Suspense-free impeachment may yet reverberate for years to come

Why We Wrote This

The nation’s partisan divisions appear as entrenched as ever as the Trump impeachment proceedings near an end. Over the long term, the power of the presidency may have gained a significant boost.

Mary F. Calvert/Reuters
Sen. Chris Coons talks to reporters near the Senate floor during a brief recess from the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington, Jan. 29, 2020.

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In the short term, the impeachment of President Donald Trump by the House – followed by a Senate trial that, as of this writing, appeared to be moving inexorably toward acquittal – may do little to change minds or politics in a divided nation. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average on the question of impeachment and removal from office shows an exact stalemate, with 47.8% of Americans in favor and 47.8% opposed.

Over the long term, the new precedent set by this trial and its likely acquittal will almost certainly increase the power of the presidency, while weakening congressional oversight – changes not always perceptible to the public but consequential nonetheless.

Yet the entire impeachment episode, the most partisan so far, is “small potatoes” compared with the tectonic plates of political tribalism that put it all in motion – and are threatening American democracy, says Patrick Griffin, former legislative director to President Bill Clinton, who was impeached and acquitted 20 years ago. 

“In democracy, you have to have some respect for the other side. You have to have some forbearance and some respect for other points of view, and I think we’ve lost both,” he says.

During the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware would sometimes look up to the visitors gallery from his desk in the last row of the chamber. He had offered tickets to constituents who wanted them, and hoped to see people from his nearby state in the evenings, when they could get there after work to witness this historic event in person.

But the auditorium seats in the gallery remained largely empty.

Senator Coons attributed the disinterest in the proceedings – a ratings disaster for the networks that carried them live – to two things. One was the lack of suspense. Everyone, on both sides, assumed the trial would end in acquittal.

At the same time, to many Americans “this all seems obscure, and partisan, and not relevant to their lives,” the senator said in a lengthy interview midway through the marathon days. This second factor, he added, is “more concerning” to him, because it suggests “a lack of belief in the relevance of what we’re doing.”

That assessment aptly sums up the broader impact of the impeachment of the president by the House in December, followed by the January Senate trial, which as of this writing appeared to be moving inexorably toward acquittal. On Friday night, a motion to call witnesses failed in a 51 to 49 vote, with a final vote on acquittal or conviction set for Wednesday.

In the short term, observers say it will do little to change minds or politics in a divided nation. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average on the question of impeachment and removal from office shows an exact stalemate, with 47.8% of Americans in favor and 47.8% opposed.

Over the long term, the new precedent set by this trial and its likely acquittal will almost certainly increase the power of the presidency, while weakening congressional oversight – changes not always perceptible to the public but consequential nonetheless.

Yet the entire impeachment episode, the most partisan so far, is “small potatoes” compared with the tectonic plates of political tribalism that put it all in motion – and are threatening American democracy, says Patrick Griffin, former legislative director to President Bill Clinton, who was impeached and acquitted 20 years ago. 

“In democracy, you have to have some respect for the other side. You have to have some forbearance and some respect for other points of view, and I think we’ve lost both,” he says.

Democrats should never have gone down this road, he says. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cautioned her caucus, but “the groundswell was overwhelming.” At best, Democrats may have convinced a “small segment” of the population to abandon support for the president, but it’s too early to know that yet. “The politics of it are hit or miss.”

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is surrounded by reporters as he arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 31, 2020, for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, Democrats have argued that President Trump tried to shake down a foreign leader for his personal benefit – asking the president of Ukraine in a July 25 phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, even as he withheld nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid to the country and put off the Ukrainian president’s request for a White House visit.

The call occurred after Mr. Biden announced his candidacy for president. House Democrats began investigations last year after a whistleblower raised concerns about the phone call. But the White House refused to provide documents and barred administration officials from testifying (though some officials testified anyway).

After the House impeached the president for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, additional information has continued to emerge. The independent Government Accountability Office said it was illegal to withhold the congressionally approved aid. Leaks to The New York Times from a forthcoming book by former National Security Adviser John Bolton describe the president directly telling Mr. Bolton that the military aid to Ukraine was contingent on that government assisting with investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens. The president denied he said that.

The president’s attorneys maintained there was never a “quid pro quo” between the withheld aid and White House meeting and the request to investigate the Bidens. The president was only concerned about corruption and military burden-sharing, they maintained. They described the House impeachment process as rushed, flawed, and highly partisan. Indeed, no Republicans voted for impeachment.

The White House defense team also held that the standard for impeachment should be a crime, and argued no crime had been committed. By that logic, even if Mr. Bolton’s allegation is true – and Democrats were pressing their colleagues to call him as a witness – it would not matter because it is not an impeachable offense. (The U.S Constitution is less clear-cut than the president’s lawyers, referring to “treason, bribery, high crimes, and misdemeanors” as potential misconduct that could cause the removal of a president.)

During the Clinton trial, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – then one of the Republican House managers leading the charge against the president – pointed out that “reasonable people can disagree” about whether the president’s actions were impeachable or not. It was interpreted as an “out” for members of his own party and indeed, five Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate joined Democrats to acquit the president on both charges, while five more voted to acquit on the perjury charge. 

Acquittal is expected to fall much more closely along party lines this time, with a key senator such as Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who has a long history of working across the aisle, calling the president’s actions “inappropriate” but not impeachable.

Considered a possible swing vote on the issue of witnesses, Senator Alexander announced late Thursday night he would not call for witnesses because there is no need for evidence “to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.” With the Iowa caucus coming on Monday, it’s time to “let the people decide,” he said.

Democrats vigorously disagreed, saying the president was attempting to manipulate the 2020 elections by seeking help from a foreign leader and would likely continue to do so. Failing to remove him leaves him free to act more as a monarch than a president, subject to checks and balances.

“We are witnessing the coronation of Trump, with Mitch McConnell holding the crown, and the Republicans holding his train,” said Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii to reporters on Thursday.

Politically, acquittal will change very little, says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The public will see the whole process as “politics as usual.” Gridlock in a divided Washington will continue. Democrats will continue to pass legislation in the House that goes nowhere in the Senate, while Senate Republicans focus mainly on confirming judges.

In a broader sense, the arguments made by the president’s team “provide a basis for much less restriction on presidential power,” he says, adding that the administration’s refusal to cooperate with documents and witnesses “really has weakened congressional oversight.”

Mr. Griffin, however, says it’s not a given that this will translate into future abuses. That will depend on the people elected and the circumstances of the moment.

“The balance of power has shifted dramatically to the president for the moment,” he says. “But this is a dynamic that goes back and forth, and whether it’s irreversible, I’m not sure. That depends on the next president, and the next president after that.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 6:15 p.m. with the results of the Senate vote.

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