How Trump impeachment took on air of inevitability

Why We Wrote This

Whether you see Wednesday’s vote as a constitutional obligation to prevent abuse of power or partisan sour grapes, the impeachment of Donald Trump took on an air of the inevitable. What’s less certain is how it will change the nature of U.S. government.

Tom Brenner/Reuters
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is followed by members of the news media inside Statuary Hall prior to votes in the U.S. House of Representatives on two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec.18, 2019.

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In years to come historians may write the chronicle of Dec. 18, 2019, as an impeachment foretold.

President Donald Trump took office vowing to be a disruptive leader who would push American political norms to the breaking point, and perhaps beyond. Democrats were aghast at his behavior from the first. In Washington, experts were speculating about impeachment as early as spring 2016.

President Trump insists impeachment is just Democrats’ way of refusing to accept their loss in 2016. Others see it as something he brought on himself – the result of an Oval Office occupant who chafes against limits on executive power, and at times appears unaware of where those limits are.

“It felt like just a matter of time before he did something that crossed the line,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and co-author of “Impeachment: An American History.”

How the impeachment process and subsequent Senate trial will play out appear foreordained as well. As expected, the House passed articles of impeachment late Wednesday. Next the Senate will consider the matter, and not convict him.

This split mirrors voters’ partisan views of impeachment proceedings. They’ve moved within only a narrow range since President Trump’s Ukraine dealings burst into the news in late September.

Decades hence, when historians consider the fast-moving events that led to the historic Dec. 18, 2019, House vote on articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, they may see them not as a sudden eruption, but as the culmination of long-standing forces.

In that sense, they may write the chronicle of an impeachment foretold.

President Trump took office vowing to be a disruptive leader who would push American political norms to the breaking point, and perhaps beyond. Democrats were aghast at his behavior from the first. In Washington, political experts were speculating about impeachment – and how it might happen – as early as spring 2016.

President Trump insists impeachment is just the Democrats’ way of refusing to accept their loss in the 2016 election. His combative letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sent on impeachment eve, referred to it as an “election-nullification scheme.”

Others see it as something President Trump brought on himself – the inevitable result of an Oval Office occupant who chafes against limits on executive power, and at times even appears unaware of where those limits are.

“It felt like just a matter of time before he did something that crossed the line,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and co-author of “Impeachment: An American History.”

Few surprises, lots of partisanship

How the impeachment process and subsequent Senate trial of President Trump will play out appears foreordained as well. As expected, the House passed articles of impeachment Wednesday in a largely party line vote. Next the Senate will consider the matter, and not convict him.

Twenty or so Republicans, depending on whether Democrats stick together, would have to break ranks and vote against the president to remove him from office. Absent new developments, it appears virtually certain that isn’t going to happen.

This firm split mirrors voters’ partisan views of impeachment proceedings. They’ve moved within only a narrow range since President Trump’s Ukraine dealings burst into the news in late September.

If anything, President Trump’s job approval ratings have inched up since hitting a low point in early November. As of Dec. 18, the FiveThirtyEight rolling average of major surveys put his approval rating at 43% – the highest it’s been since early in his presidency. Revelations that the president pushed Ukraine to announce investigations that could have been politically advantageous to him has done little to affect his popularity with the GOP rank and file.

“There’s a cult of personality around the president, so that the Republican Party is not a party in the sense that we thought of American parties in the past. It’s Donald Trump’s party,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor in the department of government at American University.

Impeachment “trivialized”?

Impeachment was perhaps a predictable clash. Its outcome may be predictable. Does that mean its effects will be predictable – even minimal – too?

That’s probably not the case, say experts. There is an aspect of theater to the process, but it could still have long-lasting effects on U.S. politics and the system of American government.

Dr. Engel of SMU, for instance, worries that the remarkable partisanship of our era has “trivialized” impeachment, perhaps turning it into just another political tool.

If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, it’s possible Republicans would have pushed to impeach her too. She’s been reviled by the GOP for a quarter century, Dr. Engel notes. The chant at Trump rallies was “lock her up.”

Does this mean impeachment will become more common, and less of a solemn historic enterprise? President Trump himself has said that his own impeachment could lead to a GOP House impeaching a Democratic president the next time it has a chance.

Impeachment might be a bit easier, but still not easy, in the future, Dr. Engel believes. A president still has to commit an impeachable act. Democrats might have impeached President George W. Bush, and Republicans might have impeached President Barack Obama, if possible.

“The difference is W. and Obama didn’t do something they could hit on. And they tried,” says Dr. Engel.

The analogy he uses is to a police sobriety checkpoint. The police can set them up as much as they want, but drivers who are not legally drunk can continue on their way.

A sawn-off legislative branch?

Other experts worry that the Trump impeachment process could end up strengthening the executive branch at the expense of the legislative branch, via a Supreme Court ruling.

President Trump has made widespread assertions about executive privilege in the impeachment inquiry. He has stonewalled Congress, ordering official witnesses to not testify while withholding subpoenaed documents.

“If the Supreme Court weighs in on that, then the next time an impeachment happens, you could have a potentially meaningful difference,” says Claire Wofford, associate professor and director of the pre-law program at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

“The process has worked”

And what about the behavior of President Trump that led to the impeachment inquiry in the first place? There was ample testimony from witnesses that the president pressed Ukraine to open investigations that might have politically benefited him. But a number of Republican lawmakers said that whether that was correct or not, it did not rise to an impeachable offense, in their view.

Add to that his behavior documented in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report, and his public demeanor, such as his ad hominem Twitter attacks or public calls for lower Federal Reserve interest rates or the prosecution of his adversaries.

“If Trump gets reelected, and the president after Trump is another Trump-like person, then you have the real, legitimate possibility that his norm-flouting ... is going to become pattern and practice, because it has the legitimacy of an election behind it,” says Dr. Wofford.

Still, in a broad way, the takeaway from the recent months of upheaval and partisan combat in Washington is that the system works, she adds. Things are going as the founders laid out – not easily, not prettily, but still American.

The formal institutions are running as designed in 1787.

“In the biggest scheme of things, government has worked. The Constitution has worked. The process has worked. The country is not going to blow up,” she says.

Editor's note: This story was updated during the evening of Dec. 18, to reflect that the House impeachment vote had occurred.

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