Jamie Raskin damned the former president who incited insurrection against democracy.
Raskin, the law professor who was elected to the House after a long career in academia and activism, opened the Senate impeachment trial on Tuesday with an intellectually dazzling argument for why the trial is constitutionally legitimate and morally necessary. That was to be expected. Raskin is, as his Harvard Law School professor, Laurence Tribe, says, “the best constitutional lawyer in all of Congress.”
What was unexpected was the raw emotional power that the leader of the House’s team of impeachment managers used to close the case against Trump. Yes, close it. The trial will continue for a number of long and frustrating days. But for the purposes of history—and the historical record is always the truest measure of impeachments—Raskin had, by the time he concluded his remarks on Tuesday, well and truly convicted Donald John Trump.
Raskin built his argument meticulously, beginning with a riveting reflection on why the 45th president, and every president to come, must be denied “a January exception” that would in effect permit the commission of high crimes in the final days of a term. Detailing the constitutional folly of Trump’s claim that errant executives cannot be held to account after leaving office, Raskin calmly explained:
A January exception. And everyone can see immediately why this is so dangerous. It’s an invitation to the president to take his best shot at anything he may want to do on his way out the door, including using violent means to lock that door. To hang onto the Oval Office at all costs. And to block the peaceful transfer of power. In other words, the January exception is an invitation to our founder’s worst nightmare.
Raskin’s rhetoric was so powerful that the Progressive Change Campaign Committee immediately announced that it would air cable television ads featuring his debunking of not just the absurd arguments of Trump’s haphazard legal team but also the broader suggestion that this trial is somehow unnecessary or extraneous to “the real work” of governing. Of the claims made by Trump’s lawyers, Raskin said:
Their argument is that if you commit an impeachable offense in your last few weeks in office, you do it with constitutional impunity. You get away with it. In other words, conduct that would be a high crime and misdemeanor in your first year as president, and your second year as president, and your third year as president, and the vast majority of your fourth year as president, you can suddenly do in your last few weeks as president without facing any constitutional accountability at all. This would create a brand new January exception to the Constitution of the United States.
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As compelling as Raskin’s constitutional argument was, however, it was the moral argument that he made at the close of Tuesday’s presentation by the House managers that inspired hope for a future where—no matter what the Senate decides—the threat posed by Trump and Trumpism will be vanquished.
It is no secret that Trump’s Senate allies are disinclined to convict a former president whose disfavor they fear more than any penalties for abandoning their oaths. Logic and the law will not move them, as was confirmed late Tuesday afternoon when 44 Republicans—enough to ensure the former president isn’t convicted—embraced the Trump team’s argument that the trial was unconstitutional.
But no impeachment trial has ever convicted a president. Trials of this sort have always worked on two levels. Yes, of course, there is an effort to convince reluctant senators. But there is also the more consequential project of winning the future for a politics that might, as Abraham Lincoln proposed, be touched “by the better angels of our nature.”
Raskin spoke to those better angels in Tuesday’s closing statement, when he explained:
This trial is personal, indeed, for every senator, for every member of the House, every manager, all of our staff, the Capitol Police, the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police, the National Guard, maintenance and custodial crews, the print journalists and TV people who were here, and all of our families and friends. I hope this trial reminds America how personal democracy is. And how personal is the loss of democracy, too.
Raskin recalled inviting his youngest daughter, Tabitha, and his son-in-law, Hank, to join him on January 6 to witness the review of the Electoral College results that would confirm Joe Biden’s election as president. “It was the day after we buried her brother, our son Tommy—the saddest day of our lives,” said Raskin, whose second child, Thomas Bloom Raskin, a 25-year-old Harvard law student, took his life on New Year’s Eve. “The reason they came with me that Wednesday, January 6,” the congressman said, “was because they wanted to be together with me in the middle of a devastating week for our family.”
When Tabitha Raskin asked if they would be safe—on a day Donald Trump had already suggested would be “wild”—her father assured her that “of course it should be safe. This is the Capitol.” A few hours later, when the mob breached the Capitol, Raskin was separated from his guests. The congressman’s chief of staff, his daughter, and his son-in-law barricaded themselves in House majority leader Steny Hoyer’s office, “hiding under the desk, placing what they thought were their final texts and whispered phone calls to say their goodbyes. They thought they were going to die.”
Raskin recounted how, after a harrowing hour, he was reunited with his daughter: “I told her how sorry I was, and I promised her that it would not be like this again the next time she came back to the Capitol with me. You know what she said? She said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol.’”
The congressman’s eyes welled with tears. His voice broke. “Of all the terrible brutal things I saw, and I heard on that day, and since then, that one hit me the hardest. That, and watching someone use an American flag pole—the flag still on it—to spear and pummel one of our police officers, ruthlessly, mercilessly, tortured by a pole with a flag on it, that he was defending with his very life.”
“People died that day,” Raskin said. “Officers ended up with head damage and brain damage. People’s eyes were gouged. An officer had a heart attack. An officer lost three fingers that day. Two officers have taken their own lives.”
Again, his voice broke. Then it returned. Stronger, clearer than any voice that has spoken in the Capitol for a very long time:
Senators, this cannot be our future. This cannot be the future of America. We cannot have presidents inciting and mobilizing mob violence against our government and our institutions because they refuse to accept the will of the people under the Constitution of the United States.
The painful truth about our republic as it now stands is that Donald Trump is unlikely to be held to account by this Senate. But Jamie Raskin has assured that history will not favor the former president, or the senators who defend his infamy. It will take time. But there will be a future when Tabitha Raskin returns to the Capitol, when the darkness lifts, and when, surely, our better angels will prevail.