Trump’s Acquittal Boxes In Republicans

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With Mitt Romney the sole Republican voting to remove the president from office, the Senate fell well short of convicting Donald Trump on two articles of impeachment today.

I agree with my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman that the senators’ speeches, particularly those of Republicans who were voting to acquit him, were important. What the senators said about their votes matters to history, but more important it will matter right now: Trump will hear what the Republicans said and know what he can get away with for the rest of his presidency, whether it’s for a year or five years.

But I mildly disagree with my colleague about what Republicans should have done. Feldman argues, sensibly, that a little hypocrisy would be helpful here, and so the best speeches would simply pretend that Trump didn’t do what he obviously did. The virtue of that approach would be that they wouldn’t have to deal with the president’s arguments that abuse of power is not legitimate grounds for impeachment and removal.

Unfortunately, the evidence of Trump’s behavior as presented in the trial — and the decision by those Republican senators to hear no new evidence — made that approach untenable. The several Republicans who claimed Trump didn’t do what he was accused of doing were in effect choosing him over their own lying eyes

No, the only responsible avenue available for Republican senators who wanted to acquit on the abuse of power article was more narrow, and only Maine’s Susan Collins came close to it. It was to say that Trump did it; what he did was wrong; abuse of power is certainly grounds for impeachment and removal; but — and here’s the catch — it just didn’t rise to the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.

This is the only justification for an “acquit” verdict that tells the president that even though the senators didn’t vote to remove him, they still want him to know there are real limits to presidential behavior. It’s the only explanation that defends the constitutional process for removing a president without using it right now.

Collins basically said all that, but unfortunately cited the coming election as a further excuse, which tends to weaken the power of impeachment. 

On the whole, the Republican senators’ statements justifying their votes to acquit were all nonsense. We got to hear again — from multiple senators — about the pens House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed out when signing the resolution sending impeachment to the Senate. We heard again that Representative Adam Schiff at one point paraphrased the president’s words and that the House took depositions in a basement room.

Republicans repeatedly told us that impeachment was illegitimate because some Democrats have wanted to impeach the president for a long time, without mentioning that there were real grounds for impeachment during that time. That some Democrats were overly eager to impeach had nothing to do with whether these particular charges (and the president’s overall behavior) meant he should be removed from office.

A handful of Republican senators, including Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, at least acknowledged that Trump’s behavior was far from “perfect.” Most did not. Some Republicans backed away from the Alan Dershowitz argument that impeachment for abuse of power cannot be legitimate. Most did not. And most of the Republicans who did leaned heavily on the claim that elections are the only way to remove a president.

The impeachment power is weak, but it will be weaker in the wake of how Senate Republicans conducted this trial and how they explained themselves. Does anyone now doubt that Trump will be even more likely to ignore the law (contrary to Collins’s hopes)?

That puts the U.S. Constitution in grave jeopardy. In particular, it puts the integrity of the 2020 election in serious doubt. Even if nothing else happens, it will already tend to undermine the strength of U.S. democracy. Does anyone think Trump will hesitate to seek further foreign interference in the election? 

The good news? Mitt Romney’s vote to convict, along with the united Democratic votes, means that it was more than strictly partisan. It at least hints that Trump’s behavior could put his presidency in some danger. 

And, of course, nothing is stopping Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander and every other Republican senator from fighting back against whatever Trump does after the trial ends. They have done that occasionally up to this point — not often enough and not effectively enough, but it has happened. Perhaps they’ll find the ability to do that more often. Perhaps they’ll even be inspired by the example of their party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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