With the House of Representatives having voted to impeach President Donald Trump for incitement to insurrection, it’s time to start contemplating what Trump’s defense will be in a Senate trial. The answer can be summed up briefly: Trump’s lawyers will argue that Trump did not commit a crime of incitement and that his words were protected by the First Amendment.
But wait, you may say, if you can remember Trump’s 2020 Senate trial 12 months ago (so much has happened since then that I barely can — and I testified during the House Judiciary Committee proceedings): Impeachment is for high crimes and misdemeanors under the Constitution. That doesn’t require conviction of a federal crime.
That means the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court isn’t relevant and shouldn’t protect Trump. The framers kept the “high crimes and misdemeanors” language intentionally broad so that presidents could be held accountable for a wide array of abuses of power, including interfering with a free and fair election.
Yet, still thinking back to the last impeachment, you will also recall that Trump’s lawyers — and some of his Senate defenders — never conceded that basic legal fact. In addition to arguing that Trump had done nothing wrong in his “perfect” phone call with the president of Ukraine, Trump’s defenders also maintained that Trump could not be impeached because he had not committed a federal crime. They insisted, despite the historical and logical evidence, that high crimes and misdemeanors under the Constitution need to be statutory federal crimes. [Continue reading…]