Early last year, when they were presented with an ironclad impeachment case against Donald Trump, Republican senators were warned that if they failed to convict him for his blatant efforts to tamper with the 2020 election, it would leave the nation vulnerable to future interference with the integrity of American democracy. All but one Republican voted to acquit Trump anyway, thus leaving him in office.
It took only months for the predictions they ignored to come true in devastating fashion. After losing the 2020 vote, Trump marshaled a long effort to pressure states he lost into changing their results, while feeding his supporters invented tales of election fraud. That attempt to subvert the election culminated in a Jan. 6 rally in which the president incited his followers to attack the US Capitol, where lawmakers and former vice president Mike Pence were meeting to formalize Trump’s defeat.
For their cowardice at that impeachment trial, those senators nearly paid with their lives. Five people died during the attack, including a Capitol police officer, and video evidence shows it was mere luck that the rioters did not reach lawmakers or Pence, who was clearly in the mob’s crosshairs. The insurrectionists had hung a noose outside the building — not in the figurative sense, but the real thing, on a gallows. Days later, two more police officers died by suicide. In more than two centuries, the nation had never experienced such a humiliating and preventable outrage as a mob ransacking the Capitol. Had GOP senators simply mustered the courage to do the right thing last year, they would have saved the country, and themselves, from a shameful and dangerous assault.
Now the House of Representatives has sent the Senate another impeachment case against Trump, stemming from the Jan. 6 insurrection he fomented. The facts are different, the specific charge is different, but the consequences if the Senate fails to convict Trump and disqualify him from holding future office are no less dire. The Founders designed impeachment and disqualification as a tool to protect the country and the rule of law. Failing to disqualify Trump when his disrespect for democracy is now abundantly clear would — once again, and possibly irreparably — endanger the constitutional system the senators took an oath to protect.
The case against Trump is overwhelming, and most of it happened in the open. In detail, the prosecutors from the House laid out the trail of events, beginning after his election defeat and ending with the violence of the insurrection. The president very clearly incited the attack on Congress by spinning months of lies designed to rile up his supporters, capped off with a rally that he promised in advance would be “wild.” Then, on the day of the insurrection, he didn’t ask the rioters to stop — he egged them on, attacking Pence in a tweet just as armed rioters were searching for the vice president in the hallways of the Capitol.
As if to flaunt the impunity he expects from Republicans, Trump did not even show his ostensible allies enough respect to give them a good-faith excuse to acquit him. On Friday, Trump’s lawyer made the preposterous argument that while the insurrection was outrageous, the president didn’t incite it. To accept that, senators would have to ignore both common sense and their own past statements. As Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has already acknowledged, the mob was “provoked by the president.”
The president’s defenders have also resorted to procedural arguments, saying that since Trump is now out of office, he should not be tried in the Senate. As numerous constitutional scholars have pointed out, the contention is absurd. It would turn the Senate’s power to disqualify into a nullity, allowing any president or federal official facing conviction in the future to dodge disqualification simply by resigning the moment before the vote. Yet for craven Republicans looking for any excuse to avoid acknowledging Trump’s guilt, it may be enough.
If there were ever a time to grow a spine, it’s now. On the day of the attack, numerous police officers showed extraordinary courage, risking and, in one case, losing their lives to protect the seat of American democracy. Protecting the building was their job. Protecting the constitutional system that building represents is the job of US senators. When the trial concludes, they have an opportunity to rectify last year’s mistake — or repeat it, and again betray their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.