Donald Trump boasts of solidarity as U.S. House votes to impeach him

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump has been impeached.

After more than eight hours of debate on Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives voted to support two articles of impeachment, alleging that Trump abused his power in demanding Ukraine’s interference in U.S. domestic politics, and obstructed Congress in his refusal to co-operate with an investigation into it.

The 230-197 abuse of power vote was largely along party lines. (Justin Amash of Michigan, who was elected as a Republican but left the party this year after calling the president’s conduct impeachable, voted to impeach; Democrats Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey voted against, while Democrat Tulsi Gabbard abstained by voting “present.” Democrat Jared Golden voted for the first article and against the second.)

Trump becomes only the third president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, joining Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson in that dubious distinction (Richard Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment). No U.S. president has ever been removed from office as a result of impeachment, and it seems unlikely this one will.

Trump was onstage at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan as the votes were cast, where he told supporters “It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached,” and boasted of strong Republican solidarity.

In opening speeches, Democrats and Republicans laid out the themes of the day.

“Very sadly now, our founder’s vision of a republic is under threat from actions from the White House,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in her remarks opening the debate. “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”

“We on the Republican side have no problem taking our case to the majority of the people of this country, because they elected Donald Trump, and it is a matter for the voters, not this house,” countered Republican Rep. Doug Collins. “President Trump did nothing wrong.”

Over the course of the day, these two ideas — Democrats lamenting a president who invited and demanded interference in an upcoming election from a foreign government and rejected congressional oversight of his actions, Republicans rejecting a process they said was predetermined to oust a president — ran through virtually every speech.

If there was a point of agreement, it might have been that every speech would benefit from a reference to Alexander Hamilton. The rapid-fire speeches fit into one-minute and 30-second limits seemed almost rote, so familiar by now have each side’s favourite lines (“A republic, if you can keep it,” “I would like you to do us a favour, though,” “sham impeachment,” “the calendar and the clock,” and so on) become.

The predictable rhetorical division was the culmination of an investigation that has seen Democrats point to fairly self-evident and barely contested facts about the president’s behaviour, while Republicans dismiss the complaints out of hand, insisting the president is entirely innocent and the victim of a “witch hunt” by a party that “hates” him.

Facing certain impeachment in 1974, Richard Nixon abruptly resigned. On the eve of his impeachment two decades ago, Bill Clinton delivered a mournful apology, saying “I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong.”

Trump’s approach was more in line with that of Andrew Johnson, who went on a speaking tour in 1866 to spout self-pity and spew invective on the opponents who would impeach him: “I have been traduced and abused.”

On Tuesday, Trump released an angry six-page letter to Pelosi filled with exclamations and accusations reminiscent of one of his rally speeches. Writing, he suggested, “for the purpose of history and to put my thoughts on the permanent and indelible record,” he accused Pelosi and her caucus of “declaring open war on American democracy.”

Republicans in the general public were sticking with him and his sense of grievance with the process, as demonstrated at angry town hall meetings held in districts Trump won in 2016 that have been represented by Democrats in the House. Some of those Democrats have acknowledged their votes on impeachment may cost them their seats. Public polling shows an electorate very nearly divided down the middle on the question of impeachment — a situation virtually unchanged since October.

But if the issue has fired up Trump and his supporters, it seems to have energized his opponents, too. Thousands of protesters joined hundreds of demonstrations across the country Tuesday night to support impeaching the president, including thousands in Times Square in New York.

All involved have invoked the judgment of history. Some actual historians, meanwhile, expressed their own view, with more than 1,500 of them signing an open letter on Medium this week calling for Congress to follow through with impeachment. “It is our considered judgment that if President Trump’s misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does,” they wrote.

The judgment of future historians, of course, will have to wait, and how they view what happened today will depend in part on what happens in the months and years to follow.

The next steps appear preordained. The Republican-controlled Senate has given every indication it will acquit the president, likely in a party-line vote in January. It seems highly likely they will refuse to even call witnesses in the trial. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — who will in effect be the foreman of the jury in the trial — has said he was “taking his cues” from the White House in “total coordination” with the president in determining the trial’s form and structure. “I’m not impartial about this at all,” he declared, flatly stating that a process that had been partisan in the House would be partisan in the Senate, too.

Unless something substantial happens in the meantime, the Senate trial seems certain to be perfunctory, allowing Trump to remain in office and seek re-election this fall. Beyond that, gaming out how this plays out is a fool’s errand. Johnson saw his political career derailed after impeachment, while Clinton’s approval rating was never higher than immediately after he was impeached. How this episode will appear to voters in November — and to those reflecting back in the coming decades and centuries — is impossible to predict.

What seems likely is that while the Senate trial may conclude a particular investigation, it will also mark another fracture in a political culture that has been becoming more deeply polarized over the course of decades, and now exist largely as two solitudes shouting past each other. “Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes, far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation or other factors,” a Pew Research Center survey released this week concluded.

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With a nearly equally divided partisan electorate, elections now hinge on turnout, and on persuading a tiny number of swing voters in a tiny number of swing states. Some polls suggest that impeachment is unpopular in swing states. However, surveys also suggest an overwhelming majority of the public wants a full trial featuring witnesses and expect that trial will be fair, and a smaller majority believe the process has been fair so far in the House.

The judgment of the electorate will come next November. The judgment of history will have to wait a lot longer than that. But the history books will record this much today: President Donald J. Trump was impeached in the third year of his first term in office. A most unusual event for a president and his country to face, in a presidency that has been most unusual at almost every stage.

And so it goes on.

Edward Keenan

TORONTO STAR