Takeaways from Trump's Impeachment and Acquittal
On Saturday, Donald Trump’s impeachment trial ended with the former president being acquitted of inciting an insurrection against the United States. Though a strong majority of U.S. senators voted for his guilt (57-43), the vote-count didn’t meet the two-thirds majority required for an impeachment conviction.
Here are some of my takeaways from both the impeachment and the trial:
Finding Trump innocent on procedural grounds was a cop-out
Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who voted to convict Trump, released a statement afterwards that included these remarks:
“But here’s the sad reality: If we were talking about a Democratic president, most Republicans and most Democrats would simply swap sides. Tribalism is a hell of a drug…”
He’s right, of course. If Trump were a Democrat, and everything else had been the same, none of the 50 Republicans in the U.S. Senate would have found any constitutional problem whatsoever with convicting an impeached president whose trial couldn’t logistically begin until after he had left office. And they would be on the right side of that argument.
While I think there are some individuals with relevant expertise, who genuinely believe that there is a constitutional conflict with holding an impeachment trial once the defendant is a private citizen, the facts of the matter are that:
the vast majority of constitutional scholars and U.S. historians disagree.
there was already precedent for trying an impeached former federal officeholder.
Section 3 of Article 1 of the Constitution spells things out pretty clearly: “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments" (not just the impeachments whose timing was convenient). And contrary to how some have confused the issue (in some cases on purpose), this was never about impeaching a private citizen. Trump was impeached before he left office.
In other words, the procedural position invoked by a large majority of Republican senators is very much a fringe, unqualified view — one that runs counter to a strong constitutional consensus, historical precedent, and a clear reading of the text of the U.S. Constitution.
Furthermore, if the contention of 43 Republicans was that Trump was innocent purely on procedural grounds, what’s their next move, now that he’s been acquitted?
After all, most (if not all) of these individuals conceded, at some point after the January 6th attack, that Trump bore at least a good amount of responsibility for what happened. Are they now going to censure him the way Republican state parties have been censuring the handful of congressional Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump? Is that not the least they could do in response to the provocation of a domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol — one that killed people?
Yes, those are rhetorical questions. The GOP isn't going to do anything else. At this point, Trump may as well change his name to Rollo Tomassi.
The trial was worth having, even though the outcome was preordained
What was the point of holding the trial if there was no chance, under the current political landscape, of a conviction? It’s not an unreasonable question, but it’s not without solid answers.
First, to spell it out once more (since it doesn't always seem to sink in with people), a U.S. president provoked a murderous act of domestic terrorism on the U.S. Capitol through months of aggressively lying to millions of Americans, as part of an attack on our democracy and electoral institutions, for the purpose of overturning the results of a free and fair election that he unequivocally lost.
Again, if that’s not an impeachable offense, nothing is.
Also again, even many of the Republicans who ultimately voted against impeachment/conviction (including top party leaders like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy) have stipulated that Trump, in fact, committed these very acts. Their argument is not that Trump didn’t do these things. Instead, they qualified their vote with supposed procedural concerns.
On the other side of the GOP coin, there were enough Republicans who didn’t hide behind these disingenuous arguments to make this president’s impeachment, and trial vote, the most bipartisan in U.S history.
Next, because a whopping two-thirds vote is required in the Senate to convict an impeached official, conviction is always going to be highly unlikely… especially when that official is a U.S. president who enjoys the partisan backing of a major political party (as opposed to, let’s say, a federal judge).
Does that mean a president should never, under any circumstances, face an impeachment trial? Should evidence not be heard? Should there be no fact-finding process? Should there be no audit whatsoever of impeachable conduct?
The point of a trial is to present a case, and then let the “jurors” decide on guilt or innocence. Sure, since we’re talking about an impeachment trial and not a criminal trial, the “jurors” likely aren’t going to be objective… but that’s not a valid reason to forego the process itself. There’s a reason the framers included this mechanism in the Constitution: they saw a legitimate need for holding public servants accountable for particularly abusive conduct, including the option to bar them from serving in public office in the future.
Could they have predicted that Senate jurors wouldn't take their responsibility seriously? Maybe. But what does that matter? The framers themselves did take it seriously.
In summary, the Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments, the offense in this case was entirely impeachable, and it was the most bipartisan impeachment of a president in U.S. history.
So, of course there should have been a trial.
The Republicans who supported impeachment demonstrated patriotism and courage
The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach, and the 7 Senate Republicans who voted to convict, enjoyed absolutely no political upside from their votes. There was only a downside — a steep one — and all of them knew that going in.
The backlash, driven by a Republican base that largely still reveres Donald Trump as nothing short of a religious figure, was swift and severe. As mentioned earlier, several of these elected representatives have faced official censures from their state parties, and are already being targeted with primary challenges.
The right-wing media has piled on too, bastardizing these individuals as RINOs, liberals, and even traitors. And it's not just being done by the regular wackos on the commentary shows and hyper-partisan websites. Everyone subscribed to Fox News’s digital news feed received the story of Trump’s acquittal this way:
No, I'm not joking.
These representatives have seen their approval ratings plummet, and their offices’ switchboards and virtual town-halls light up with over-the-top vitriol and threats. Most of them probably won’t end up serving another term because of their principled decision.
This is their penance for supporting constitutional accountability for the incitement of an insurrection that killed multiple people, and very well could have killed our then-vice president and members of congress.
It’s exactly the reason why so few of their Republican colleagues joined them. According to multiple reports, including accounts from House members, somewhere between 60 and 80 Republicans in the House believed Trump should have been impeached, but all but 10 were too scared for their families and/or political futures to put their name behind the effort. The same was assuredly true of a number of Republican senators.
Much to their credit, those who stood up for what was right are still standing by their votes, and prepared to answer for them electorally.
“If we are willing to ask our young men and women to wear the uniform and sacrifice their lives for the good of the country,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger said in a statement, “how can Members of Congress—the elected officials entrusted by the American people to serve them honorably—be unwilling to sacrifice their careers in order to save the country?”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski told a reporter, “If I can't say what I believe that our president should stand for, then why should I ask Alaskans to stand with me?”
And of course, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutle felt so strongly in her convictions that she was ready to testify under oath to what Kevin McCarthy had told her about the president effectively rationalizing the insurrection… as it was playing out.
These people deserve our respect and admiration, not scorn, for putting the country and the Constitution before their party and political future.
The Democratic leadership was more interested in impeachment optics than impeachment conviction
There were some subtle indications early on that the Democrats may have been organizing Trump’s second impeachment in a way that wasn’t particularly inviting to Republicans who may have been inclined to sign on to the effort.
Some, like Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican from Texas, complained that while he truly believed Trump’s conduct was impeachable, the articles of impeachment written by the Democrats (without soliciting help from any Republicans) were too narrow in scope, because they were focused almost exclusively on incitement and insurrection.
Ahead of his vote, Rep. Kinzinger’s staff reached out to House Democrats to request seven minutes of time for the congressman to speak out in support of impeachment (a move that could have rallied more Republicans to his side). He figured he’d at least be granted five minutes. Instead, they would only agree to one, which Kinzinger decided wasn’t worth it.
After Trump was impeached, and the Democrats realized that ten Republicans had sided with them on the issue, there was a bipartisan opportunity to ask at least one of the ten to serve as a House manager during the Senate trial. But they didn’t.
At each step, it appeared more and more as if the Democrats didn’t even want Republican support, and instead were trying their best to brand the entire GOP as pro-insurrection, or at best indifferent to what had happened on January 6th, as part of a campaign strategy.
That seemed to change, at least for a couple of hours, on what was supposed to be the last day of the trial (Saturday), when a surprise Senate vote to allow witnesses was passed. This initiative came after Republican Rep. Beutle released a statement drawing attention to her aforementioned conversation with Kevin McCarthy.
At that point, Democrats could have called on McCarthy to testify under oath about the phone call. They could have called on Mike Pence to testify about Trump not contacting him at any point during the attack or in the days following. They could have called on people at the White House that day who supposedly witnessed Trump celebrating the rioting as he watched it on television, and asked them exactly what Trump was doing as events unfolded. This would all seem like very useful information if the goal were conviction.
But apparently, Senate Democrats quickly decided that calling on and questioning witnesses would take too much time, and they were about ready to leave for their scheduled vacation.
“People want to get home for Valentine‘s Day,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons reportedly told House impeachment managers.
This tweet from Politico’s Burgess Everett seemed to concur:
Thus, no witnesses were called, the Dems held the vote, they got their political narrative… and that was that.
The moral of this story...
I think the strongest conclusion that can be drawn from this impeachment experience is that while the framers of the Constitution rightly saw a genuine need for the mechanism of impeachment to hold public officials accountable for extraordinarily bad and unbecoming conduct (like that which led to what we saw on January 6th), that mechanism is no match for the intoxicating effects of partisanship and political careerism.
Also, if you're a good person who's thinking of running for high office, and you suspect there might be a situation one day in which you would have to make a politically unpopular decision for the good of the country and the integrity of the Constitution, you probably shouldn't bother running in the first place. You'll be thrown under the bus by your peers and constituents in no time flat, and it just won't be worth it.
God bless America.
Note from John: I've been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I've been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I'd love for you to subscribe (it's free).