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Will Republican senators rise to the occasion?

Will Republican senators rise to the occasion?
© Greg Nash

Former President Trump’s historic second impeachment trial started this week in the Senate. The presentation of the Democratic House managers has been compelling, gut-wrenching and persuasive. The opening act of Trump’s defense team was incompetent and panned even by Republicans, and reports suggest Trump was livid, screaming at his television as he saw his team’s meltdown. 

The differences in the cases that were made were so stark that one more Republican joined 50 Democrats and five Republicans (who had joined Democrats in a previous vote) in voting that the Trump Senate impeachment trial was constitutional and should proceed. 

Is this a precursor of things to come? Will nine more Republicans be convinced by the end of the proceedings to convict the former president? 

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Few pundits seem to think 17 Republican senators will join 50 Democrats to convict Trump and then vote to disqualify him from running for public office again. Then again, few people believed Democrats would win both Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. The odds were stacked against them. But Democrats beat the odds and now have the slimmest of Senate majorities. So, while the odds that 17 Republicans will vote to convict Trump are long, they are not impossible.

The proof that Democratic House managers are presenting is hard to watch, hard to dispute and damning for the former president. Their video montage and opening arguments discombobulated Trump’s defense team. Trump defense lawyer, Bruce Castor, seemed frazzled as he conceded that the Democrats’ case was so well done that it forced his team to “huddle” and change their strategy. 

That was just the beginning for the House managers. Wednesday and Thursday continued with chilling video and evidence that directly connects Trump’s words, tweets and actions to the violence and death caused by the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol.   

While the initial vote to move forward with the trial gained only one additional Republican, it was a gain in the right direction, and it came from a senator in a solidly red, Trump-supporting state. Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress MORE of Louisiana said his mind was changed because of the persuasive nature of the House managers’ case, along with the bumbling incompetence of Trump’s defense.

Perhaps in the following days, mountains of evidence – through videos, Trump’s words and tweets and the words of his supporters stating that they were doing Trump’s bidding – will be enough for nine more Republicans to vote to convict Trump.

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Democrats should call in the Proud Boys as witnesses to what they believed Trump’s marching orders to them were. “Stand back and stand by,” Trump said during one of the presidential debates. They did. They waited and showed up at what they believed was Trump’s behest.

By voting to convict Trump, Republicans would be choosing to defend the Constitution and democracy, and to hold a former president accountable for inciting a terrorist mob to attack the Capitol in order to overturn a fair and transparent election. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell shoots down Manchin's voting compromise Environmental groups urge congressional leaders to leave climate provisions in infrastructure package Loeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run MORE (R-Ky.) has stated that this extraordinary vote will be a vote of conscience for Republicans. He even left open the possibility that he could vote to convict Trump (even though twice before he voted that the trial itself was unconstitutional). This means that McConnell is either signaling that Republicans are free to vote to convict Trump or simply covering his own political hide.

But it is an opening that nine or more Republicans can walk through to safeguard their reputations and legacies. This vote will be a historical record of who stood for chaos, terrorism and the destruction of our constitutional democracy, and who stood for American values, the rule of law and the Constitution.

A vote to convict Trump would chop off Republicans’ dependence on Trump and loosen his stranglehold on their party. It will be difficult, at first, with Trump exploding and calling for every Republican who voted to convict him to be primaried.

But Trump is weakened, and now is the time for the GOP to strike. That is, if they understand that their party’s long-term viability depends on it.

From a purely political point of view, as a Democrat, I should be routing for Republicans to show they are too weak to stand up to Trump. But as an American, the danger that Trump still poses is too great to want him as a viable candidate ever again. 

The odds are against Trump’s conviction. But I will remember Georgia. Maybe, just maybe, Republican senators will rise to the occasion.

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist and was co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee for the party's 2020 convention. She is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.