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Here is what we can take away from Trump’s impeachment and acquittal

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/5/2020 Amber Phillips
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President Trump’s four-month-long impeachment saga is over: He was acquitted by the Senate on Wednesday on both charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Trump will forever have an asterisk next to his name as the third president to be impeached by the House, but he’ll remain in office. Now we’ll see a president for the first time in modern history seek reelection while carrying that asterisk.

About the Senate vote

a screenshot of a cell phone: The final vote tally. (Washington Post graphics) The final vote tally. (Washington Post graphics) a screenshot of a cell phone: The final vote tally. (Washington Post graphics) The final vote tally. (Washington Post graphics)

Just as the House of Representatives did in December, the Senate voted on each article of impeachment separately. To kick Trump out of office, 67 senators needed to vote to convict him on at least one article. There was nowhere near that much support for either article.

The most important political takeaway from the vote is how partisan it was. Not a single Democrat voted to acquit the president, not even the senators representing Trump-friendly states. Only one Republican voted to convict him, Mitt Romney of Utah, after no House Republicans supported impeachment. 

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But Romney’s lone vote changes how Trump can talk about his impeachment going forward. He can no longer technically say his impeachment was solely driven by Democrats. One Republican — a prominent one at that — voted to convict him.

Romney voted to acquit Trump on the second charge of obstruction of Congress. His conviction vote on the first charge was historic though: He’s the first senator in an impeachment trial to vote to convict a president of the same party.

“The president’s purpose was personal and political,” Romney said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday announcing his vote. “Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust.”

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Takeaways from the entire impeachment process

1. Impeachment is politically driven

So many readers I talked to wanted to think of impeachment as a process where blind justice reigns. And sure, there were some House Democrats who put their careers at risk by voting to impeach Trump even though their districts had supported him. Romney said he expects to be “vehemently denounced” by some in his party for his decision. (Fact check: True. Donald Trump Jr. is already driving a push to kick him out of the party.) But by and large, lawmakers voted with their political futures in mind, rather than the facts.

That’s because you can’t take the political calculus out of Congress. In fact, impeachment was designed to have an inherent contradiction. The nation’s founders set up a check on the executive, but they gave a political body — and not a court — the ultimate say on this.

The partisan process allowed Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to say the quiet part out loud, that he was working in “total coordination” with the White House on how to hold a trial that best benefited Trump. And his supporters could accurately point to instances of Democrats doing the same when their party’s president was being impeached. Democrats and privately some Republicans may truly feel that Trump should be kicked out of office, but at the end of this, their decisions were driven more by politics than conscience.

2. Trump’s greatest asset was his party’s loyalty

Mitch McConnell et al. standing in front of a crowd: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shakes hands before the beginning of the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shakes hands before the beginning of the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

At one point during impeachment, former Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake told reporters he thought there would be “at least” 35 Republican senators who would vote to convict Trump if the vote were private.

We don’t know if that was true, and it obviously didn’t bear out in a public vote. But Flake got at the fundamental dynamic within the Republican Party, which is many lawmakers privately disagree with the president on policy, politics and character, but have decided their political futures rest on standing by Trump.

Party loyalty is not abnormal politics, but the degree to which Republican lawmakers have defended the president is. Trump has created an environment where there is no room for deviation from him even (or perhaps especially) on something as serious as the allegations facing him on Ukraine.

By the end of the trial, some Republican senators were forced to acknowledge that Trump did do the things the House accused him of. But they were in the minority of their party and, save Romney, still voted to acquit the president.

Flake also served as a powerful reminder to Republican lawmakers of what happens when they cross Trump. He was watching the trial from the public gallery, a senator who retired last year in part because he chose to publicly speak out against the president. The lawmakers below him have kept their jobs in large part because they have chose not to speak out against the president whenever possible. That is how Trump survived impeachment even though some of his own former advisers said he did what he was accused of doing.

3. We don’t know how this will affect the 2020 reelection

In fact, it’s possible it doesn’t have much of an impact. From the beginning of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry in September to the end on Wednesday, the nation has been divided on whether Trump should be removed from office. And — surprise — Americans’ opinions on impeachment are baked into their political views.

a screenshot of a social media post

Precisely because of that partisanship, it has seemed difficult if not impossible for Democrats to peel off supporters from the other side, and vice versa. The independents are also split down the middle.

In addition, the result of Trump’s impeachment has inevitable for many voters: House Democrats impeach Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate acquits him.

So if there aren’t surprises on impeachment (save one Republican senator’s vote), what about this process should move the average voter in November?

4. The investigation into what Trump did is not over

John R. Bolton wearing a suit and tie: Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as Trump speaks in May. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as Trump speaks in May. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

There will be more revelations about what Trump’s intentions were when he paused Ukraine’s aid and asked Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens, whether they come from former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, or from others who resisted House subpoenas speaking out, or from witnesses called by House Democrats.

Already, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold E. Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said Democrats will subpoena Bolton (who said he’ll talk to the Senate and has written Trump has political intentions on Ukraine). Other lawmakers cautioned to The Post’s Rachael Bade that decision hasn’t been made yet. They are likely aware of how political it will look to continue investigating Trump’s actions on Ukraine after impeachment is over.

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