America confronts Trump's destructive legacy

CNN's Jake Tapper asks Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania about his opposition to more coronavirus relief funding and his views on President Trump's upcoming impeachment trial.

Posted: Feb 8, 2021 2:40 AM
Updated: Feb 8, 2021 2:40 AM

In a momentous week, America confronts a new reckoning with the negligent, destructive legacy of Donald Trump.

The ex-President faces an unprecedented second impeachment trial over a historic insurrection against Congress and an attempt to steal an election that profoundly wounded US democracy. His successor, President Joe Biden, is meanwhile intensifying his national rescue effort from the other crises that Trump left behind, as new viral strains cloud recent good news in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic and with millions of Americans hungry and jobless and out of school.

Nothing is normal about an extreme moment in America's modern story with a political system assailed by extremism, truth under assault and a country desperate to emerge from a once in a 100-year plague.

One year and four days after then-President Trump was first acquitted by a Republican-led Senate of high crimes and misdemeanors, the now Democratic-steered chamber will sit in judgment again Tuesday, over his seditious summoning of a mob that stormed Congress, in a trial that could last up to several weeks.

The proceeding will restore the full glare of Trump's compelling but malevolent influence over Washington three weeks after he left office in disgrace and will challenge Biden's efforts to fully establish his own new presidency.

Trump has refused to personally step back into the spotlight by testifying in his own defense. But the never-before-seen spectacle of an ex-commander-in-chief being held accountable through impeachment for crimes against the Constitution -- even if he's ultimately acquitted as expected -- will be an apt final chapter for a presidency that still threatens to tear the nation apart.

It also seems to mark the culmination of the failure of Trump's Republican Party to answer for a leader whose bond with grassroots supporters granted him complete impunity and exposed a fatal flaw in the checks and balances of the US political system. A majority of GOP senators have signaled they will yet again punt on Trump's offenses and take refuge in a questionable constitutional argument that a President impeached while in office cannot be tried as a private citizen.

Democrats are almost certain to be deprived of the two-thirds majority needed to convict in a presidential impeachment trial and to bar Trump from future federal office. But they plan to lay out a case so damning about the horror inside the Capitol on January 6 that they hope it will forever stain Trump politically and damage the Republicans who defend him.

But the former President's hold on the GOP was underscored last week when it was left to majority House Democrats to strip conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee slots after a series of inflammatory past statements. "The party is his. It doesn't belong to anybody else," the Georgia congresswoman told reporters. The coming days will begin to test whether prolonging the personality cult around the demagogic Trump is a risky long-term bet among the wider, more moderate electorate.

With polls showing increasing public support for Trump's conviction, the trial could also be an important moment in apportioning wider blame for the Trump presidency and shaping the national politics of the coming years.

Democrats can "still win in the court of public opinion. That's why I think the trial remains an important part of our political landscape," said David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents and a CNN political commentator.

"It's a chance for Democrats to make the case once and for all that there was no fraud, that Joe Biden was legitimately elected and the people who tried to steal this election are the ones who assaulted the Capitol," Gergen told CNN's Ana Cabrera.

Biden criticizes Trump for Covid-19 effort

The sense that America is at a historic and disorientating pivot point is exacerbated by the hopes raised by a decline in new cases of Covid-19 but also fears that new viral variants will dilute the full potential of vaccines that hold the key to ending the disaster.

Biden is seeking to rapidly expand vaccine distribution and it is now clear he is preparing to move ahead with trying to pass his $1.9 trillion relief package without Republican votes, arguing millions of Americans are suffering.

In his Super Bowl interview on "CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell," the President stuck to his practice of frank talk about the state of the pandemic while offering optimism of better days to come if America stays united, wears masks and Congress does its part.

"One of the disappointments was -- when we came to office, is the circumstance relating to how the administration was handling Covid was even more dire than we thought," Biden said, again grappling with the legacy of Trump, who downplayed, denied and politicized a virus that has killed more than 463,000 Americans.

But the President also offered some, albeit distant, hope of a full house at next year's big game.

"It's my hope and expectation, if we're able to put together and make up for all the lost time fighting Covid that's occurred -- that we'll be able to watch the Super Bowl -- with a full stadium," Biden said.

As the administration heaped pressure on Congress, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday that given the scale of the economic crisis, the risks of not acting are worse than the risks of doing something. The US could return to full employment next year if the relief package is passed, Yellen told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union." Some Senate Republicans have offered a smaller $600 billion plan to test Biden's vow of restoring political unity. But the move underscored a deep disconnect in perception between Republicans and Democrats on the magnitude of the economic crisis.

"The economy has come roaring back, savings rates are at record highs ... it is not an economy in collapse," Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey told Tapper.

"Today, we have serious problems for workers in the restaurant, the hospitality, the travel and entertainment sectors. That's really a handful of places."

The US is, meanwhile, in a race against time to build sufficient immunity from vaccines before variants create new viral peaks. A new study shows that a mutation first discovered in the UK, which is more infectious and may be more lethal, is now rapidly spreading in the United States. In another potential blow to hopes of a swift end to the crisis, South African officials said Sunday that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offered only minimal protect against a new variant that originated there.

"It is a pretty big setback," said Peter Hotez, dean of the National College of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College. While other vaccines may offer more protection against the South African variant, the increasing prevalence of the UK variant in the United States is worrisome, he told CNN "Newsroom."

"Even though the number of new cases daily is cut in half, that is the eye of the hurricane and the big wall is going to hit us again, and that is the UK and the South African variant, maybe one or two others will become dominant."

'In the Soviet Union, you'd call it a show trial'

As the virus -- and the havoc its wreaked on the economy -- continues to pose a serious threat, it's impeachment that will suck up all the oxygen in Washington this week.

Toomey, who's not running for reelection in 2022, is a possible vote to convict Trump given his vigorous criticism of his actions on January 6 and attempt to steal an election Biden clearly won. But even he admitted it is unlikely Trump will be convicted.

"I'm going to listen to the arguments on both sides and make the decision that I think is right," the Pennsylvania Republican said, adding that there was "no place in the Republican Party for people who believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon," in an apparent allusion to Greene and some other Trump loyalists.

But Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy slammed Democrats for their swift impeachment of Trump, who is facing a single charge of inciting insurrection, before he left office last month. "There was no process," Cassidy said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "If it happened in the Soviet Union, you would have called it a show trial."

In the House, 10 Republicans joined Democrats last month in laying down the historic marker of impeaching Trump for a second time. California Rep. Adam Schiff, who was the lead Democratic House impeachment manager during Trump's first trial last year, defended his colleagues against the "process argument" that the second impeachment of Trump was rushed.

"Every day he remained in office he was a danger to the country. We simply couldn't sit still and wait for weeks or months while this man posed a danger to the country. So, we did act with alacrity," Schiff said on "Meet the Press."

Rep. Liz Cheney, who fought off a bid to strip her of her third-ranking Republican House leadership post last week but was censured by her state party in Wyoming over the weekend, doubled down on her bet that future power in the GOP will rest with those who broke with Trump.

"Somebody who has provoked an attack on the United States Capitol to prevent the counting of electoral votes, which resulted in five people dying, who refused to stand up immediately when he was asked and stop the violence, that is a person who does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward," Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday."

Her remarks underscored the fact that Trump's trial and the continuing tumult in the Republican Party over his toxic legacy mean that the fight to preserve the traditions of US democracy are far from over even though he left office.

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