There is a well-known technique in racing and cycling in which one driver or rider stays behind someone in front of them to allow the person in the lead to absorb and deflect wind resistance. It is called drafting or slipstreaming.
I was reminded of that technique when I read Special Counsel Jack Smith’s December 30 filing to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia concerning Donald Trump’s claim of presidential immunity. Or, to put it differently, there is someone who long ago concluded that Trump could be prosecuted for his role in the events of January 6. While he is barely named in Smith’s brief, he laid the foundation for the position that that brief articulates.
That someone is Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.
Smith refers to him only once, on page 71 of his 86-page brief. I wish that Smith had paid more attention to what McConnell said about Trump’s possible criminal liability in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol three years ago
It is particularly important to recall those remarks in detail now because the former president wants Americans to think that the idea of prosecuting him sprang from his Democratic political opponents. Trump would have us all believe that Jack Smith is just a puppet or stalking horse for a politically motivated vendetta being carried out by President Joe Biden.
As Trump put it last August after pleading not guilty to four criminal counts of attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, “When you look at what’s happening, this is a persecution of a political opponent. This was never supposed to happen in America.” The suggestion that Trump’s legal troubles are nothing more than an effort by Democrats to discredit him has been taken up as a rallying cry by many other Republicans.
Take, as one example, Senator Marsha Blackburn, who has said, “The American people see this for what it is—political prosecution…. Make no mistake: if the former President’s name were anything but ‘Trump,’ he would not be facing these charges…. If they can do this to Trump, they can do it to you. This is fundamentally un-American.”
Even his opponents in the Republican presidential primaries have echoed this line. Last June Florida Governor Ron DeSantis accused the Biden administration of “the weaponization of federal law enforcement.” DeSantis called it “a mortal threat to a free society.”
He said that Trump’s prosecution exemplified “an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.” And he asked, “Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter?”
But the first suggestion that Trump could and should be indicted for his role in the events of January 6 came from Senator McConnell, not a Democrat and certainly not Joe Biden or Attorney General Merrick Garland.
On February 13, 2021, barely one month after the attack on the Capitol, McConnell took to the Senate floor to explain why he had not voted to convict Trump during his just-completed impeachment trial. He offered his interpretation of what the acquittal of Trump did and did not mean for any future effort to hold the former president accountable.
Recall that 57 senators, including seven Republicans, voted to convict Trump, short of the two-thirds required by the Constitution. At the time, commentators were surprised McConnell was not one of them.
This is because right after January 6, McConnell seemed supportive of the impeachment effort. “The Democrats,” McConnell told associates, “are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us.” He added, “If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is.”
A CNN report suggests that his change of heart did not result from a reassessment of Trump’s guilt or from a reconsideration of the importance of holding Trump accountable. It was, instead, motivated entirely by a political calculus.
CNN says that McConnell told a friend, “I didn’t get to be leader by voting with five people in the conference.”
Whatever the motivation for his impeachment vote, in his February 13 speech McConnell quickly cut to the chase, “January 6th,” he said, “was a disgrace. American citizens attacked their own government. They used terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like.”
And, as if previewing what Smith would allege two years later in his indictment of Trump, McConnell pinned the blame squarely on Trump. “They did this,” he continued, “because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth — because he was angry he’d lost an election.”
McConnell reiterated this conclusion at several points in his remarks:
There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their President.
Nonetheless, McConnell argued that because Trump had left office before his Senate trial commenced, he could not be held to account through the impeachment process. As he put it, “I believe the best constitutional reading shows that Article II, Section 4 exhausts the set of persons who can legitimately be impeached, tried, or convicted. The President, Vice President, and civil officers. We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen.”
If McConnell had ended his remarks at that point, they would be much less relevant than they are in assessing whether criminal prosecution of the former president is allowable under the Constitution and, if it is, whether what Smith is doing is merely partisan.
But McConnell did not stop there.
The senator went on to say that “impeachment was never meant to be the final forum for American justice. “Impeachment, conviction, and removal are a specific intra-governmental safety valve. It is not the criminal justice system, where individual accountability is the paramount goal.”
In his speech, McConnell quoted Justice Joseph Story (a source Smith’s brief also cites several times) whom he called “our nation’s first great constitutional scholar.” Story, McConnell said, “specifically reminded us that while former officials were not eligible for impeachment or conviction, they were ‘still liable to be tried and punished in the ordinary tribunals of justice.’”
In Smith’s only reference to McConnell’s speech, the Special Counsel quoted the Republican senator’s assertion that Trump “‘is still liable for everything he did while he was in office…as an ordinary citizen’” and that “‘[w]e have a criminal justice system in this country.’”
The complete line from McConnell’s speech said, “We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former Presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”
McConnell ended his remarks with these words: “The Senate’s decision does not condone anything that happened on or before that terrible day. It simply shows that Senators did what the former President failed to do: We put our constitutional duty first.”
Of course, if Smith had given more attention to McConnell as a source for the proposition that a former president can be held criminally liable for acts committed while in office, that would not have persuaded Trump’s most loyal supporters. After all, the former president has long branded McConnell as someone who “hates Donald J. Trump,” “is willing to take the country down with him,” and, most ominously, “has A DEATH WISH.”
But for others, including perhaps judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or jurors in a criminal trial, McConnell might be a credible and invaluable source. What he said is important in assessing Trump’s immunity claim and whether he should be held responsible for what transpired on January 6 and conspiring to subvert American democracy.