The outcome Wednesday followed months of remarkable impeachment proceedings, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House to Mitch McConnell’s Senate, reflecting the nation’s unrelenting partisan divide three years into the Trump presidency.
Written by Nicholas Fandos
After five months of hearings, investigations and cascading revelations about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, a divided U.S. Senate acquitted him on Wednesday of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress to aid his own reelection, bringing an acrimonious impeachment trial to its expected end.
In a pair of nearly party-line votes whose outcome was never in doubt, the Senate fell well short of the two-thirds margin that would have been needed to remove Trump, formally concluding the three-week-long trial of the 45th president that has roiled Washington and threatened the presidency.
It was the third impeachment trial of a president and the third acquittal in American history, and it ended the way it began, with Republicans and Democrats at odds over Trump’s conduct and his fitness for office, even as some members of his own party conceded the basic allegations that undergirded the charges, that he sought to pressure Ukraine to smear his political rivals.
But in a sign of the widening partisan divide testing the country and its institutions, the verdict did not promise finality. Democratic leaders immediately insisted the result was illegitimate, the product of a self-interested cover-up by Republicans, and promised to continue their investigations of Trump.
The president, vindicated in what he has long called a politically motivated hoax to take him down, prepared to campaign as an exonerated executive. And both parties conceded that voters, not the Senate, would deliver the final judgment on Trump when they cast ballots in just nine months.
As expected, the tally in favor of conviction fell far below the 67-vote threshold necessary for removal on each article. The first charge was abuse of power, accusing Trump of a scheme to use the levers of government to coerce Ukraine to do his political bidding, did not even garner a majority vote, failing on a vote of 48-52. The second article, charging Trump with obstructing Congress for an across-the-board blockade of House subpoenas and oversight requests, failed 47-53.
But in a stinging symbolic rebuke of the country’s leader aimed at history, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, broke with the party and voted to convict Trump of abuse of power, saying that the president’s pressure campaign on Ukraine was “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.” He voted against the second article, but cast his first as a matter of conscience and became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party.
“I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Romney said. “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Romney’s defection, which he announced a couple of hours before the final vote, was a stark reflection of the sweeping transformation of the Republican Party over the past eight years into one that is all but completely captive to Trump. And it deprived the president of the monolithic Republican support he had eagerly anticipated at the end of an impeachment saga that he has been eager to dismiss as a politically motivated effort carried out exclusively by Democrats.
At the White House, Trump was expected to accept the decision with characteristic bravado, forgoing the kind of humility and reconciliation more moderate members of his party had urged in favor of the raw, familiar fury that has fueled his unparalleled and chaotic rise in American public life.
The president has looked forward to the Senate’s verdict as an authoritative rejection of the House’s case that he committed high crimes and misdemeanors, even if many in his party ultimately broke from his absolute insistence that his actions were “perfect.” But Trump, too, was looking beyond it toward the long campaign season ahead, vowing retribution from the forces that he believes have tried to destroy him: the Democrats, the news media and a deep state of government bureaucrats.
A few Republicans urged Trump to be more careful with his words in the future, particularly when speaking with foreign leaders, but there was no serious attempt to censure him as there was around the trial of Clinton.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republican swing votes who have tilted against the president in the past, both voted against conviction and removal. And two Democrats from traditionally red states, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted to convict Trump, denying him a badly wanted bipartisan acquittal.
Democrats, who had lobbied hard to include witnesses and documents that Trump shielded from the House in the Senate proceeding, wasted little time in declaring the trial a sham. Senators had been offered evidence, including testimony by the former national security adviser John R. Bolton, that would have further clarified the president’s actions and motivations, they said. All but two Republicans refused, making the trial the first impeachment proceeding in American history to reach a verdict without calling witnesses.
Seldom used in American history, impeachment is the Constitution’s most extreme mechanism for checking a corrupt or out of control office holder. In unsheathing it, even reluctantly, House Democrats took on political risk that could backfire in November on their presidential nominee or the House majority if voters conclude the effort was an overzealous partisan attack. Senate Republicans and Democrats up for reelection in swing states may face their own judgment for their stances on including witnesses in the trial or on Trump’s guilt.
At least one Democrat, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, glancingly acknowledged that his vote to convict would most likely contribute to his loss this fall in deeply conservative Alabama.
“There will be so many who will simply look at what I am doing today and say it is a profile in courage,” Jones said before the vote. “It is not. It is simply a matter of right and wrong.”
For now, the impeachment of Trump appears to have evenly divided the nation. Public opinion polls suggest that as the proportion of Americans grew in recent weeks who agreed that the president most likely abused his office and acted improperly to deny Congress the ability to investigate, never meaningfully more than half of the country agreed he should be removed from office.
If Trump’s standing among the public has been hurt by the trial, it is not yet evident. To the contrary, the latest Gallup poll, released on Tuesday, showed that 49% of Americans approved of the job he was doing as president — the highest figure since he took office three years ago.