A look at what President Trump’s impeachment and acquittal could mean for American government
The impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump reached their long-foreseen conclusion last week with his acquittal in the Senate.
The improbability of the President being removed from office was obvious from the start. However mini-questions over whether the Senate would hear from additional witnesses and subpoena John Bolton and whether a final vote would be marked by any party crossovers kept some level of drama alive during the process. The second of these issues remained an unknown until hours before votes were tallied and ended with Republican senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney being the only one to stymie the ability to call the verdict a party line-vote.
Evoking his faith and the solemnity of an oath to do “impartial justice,” and emphasizing what he saw as the danger of the President’s actions, the senator from Utah said that he could not in good conscience vote “not guilty” to the charge of abuse of power.
The three “red state Democrats” who had been in the spotlight — Senators Doug Jones of Alabama, John Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — all stuck with fellow party members and voted to convict on both impeachment articles, despite holding off a commitment in either direction during the trial.
The result of Wednesday’s vote left President Trump comfortably clearing the bar of acquittal; efforts to remove him from office fell short not only of the needed two-thirds vote, but also of failing to win a majority. The very occurrence of an impeachment trial — only the third in the nation’s history — is in itself historic, but those studying the proceedings also note that this trial stands out as the first in which acquittal did not win support from a member of the opposing party. It was also the first instance of a vote to convict being cast by a member of the president’s own party.
From the time of revelations about President Trump’s efforts to elicit investigations into the Bidens from Ukraine last September, public views on whether Congress should attempt to remove the President from office remained split nearly down the middle, mostly consistent with party affiliation. The needle remained almost completely stuck throughout the process, and, as proceedings continued, polling showed a steady decline in public interest over the impeachment investigations and then trial.
And so the Trump impeachment moves out of the news and into history. And yet, irrespective of views of the charges that were considered, or the background and process that led to the impeachment trial, Congress’ embarking on such an undertaking cannot help but leave open questions as to what impression these events will leave on the American body politic.
‘Age of Impeachment’?
In the presentation he made before the Senate as a member of the president’s defense team, Kenneth Starr, former solicitor general and independent counsel, who led investigations on former President Bill Clinton, bemoaned the fact that with the present trial, America had entered into an “age of impeachment.”
“In this particular juncture in America’s history, the Senate is being called to sit as the high court of impeachment all too frequently,” said Mr. Starr. “How did we get here, with presidential impeachment invoked frequently in its inherently destabilizing, as well as acrimonious, way?”
The posing of such a question from one of the most central figures in what was widely seen as a misuse of Congress’ impeachment powers was an irony noted by many. Yet, notwithstanding views on Mr. Starr’s appeals to acquit President Trump, his remarks illustrated a concern held by many political observers.
Mark Rozell, Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, edited a book that looked at similar questions in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, and has authored multiple works on executive power. He said that considering both former President Bill Clinton’s and President Donald Trump’s cases, he feared their purely partisan nature would lower the bar for future impeachments.
“I don’t agree with Ken Starr that we are now in the ‘age of impeachment,’ but now that we have had these two partisan impeachments in what is essentially one generation, the path to impeachment seems significantly more likely in the future,” he said. “I believe that there were serious allegations against both Clinton and Trump that warranted investigation, but the fact that they were driven by the opposing political party somewhat undermines the long-term perception of its legitimacy.”
While the nature of the accusations the two presidents ultimately faced in their respective impeachments were markedly different, certain aspects of the two cases do ring similar. Most glaring is the fact that in both cases the opposition party engaged in investigations into the president from early in his term in an attempt to darken his administration, and ultimately pounced on a relatively unrelated incident as justification for long-professed suspicions of wrongdoing.
Dr. Rozell said that despite the gap in accusations against the former and present presidents, it is not unreasonable to posit that one set the stage for the other.
“Impeachment was always thought of as the ‘nuclear option’ of American politics; Andrew Johnson had been the only one and there was a long history of reluctance to go down that route, even when there were serious allegations. The Clinton impeachment made the process look like a simpler remedy for alleged presidential misconduct,” he said.
Michael McConnell is a former federal appeals court judge who is a professor of constitutional law at Stanford University and a senior fellow for the Hoover Institution. He too feared that both the Clinton and now the Trump impeachments would usher in a “new normal” of opposing parties searching for impeachable offenses shortly after losing an election.
Prof. McConnell noted that, ironically, from a governance perspective, both instances should have really had the opposite effect.
“As it turns out, impeachment isn’t such an effective tool; with Clinton it made him more popular and the Republicans ended up looking foolish,” said Prof. McConnell.
A modest spike in President Trump’s post-impeachment approval rating and national lack of interest in the affair give some indication that the present process is producing similar results. While saying that logic would dictate that such an outcome should deter future one-party driven impeachments, Prof. McConnell was skeptical that, in the present age, decisions in Washington are guided by reason.
“In the current political climate we have winds from both parties that are not prudent and that are basically adolescent,” he said. “If you think that the presidency is a valuable institution and that the president has important things to do and that unity on some level is necessary for our integrity in foreign affairs and a lot of domestic policy, impeachment stops all of that in its tracks. … But we just witnessed the spectacle of the President refusing to shake hands with the Speaker of the House at the State of the Union address and the Speaker ripping up the President’s speech. These are not acts of people who seem concerned with the public good.”
Nearly completely unanimous Republican opposition to President Trump’s impeachment revealed not only his tight grip on the party’s elected officials, but reflected consistently strong support for the President among the GOP voter base. In the dog days of the 1973-1974 Watergate scandal, members of President Richard Nixon’s Republican party only began to abandon him amid signs of rapidly growing bipartisan support for impeachment.
In last week’s vote, even Senator Romney’s break from the party was not an all-out split with his supporters. As commentators have pointed out since his election, the Utah senator has the unique position of representing a state with a strong camp of Republicans who view the President with a critical eye.
Mickey Edwards served for 16 years as a Republican Congressman for Oklahoma before he began a career as an academic focused on government and constitutional studies. He currently teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey. While he was clear that he thought the President’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine might have justified his removal from office and that calls for impeachment were not solely motivated by political positioning, he felt that the party-line split over impeachment opened the door for more similarly divisive moves.
A longtime crusader against the all-powerful role that political parties have come to play in America, Prof. Edwards said this national polarization is a recipe for future impeachments supported exclusively by members of one party.
“There’s a danger in our country, [which] is so geographically divided and where tribalism has become so strong that [citizens] don’t break away from their party’s line, and it’s hard to see a way out of this cycle,” he said.
As facts and allegations regarding the President’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens broke, most Republicans on Capitol Hill rallied to his defense. However, others expressed concern while remaining opposed to impeachment. Once the Senate trial was launched, this nuanced approach became essentially moot for senators, who were left with options of “guilty” or “not guilty” on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Some Republicans such as retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine made their best efforts to express their disapproval of the President’s behavior while saying that these actions still did not rise to a level that demanded he be removed from office.
Throughout the Senate trial, Democratic House managers argued that a vote to acquit sent an unalterable message that actions such as those leveled at the President will be tolerated in the future, opening the door to ever more egregious abuses of executive power.
Indeed, in the wake of the Senate vote, President Trump took several opportunities to brandish newspaper headlines that read “Acquitted,” and repeated that regarding his actions on Ukraine, he “did nothing wrong.”
Prof. McConnell felt that similar misuses of presidential power had been made more likely by the recently concluded process, but he argued that House Democrats who insisted on impeachment proceedings and then ran breakneck-speed investigations bore significant responsibility for further polarizing the issue at hand.
“Impeachment was supposed to be a way of curbing egregious conduct by the president, but I fear that this half-cocked impeachment has had the opposite effect,” he said. “Many of the Republicans who [voted] to acquit President Trump didn’t doubt the facts about what he did with respect to Ukraine or because they approved of it, but they felt it didn’t rise to the level of removal. But you also have President Trump’s defenders, who said there was nothing wrong, and now the acquittal can be trumpeted as a precedent that their position is right.”
Prof. McConnell expressed a view voiced by many moderates that more thorough investigations and a strongly-worded censure measure would have garnered significant bipartisan support and would have been a far more effective means of rebuking what many saw as a dangerous abuse of power. He felt that failure to take this route betrayed a lack of true concern for the matters at hand on the part of Democrats, who championed an impeachment effort that was bound to fail from the start.
“If they had been serious about this they would have been talking about censure from the beginning,” he said. “The Democrats wanted to get rid of the President since he took office and were looking for excuses. Now, that doesn’t mean what the President did here was appropriate. … Our government has so much discretionary power that if it is allowed to be used in an inappropriate way it is hard to overestimate how dangerous that is … but I’m afraid the Democrats’ decision to try to use Ukraine as a political device will backfire into the normalization of the misuse of the powers of high office.”
Prof. Edwards cited several examples of what he thought were unchecked abuses of executive power by the present and previous administrations, including using executive orders to circumvent legislation and defying Congressional appropriations to fund presidential policy priorities, adding that the present vote for acquittal is yet another move in what he saw as an unfortunate direction.
“I think the President will now say — and even more dangerously, every subsequent one will say — ‘The Senate did not convict a president who defied Congressional subpoenas, so why shouldn’t I?’” he said. “The acquittal moves us further down the line of a dictator and further away from the constitutional model. What terrifies me is not Trump. … He’ll be gone one day. But no future president will pass up the opportunity to use the powers that have now been proven acceptable.”
Prof. Rozell took a modestly more optimistic view and posited that although the impeachment proceedings did not remove President Trump from office, they could still make future presidents more wary of how they use their offices.
“Presidents do not want the stain of impeachment on their record and might be reluctant to go as far as this president did,” he said. “The President is clearly deeply hurt and angry about impeachment and believes he’s been badly mistreated, but it sends a signal to others to be very careful. Some are saying acquitting him opens the door to abuse of executive power, but they’re making it sound like Trump got away with it. The fact is that he was subjected to many months of a process that hung over him and definitely took away from his agenda.”