The deed is done. It was a good day for the Constitution, the rule of law and the power of shame—even when applied to the shameless. The President of the United States is stained, scarred, tattooed, and—at risk of investing his vile conduct with biblical grandeur— afflicted with the Mark of Cain. The loud brander in the White House has been more loudly branded. But this is not real estate. No one can ever take IMPEACHED off the side of his edifice. Whatever the outcome of this case and the next election, the defendant Donald John Trump is in the dock of history now, where his odds of acquittal are slim.
This is a sad and dangerous time. We are watching an entire political party fall under the sway of an authoritarian demagogue, its members failing the character test of their generation. Soon we will be allowing remorseless cynics like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell—men who know better— to taint a solemn process. And we are living through a terrifying assault on the sovereignty of facts, with no end in sight.
But let’s take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief over Trump’s fate, as members of a Republican party entirely converted to his cause compared his trials to those of Jesus Christ himself. As Rep. Cedric Richmond put it today, the duty of the House was “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution—from him.” It did so. The checks were administered, even if the balances remain in doubt.
The vote to impeach was a powerful popular verdict—a reckoning with the weight of tens of millions of Americans behind it. The founders established the House of Representatives as “the People’s House” and specifically designated its members as the only federal officeholders directly elected by the voters. (The president is chosen by the Electoral College and until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures). In our Republic—a representative democracy— the people speak not just through presidential elections but through the Congress. So in a very real constitutional sense, the people have said it’s not OK for a president to solicit a foreign power to smear a political rival. The people have said the president, invoking no privilege, cannot stonewall a co-equal branch. The people have said the president is not a king.
Trump is being held accountable in the strongest way the Constitution provides short of defeat at the polls or removal from office after conviction by the Senate, the latter of which has never happened. Yes, Trump will break his leash and slip out of his collar. Yes, he continues to represent “a clear and present danger” to the country, an important theme for the Democrats to press in their coming campaign. But acquittal in the Senate will not be akin to Robert Mueller’s weak testimony before Congress, which emboldened Trump to shake down President Zelensky the next day. If the president tries once more to use foreign influence to rig the election, he knows Nancy Pelosi is tough enough to impeach him again. He may be unchastened, unbowed and unrepentant, but he’s not undeterred.
Traumatized by Trump, many of his critics still feel queasy. They worry that impeachment strengthens his argument for re-election. It doesn’t. His backers were already energized for 2020. If Trump thinks his unhinged letter to Pelosi—rancid tweets embossed with the presidential seal— contained anything to appeal to swing voters, he’s dreaming. Of course he will claim vindication when the Senate doesn’t remove him, as he did after the Mueller Report, but for all the noise, it’s unlikely to move his static numbers. The “witch hunt” won’t hunt beyond the base.
This impeachment has much more historical weight than Bill Clinton’s in 1999. Clinton, whose approval ratings throughout his ordeal were 30 points higher than Trump’s, was impeached for a small private lie about sex. No one ever seriously said he was a threat to the Constitution or even democratic accountability. He apologized profusely for his conduct and eventually coughed up the documents and witnesses the House Republicans demanded. Trump’s offense, by contrast, is precisely what the founders warned against in their debates on the impeachment clause. He is in active defiance, which makes the House’s action much more historically significant.
Just three months ago, Trump’s impeachment seemed impossible. And it was still a close call, made possible only with some lucky breaks. Without whistleblower protections and patriotic resistance from dedicated public servants—signs of the system working—Ukraine would have announced an open-ended investigation of the Bidens. Then Trump’s crowds would be screaming “Lock him up” until Biden was driven out of the race or defeated in November—and every future president would be looking abroad for political help.
The debate wound down just before 8 p.m, about when Trump began ranting at his rally in Michigan about the "political suicide march for the Democrat party" and how it "doesn't really feel like we're being impeached" in a split screen for the ages as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer gave the speech of his life in Washington, a touching—almost naive—plea to his Republican colleagues to reflect on traditions of courage in their own party.
Hoyer conjured Senator Margaret Chase Smith taking on Joe McCarthy in the 1950s; Larry Hogan Sr. (representing what is now Hoyer ‘s district) standing up to Richard Nixon in the 1970s; and Rep. Justin Amash, now an independent, today urging his fellow conservatives to look into their souls and vote for the Constitution. When the vote came, none did.
Democrats now fear McConnell will rig the Senate trial. But to do so, he would have to override the institutional interests of the senior members of his caucus. Do Republican committee chairs in the Senate want President Biden or President Warren or President Buttigieg stonewalling every request 13 months from now? That doesn’t mean that even one or two will vote to convict, but Mitt Romney, Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi and Lisa Murkowski may want to strike a blow for their own congressional oversight by voting to call witnesses.
Vulnerable GOP Senate incumbents, meanwhile, have no incentive to buck polls showing more than 70 percent of Americans want to see testimony and evidence. It’s hard to imagine them facing a primary challenge based on the rallying cry: “Martha McSally wanted to let John Bolton testify!” “Cory Gardner wanted to hear from Mike Pompeo!” “Susan Collins wanted a real trial!” Worried about their general elections, all three are likely to insist on witnesses. Does that mean a full circus? Probably not. The wing nuts—weaker in the Senate than in the House—won’t likely have the votes to bring in the Bidens. Even Sen. John Kennedy thinks Rudy Giuliani is as “wild as a March hare.”
But let’s say McConnell and the White House get their way and the Senate calls no witnesses. It still hurts Trump. His argument that he was exonerated is much weaker on the campaign trail if there is no real Senate trial.
No matter what happens, full justice will not be done; tribalism still reigns. But expecting a rigidly-divided country to come to consensus was never realistic in the first place. If voters next November defeat Trump, we will look back at this day as the one when our long national nightmare began its end.
After President Nixon announced on television that he would resign at noon the next day, Aug. 9, 1974, Vice-President Ford walked outside his home in Alexandria, Virginia, and said exactly the right thing to the cameras on his illuminated lawn: “I believe that truth is the glue that holds the government together, and not only government but civilization itself.”
Truth won today—and it can win tomorrow, too.