Progressives had clamored for it for many months. Republicans called it a proxy attack on middle Americans. The House speaker didn’t want to do it but ultimately said the Constitution demanded it. A red-faced President Donald Trump, fuming and mocking his accusers, said it was an unfair personal affront that nonetheless would ultimately help him politically.
It seemed like a long time coming, and it finally happened this week: Donald J. Trump became the third president in American history to be impeached. The vote Wednesday night was its own historic resolution, a fact that will define Trump’s presidency and legacy even if he indeed wins reelection next year. And it was a goal of critics who wanted the president held accountable for actions they say violate his oath of office.
But the path forward is murky at best and does not look headed toward any kind of resolution for Congress or the country.
Political Cartoons on Impeachment
“We’ve done our job. We had to do it – absolutely, no question,” says Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, emerging from a bitter and exhausting impeachment vote that lawmakers in both parties do not expect will result in a conviction in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Trump may claim he’s been cleared after the Senate finishes its work, DeFazio says, but “he’s not exonerated. He’s one of only three presidents of the United States in history to be impeached. He can’t erase that.”
The progress of the process itself is not even clear. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Thursday she was waiting to name House impeachment managers until the Senate decides on a process for the eventual trial. Senate Democrats want to call added witnesses, such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton – a request Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has rejected.
And while the earlier strategy had been to hold a quick and predetermined trial to acquit Trump promptly as the campaign season gets into full swing, McConnell on Thursday shrugged at the delay.
“Frankly, I’m not anxious to have the trial. … If [Pelosi] thinks her case is so weak she doesn’t want to send it over, throw me into that briar patch,” McConnell told reporters.
The impeachment debate itself did nothing to resolve the actual facts at issue in the case against Trump. Democrats detailed the offenses they said warranted articles of impeachment, including withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine in exchange for a public announcement of an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Trump opponent, as well as refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas.
Republicans largely steered clear of the accusations themselves, instead accusing Democrats of running a politically motivated “sham” proceeding to oust a president they never accepted to begin with. During the most emotional and raw parts of the debate, GOP lawmakers asserted that their Democratic colleagues had contempt for the nearly 63 million Americans who voted for the president.
“Look, this is going to be a stain on the Democrats’ majority, and their legacy will be that they are the party of impeachment,” says Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican and the minority whip. “It’s going to be up to them to prove they’re actually willing to work for the families of this country who have been left behind. The disdain they show for those forgotten men and women was on display here on the floor,” Scalise adds, summing up the 12 hours of debate he and his colleagues had just completed.
And on Thursday, the debate was also not about Trump’s behavior as much as it was about how and when the Senate trial will proceed.
“She’s so embarrassed she won’t even send the papers over,” taunted House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican.
McConnell speculated that Pelosi was waiting to transfer the articles of impeachment – which are necessary to start a Senate trial – because the House had done “shoddy work” and was “too afraid” to continue the process.
“Looks like the prosecution is getting cold feet,” the Republican leader said on the Senate floor.
McConnell, for his part, has said publicly he has no intention of being an “impartial” juror, as dictated by an oath senators take before a trial of a president begins. The leader has said he is working closely with the White House on the matter, which Republicans consider an illegitimate exercise.
Pelosi – who earlier this year rejected the option of impeaching the president, saying he’s “not worth it” but who changed her mind after the Ukraine evidence surfaced – wielded the last bit of authority the House has in the impeachment process, appointing managers and sending the articles to the other chamber.
“We’d like to see a fair process, but we’ll see what they have and we’ll be ready for whatever it is,” Pelosi told reporters. The speaker noted that she had heard some of what McConnell had said on the Senate floor and it “reminded me that our founders, when they write the Constitution, suspected there could be a rogue president. I don’t think they suspected that we could have a rogue president and a rogue leader of the Senate at the same time.”
The timing of a trial has implications for both Senate and presidential campaigns. A few GOP senators in close races – including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who announced on the eve of the House impeachment vote that she is seeking reelection – might benefit from having the trial done quickly, to make the matter more distant by the time the election rolls around.
The four Democratic senators running for president have some time constraints of their own – a trial cold go on for six days a week, limiting their ability to campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, all of which hold nominating contests in February. A Democratic primary debate is scheduled for Jan. 14 in Des Moines, Iowa.
It could give a boost, however, to Biden – not only because he won’t be required to sit through a trial in the chamber in which he served for 36 years but because the proceedings underscore Trump’s worries about Biden as a 2020 foe.
“Trump has been helping Biden all through this,” says Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant and director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California. “He’s been sending very clear signals that he doesn’t want to run against Biden.”
Trump may be just the third president to be impeached, but he’s the first to be impeached while seeking reelection. And that stain remains no matter how – or when – the Senate acts, analysts say.
“He may be acquitted, but he’s not going to get exonerated,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN and the New Policy Institute, a think tank.
The big question for Trump now is if he’ll be reelected.