Former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial finally gets underway Tuesday. Over the next several days, the House impeachment managers will make the case to the millions of Americans watching that on Jan. 6, Trump incited a crowd to attack the U.S. Capitol in the hope of overturning the results of the 2020 election.
There's a lot of drama surrounding the trial, particularly around whether Trump himself will testify as the House impeachment managers have requested. His attorneys rejected that idea last week, prompting me to argue that the Senate should subpoena Trump anyway. As I noted last week, though, if senators decide they want to hear Trump's testimony, there is a potential downside to putting him on the stand.
Last month, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Ishaan Tharoor drew the apt comparison between the riot at the Capitol and the events of Nov. 8, 1923, in Munich. It was then that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, still mostly unknown on the national or international stage, tried to seize power. As Tharoor noted, the episode — later known as "the Beer Hall Putsch" — failed miserably.
But, he added, tucked into the elements of the Jan. 6 riot are "potential echoes of the Beer Hall Putsch — not in the risk that Trump is about to turn into a genocidal monster, but in that there may not be meaningful consequences for the lies and subversion of democratic order that Trump appears to have encouraged."
Part of the reason that comparison rings true is what happened after the putsch's failure — and the history here is what has me most concerned about the idea of putting Trump on the witness stand.
Hitler and his counterparts' trial for their attempted coup, which I first read about in Volker Ullrich's widely praised biography of Hitler in 2017, began in February 1924. Under the eyes of a sympathetic judge who "allowed Hitler to use the tribunal as a pulpit," the future dictator held sway even though he faced charges of high treason. Here's how Ullrich described it:
In his four-hour self-defense, Hitler took responsibility for the entire putsch: “Ultimately, I was the one who wanted it. In the end, the other gentlemen only took action with me.” On the other hand, he disputed the state’s charges, claiming that there was no such thing as “high treason against the national traitors of 1918.”
After a stunning performance throughout the trial, Hitler then gave a 2½-hour closing speech. He again defended everything he'd done and pitched himself as a savior of the nation:
The fate of Germany does not lie in the choice between a Republic or a Monarchy, but in the content of the Republic and the Monarchy. What I am contending against is not the form of a state as such, but its ignominious content. We wanted to create in Germany the precondition which alone will make it possible for the iron grip of our enemies to be removed from us. We wanted to create order in the state, throw out the drones, take up the fight against international stock exchange slavery, against our whole economy being cornered by trusts, against the politicizing of the trade unions, and above all, for the highest honorable duty which we, as Germans, know should be once more introduced — the duty of bearing arms, military service. And now I ask you: Is what we wanted high treason?
HItler was convicted, but given an extremely light sentence, which served more as a writer's retreat than a punishment. And the listening public had thought the ideas he'd rattled off in his diatribes sounded pretty good. The international media ate it up, too, boosting Hitler's standing from a nobody in a minor party to "the man who had been able to turn a fiasco into a propaganda triumph," as Ullrich put it.
Now, I don't expect anything remotely as eloquent from the former president should he take the stand. But there are inherent risks in giving Trump a megaphone to spread his inanities now that he's out of office and has been deplatformed from Twitter.
In the weeks since the attack on Congress, Trump hasn't found a sense of remorse. Instead, it's abundantly clear that he still believes that, as he told his supporters on the Ellipse, he won the election and that the conspiracy theories about why he lost are all plausible. That much is evident from his attorneys' ' first trial brief, in which they tortuously said Trump denies that "his opinion is factually in error."
There are inherent risks in giving Trump a megaphone to spread his inanities now that he's out of office and has been deplatformed from Twitter.
Logically speaking, this isn't an impediment to a trial. Witnesses can say false things under oath, but the prosecution then counters with facts for the jury. Knowingly lying under oath can also bring potential consequences, like charges of perjury or contempt of the court. But what happens when a defendant doesn't care about all that?
The thought of giving Trump yet another platform to repeat his lies on live television gives me pause. As Eric Posner argued in The New York Times, Trump and Trumpism thrive on grievances. Seeing Trump on the stand could well feed "into Mr. Trump's politically potent claims to martyrdom," Posner suggested. "Mr. Trump will portray the prosecution as revenge by the 'deep state' and corrupt Democrats."
It's what allies like former White House strategist Steve Bannon want. "He is not going to be convicted, so we must address Nov. 3. And the best place to adjudicate this is the well of the U.S. Senate," Bannon told Politico. "It has to be dramatic, it has to be big. It has to be the big lie versus the big steal."
Personally, I'd like to be excused from this narrative. So if we're going to hear from the former president, I want as few similarities as possible between this trial and another one held almost 100 years ago. Should Democrats compel Trump to answer questions under oath, there are ways to mitigate his lies as he's delivering them, as proven in past depositions. And the presiding officer, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., can and should use his powers to cut off any nongermane rambling from the former president.
I want the truth about Trump's role in inciting the riot at the Capitol to be laid out clearly for history. I think Democrats are making a mistake if they choose to rush through the trial without witnesses. So, yes, subpoena Trump — but make sure you can neutralize his message more effectively than German prosecutors did in 1924.