Watching the House managers present their case in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial reminded me less of an actual criminal trial and more of the conclusion of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. In the final episode, the beleaguered Soviet physicist Valery Legasov, played by Jared Harris, also takes part in a trial. On the docket were three nuclear plant operators officially deemed responsible for the catastrophe as well as the system that produced them.
Harris’s character was not a lawyer or prosecutor, and he didn’t act like one. He simply explained to the Soviet judges in clear, painstaking detail how a chain of foolish decisions by the defendants had led to disaster. It was elemental. In the right balance, nuclear fuel and heavy water create steam, electricity, and light. If there’s too much heat, too much reactivity, not enough oversight, and not enough caution, then you have a meltdown.
The House managers, for their part, did not merely connect the dots between pieces of evidence or bits of testimony. They just played video clips of what had happened in a stark, simple chronological order. All they needed was the footage of the year Trump spent crafting his “Big Lie” about election fraud, as well as footage of his followers’ unambiguous—and undisputed—belief that he wanted them to commit violence against Congress. They had both. The House managers did not present a theory of Trump’s guilt. They merely showed it.
In a healthy, functioning democracy, that would be all that was necessary. “Senators, America, we need to exercise our common sense about what happened,” Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, the lead House manager, told senators on Wednesday. “Let’s not get caught up in a lot of outlandish theories here. Exercise your common sense about what just took place in our country.” The managers’ thesis was simple: Without consequences, January 6 will happen again. “If you don’t find this a high crime and misdemeanor today, you have set a new, terrible standard for presidential misconduct in the United States of America,” Raskin warned.
The previous group of House managers, led by California’s Adam Schiff and New York’s Jerry Nadler, was largely staffed by longtime members and relatively familiar faces. The team led by Raskin, by contrast, seemed to represent a new generation of House Democrats. Raskin’s team had it easier in some ways—everything on January 6 happened on national television, after all—but their case felt tighter, more focused, and sharper in general. They may have also had the benefit of learning from what worked (and what didn’t) during the previous trial. Raskin’s team, for example, spent relatively little time wrestling with the frivolous procedural defenses raised by Trump’s team. Their decision to focus on the merits of the case during the first day, which had been set aside for constitutional questions, even appeared to catch the Trump team flat-footed.
“These tactics were road-tested,” Raskin explained. “January 6 was a culmination of the president’s actions, not an aberration from them. The insurrection was the most violent and dangerous episode so far in Donald Trump’s continuing pattern and practice of inciting violence.” He cited Trump’s remarks at rallies throughout his 2016 campaign and his presidency, as well as his “stand back and stand by” quip about the Proud Boys and his “very fine people” remark about white supremacists in Charlottesville. At times, the managers’ presentation felt repetitive, in part because Trump’s pattern of behavior is so consistent. “Unless we take action, the violence is only just beginning,” Colorado’s Diana DeGette warned.
That warning is indisputable. I noted on Wednesday how there is ample evidence of Trump’s willingness to encourage and sanction violence for political ends. On Thursday, the managers played clip after clip of rioters and insurrectionists stating that they were attacking the Capitol at Trump’s behest and on Trump’s behalf. It’s unclear how or if Trump’s lawyers can rebut that evidence. During an intermission, reporters asked for a reaction from Bruce Castor, one of the former president’s attorneys. “Did they say they heard directly from President Trump to do that?” he replied. “Yeah, that’s what they said,” one of the reporters replied. “Did you see that in trial just this morning?” Castor disagreed. “I don’t believe that’s what happened, no,” he claimed.
This willful blindness is endemic among Republicans. As NBC News’s Benjy Sarlin noted this week, more than a few Republican presidential rivals in 2016 denounced Trump for his willingness to promote violence. Rick Perry compared Trump to the nativist Know-Nothing movement that attacked D.C. sites in the 1850s. Marco Rubio pointed out that “there’s only one presidential candidate who has violence at their events” and said Trump’s words “have consequences.” Perhaps the clearest statement came from Ted Cruz. “I think a campaign bears responsibility for creating an environment,” he told reporters. “When a candidate urges supporters to engage in physical violence, to punch people in the face, the predictable consequence of that is that it escalates.”
When there was talk that Republicans might not nominate Trump at the 2016 convention, Trump even responded by suggesting that his fans would turn violent. “I think you’d have riots,” he told reporters. “I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous—many, many millions of people.” To hammer home his point, he hinted at darker outcomes. “I think bad things would happen, I really do,” he added. “I believe that. I wouldn’t lead it, but I think bad things would happen.” One Trump campaign surrogate at the time went even further, declaring that “riots aren’t necessarily a bad thing” if Republicans “decided to ignore the voice of the people.”
As the House managers suggested on Thursday, the question in the impeachment trial isn’t really whether Trump incited an insurrection on January 6. The evidence is fairly clear on that. The question is whether Republican senators will acquit him anyway, and thus give license to further outbursts of political violence in the future, whether from Trump or other extremists. The Russians, thanks to Jared Harris’s character, eventually fixed their faulty nuclear reactors. Whether the Senate will do the same remains to be seen.