“Total, Total Shitshow”: Ernst, Grassley Cement Their Legacies to Trump

Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst pose for a photo with Donald Trump at the State of the Union address in February 2020. Photo: @SenJoniErnst/Twitter

On Saturday morning, a few short hours before Donald Trump was acquitted again in an unprecedented second impeachment trial despite his obvious and direct involvement in an effort to violently subvert the democratic process, New York Times congressional reporter Emily Cochrane asked Senator Joni Ernst what she made of the affair this time.

“Total, total shitshow,” Ernst told Cochrane. Iowa’s junior senator added that the trial was “a tool of revenge” against Trump — for what, exactly, it wasn’t clear, and probably didn’t matter, so long as she reinforced the notion that anyone trying to hold Trump accountable was just being a hater. And she echoed a threat from her GOP colleagues that if Democrats “want to drag this out, we’ll drag it out. They won’t get their noms [nominations], they won’t get anything.”

Ernst was referring to Democrats who were considering whether to delay the trial’s final vote Saturday and call witnesses. This was largely in reaction to a CNN article published the night before that drew attention to a previously reported account from a Republican congresswoman about how, during a phone call with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Trump sided with the rioters at the US Capitol and refused to call them off — further corroborating evidence that he chose not to act when the lives of lawmakers and his own vice president were endangered and five others were killed as the mob delayed the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Eventually, Democrats made the controversial decision to backtrack on the idea and concluded the trial without witnesses.

Ernst’s unserious attitude was similar to the one she displayed during Trump’s previous impeachment trial early last year, which he faced after attempting to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating Joe Biden in hopes of damaging his presidential prospects. She disregarded the significant body of evidence presented against Trump, as well as what she called a “baloney” CBS News report about the president’s threats to Republican senators who dared oppose him. When the report was cited by House impeachment manager Adam Schiff, Ernst said, she began to ignore him when “he got to the part where he just completely made a bunch of bullcrap up.” She later joked at a press conference that unsubstantiated corruption allegations made by Republicans might hurt Biden’s chances in the Iowa caucuses and posted a cheery video of herself en route to Trump’s State of the Union address on the day before she voted to acquit him.

Chuck Grassley joined Ernst for a photo op with Trump during the State of the Union gathering. He, too, voted to acquit the president, then promptly announced he was launching a Senate investigation into the Biden corruption allegations. Released in September, the report found no evidence to support them.

Some held out hope that Grassley would take his oath of office more seriously at Trump’s second impeachment trial. After all, he had been rushed out of the Senate chamber shortly before rioters entered, emboldened by Trump’s months of lies about massive election fraud. Even after he predictably voted against proceeding to trial, a credulous headline for a video news segment posted on Cedar Rapids TV station KCRG’s website read, “Grassley indicates he’s open to voting to convict Trump.” But all he really did was feign his independence from Trump by stating the simple fact that his role as a juror was separate from his initial vote.

Grassley kept up the charade throughout the trial. On Saturday morning, he pushed back against claims making the rounds on social media, like an image displaying photos of 14 Republican Senators, including him, who allegedly “CHOSE not to attend the Impeachment Trial” on Thursday. “I’ve been in my seat on Senate floor the entire impeachment trial analyzing arguments & taking it all in Only time I leave is for bathroom breaks Anything u see to the contrary on social media is FAKE NEWS,” Grassley tweeted in his trademark fashion.

His attentiveness had also been questioned. On Wednesday, Bloomberg News White House reporter Jennifer Jacobs (formerly of the Des Moines Register) relayed that Grassley had reportedly “concealed an iPad-like device in his half-open desk drawer so he can read during Democrats’ impeachment case against Trump, per Hill pool. He’s been occasionally looking up — he did watch the ‘Hang Mike Pence’ video, per pooler.”

But if Grassley had napped through the entire trial, or spent its duration in Windsor Heights doing u kno what at Dairy Queen, it shouldn’t have made any difference. Trump’s guilt was obvious long before the proceedings commenced. The storming of the Capitol was planned by extremists including ones directly tied to his inner circle, in defense of the election fraud lie he started long before he lost the election, by people he explicitly invited to Washington DC on January 6 to protest then-Vice President Mike Pence’s certification of Biden’s clear victory. Among the Trump lawyers who collectively filed more than five dozen failed lawsuits seeking to overturn election results was Lin Wood, a conspiracy theorist who suggested Pence should be executed for treason. Trump’s campaign operation spent $3.5 million to help organize the protest. Trump himself gleefully watched the deadly riot play out in real time on TV while ignoring pleas for assistance.

Trump’s guilt was so obvious that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said as much, immediately after voting to acquit him on the ahistorical grounds that it would be unconstitutional because he was no longer president — a ludicrous argument in any case, since this was a situation McConnell himself caused by blocking a trial while Trump was still in office. The former president, McConnell said, was “morally responsible” for the riot, exhibited “a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” and could even still be held criminally liable for what unfolded.

McConnell’s disingenuous fence-straddling provided Ernst the cover she needed to vote for acquittal with the same justification while avoiding even the slightest criticism of Trump. Grassley’s office released a far lengthier statement — more than 2,300 words — that ultimately relied on the same strained logic employed by McConnell. “Just because President Trump did not meet the definition of inciting insurrection does not mean that I think he behaved well,” the statement read. But although Grassley criticized Trump for his actions, he minimized them with a rambling series of false equivalencies that suggested Democrats were equally to blame. “Yes, I think President Trump should have accepted President Biden’s victory when it became clear he won,” the statement added. “I think Secretary Clinton should have done the same thing in 2016.” She did, on the day after the election, which Trump won by the same electoral college margin as he lost to Biden. More tellingly, perhaps, was Grassley’s omission of any admission that both he and Ernst played along with Trump’s lies for weeks after the election’s victor was clear.

Seven of Ernst’s and Grassley’s Republican colleagues demonstrated the courage they so sorely lacked throughout Trump’s term in office, declaring the former president guilty of inciting an insurrection in a vote that fell 10 senators shy of securing a conviction. Republicans throughout the country, including Congressman Randy Feenstra of Iowa, decried the trial as a “partisan sham impeachment.” In truth, it was the most bipartisan presidential impeachment vote in United States history. Despite McConnell’s belated denunciation, Trump’s acquittal ensures that he will remain a force to be reckoned with in a fractured GOP with a powerful wing that continues to be severely divorced from reality, and could run again for office. After Saturday’s vote, Feenstra’s predecessor, Steve King, declared, “Let the 2024 presidential election begin.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.