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History Will Judge Republicans for Protecting an Impeached President

Never has a U.S. president so clearly merited impeachment and removal from office.

President Trump speaks on the night of his impeachment during a rally at the Kellogg Arena on December 18, 2019, in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Last night, Donald Trump became the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Two hundred and thirty members of Congress voted to impeach on abuse of power; 229 on the obstruction of Congress question.

A president who has built his entire business and political career on hyperbole, on bluster, on unfounded claims of being the best or the biggest or the brainiest or the brawniest, can now add another line to his résumé, this one a truth: his name has been etched into history for its infamy, its association with the high crimes and misdemeanors, the betrayal of the oath of office, that warrant the rare rebuke of congressional impeachment.

Given the fact that Trump’s widely covered phone call with the Ukrainian president, combined with a months-long effort to mold U.S. foreign policy to fit Trump’s desire to dig up dirt on the Biden family, left no genuine doubt that he had abused his office, and given the testimony witnesses provided in October and November, yesterday’s vote was a foregone conclusion. But what wasn’t, when this process began in late September, was that the entire GOP block in Congress would so thoroughly debase themselves, contort themselves like pretzels, in their effort to make Trump’s actions look benign. The GOP’s elected congressional leadership had a chance here to break the Trump cult that has exerted a stranglehold over the party since 2016. Instead, it doubled-down and went all-in for the frankly offensive idea that Trump’s Ukraine call was “perfect.” It chose to collude with an executive running roughshod over the legislature, much as conservatives in 1930s Germany colluded with Hitler’s evisceration of the independent powers of the Reichstag. It claimed to be standing up for the men and women who “gave the middle finger” to Washington in 2016, in the coarse words of one congressman, by voting for Donald Trump as president.

Yesterday was, from the GOP, a masterclass in circular arguments.

Taking their cues from Trump, who ripped into Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and the entire impeachment process in a demagogic six-page letter on Tuesday, one congressmember after the next got up yesterday to ignore the mountain of evidence before them and instead to denounce the impeachment as being “partisan” and illegitimate because it was voted on by Democrats and uniformly opposed by Republicans.

There might have been some merit to this had the Democrats really not tried to make this a bipartisan endeavor. But the eventual partisan breakdown of the vote wasn’t for the Democrats’ lack of trying to convince the GOP to take the evidence seriously and to genuinely participate in the inquiry into Trump’s actions. For months, they sought witnesses and documents about the Ukraine policy; and for months, they were stonewalled by the administration, with the blessing of Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan and the other GOP attack dogs on the intelligence and judiciary committees.

The erstwhile party of Lincoln chose not to listen to the evidence, not to uphold their oath of office and not to engage with the process — siding with Trump in his refusal to cooperate with the inquiry, to provide evidence and witnesses. They chose to go all-in with a crook and with his gangster regime, simply to appease their base, siding with party over the Constitution time and again. And in doing so, they talked themselves into a nonsense, ultimately buying whole-cloth the ludicrous notion that Trump, the U.S.’s most corrupt and self-dealing of presidents, was only interested in ensuring that Ukraine was rid of corruption and that past U.S. involvement in Ukraine was similarly corruption-free.

Of all the comments on the GOP behavior during the hours-long debate, the sentence that most resonated with me came from 82-year-old New Jersey congressman Bill Pascrell. The GOP, he said scathingly, has opted for “comfort over courage and avarice over the republic.”

However the Republicans try to spin this, ultimately, history will judge them furiously for their willingness to see the Constitution, and its checks on unbridled presidential power, shredded simply to protect their man in the White House from the consequences of his actions. The impeachment of Donald Trump ought never to have devolved into a partisan battle; it always ought to have been about holding an out-of-control president to account. Bottom line, with Trump and Rudy Giuliani practically begging overseas governments to intervene in the upcoming election, it became necessary for anyone concerned with fealty to the Constitution; and yet, in our current political milieu, that meant it became partisan.

Trump’s and the GOP’s argument about partisanship is as disingenuous as if a man accused of murder and with overwhelming evidence showing his guilt was able to denounce the trial and then the verdict by saying, “The process is partisan because I refused to testify, I reject the premise that murder is a crime, and yet the legal system continues to argue murder is a criminal offense … and thus I wasn’t given a fair trial.” It’s an intellectual absurdity masquerading as a serious political point, intended mainly as a campaign slogan for those who get most of their information from Fox News or from right-wing echo chambers on social media.

The GOP is betting that over the coming weeks and months, as the process moves from the Democrat-led House to the GOP-led Senate, the public will shift its loyalties toward the president and his party. Impeachment, according to this line of reasoning, will boomerang back against the Democrats, costing them precious congressional districts and, in next year’s presidential race, vital Electoral College votes. And it’s true there is some risk here. Several polls have shown that in key swing districts and states, including Wisconsin and Florida, opponents of impeachment outnumber supporters.

I’d suggest, however, that as this plays out over the coming months, it will become clear that the GOP has, with the country taken as a whole, made a losing bet. Over the course of U.S. history, impeachment, used only sparingly, has not, despite the warnings or threats of those opposed to the process, proven catastrophic to those pushing impeachment. In fact, quite the reverse.

In 1868, following the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the Republican Party, which had led the push for impeachment, was rewarded electorally. Johnson, a Southern pro-Union Democrat, had been made Lincoln’s vice president in 1864, replacing the staunch anti-slavery advocate Hannibal Hamlin, in an effort to promote national unity during the Civil War. Later that year, voters resoundingly cast their lot with Republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant, and the number of Republican members of Congress barely moved – declining from 173 to 171 between the 40th and 41st Congresses.

In the wake of Republican President Richard Nixon’s resignation just before he was to be impeached in August 1974, the Democrats took back the presidency in 1976; at least as significantly, they comprehensively won the popular vote in congressional elections by more than 13 percent. This despite the fact that many Republicans railed against an investigation that, when it began, was largely opposed by Republican politicians and Republican voters, who accused their opponents of perpetuating a witch-hunt against a president they disliked and resented.

The partial exception here is that Bill Clinton’s personal popularity rose after he was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and in the 1998 midterms, held during the impeachment investigation, the Democrats actually picked up a handful of House seats. Two years later, in 2000, Democrats flipped five GOP senate seats.

But the Clinton impeachment was anomalous in that it came about not out of a fundamental matter of public policy, but because Clinton lied to investigators about a personal peccadillo. From the get-go the impeachment process was opposed by large majorities of the public. Clinton went into the process a popular president and came out a popular president. Trump’s impeachment, by contrast, from the get-go commanded a plurality of support — about the same level as that which favored impeaching Nixon in the spring and early summer of 1974; and Trump himself went into impeachment deep in the red when it came to the public’s dislike and distrust of him. Throughout his time in office, majorities of the public have consistently opposed Trump’s presidency and his policies. Impeachment might not hurt him much with his base — it may even animate that base somewhat; but it’s hard to see how it actually makes him seem a more sympathetic figure with undecided voters — more independents support impeachment than oppose it — and it’s even harder to see how this costs the Democrats support among their own base.

Moreover, even the Bill Clinton exception is far less an exception than many analysts admit. In 2000, the Democrats lost the presidency, albeit in the most controversial of ways, with the Supreme Court calling a halt to the vote recount in Florida. And, in the 2000 elections, the Republicans won a House majority and, until the middle of 2001, also controlled a majority in the Senate. Indeed, since 2000, in only six years have Democrats commanded a Senate majority. That’s a brutal turnaround from years and decades past.

Three impeachments in the course of the republic’s history is obviously a small sample size, but since it’s all we’ve got, we ought to take the historical lessons these processes offer to heart. If a president is seen as undermining the constitutional order, those who push to hold that president to account — and who succeed in articulating the dangers such a leader portends — tend to benefit in the court of public opinion.

Forget all the brouhaha from the Republicans about this being nothing but a political vendetta. Yesterday’s impeachment of Donald Trump was vital in the face of increasingly autocratic governance and increasingly brazen law-breaking from members of the executive branch. Impeachment isn’t the end of Donald Trump’s story. But it most certainly is now a central part of that miserable man’s narrative. Never has a U.S. president so clearly merited impeachment and removal from office. That task is now half-done.

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