Trump Impeachment Win Clears Path for Emboldened President
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s acquittal by the Senate delivered an expected yet exhilarating victory to the White House, freeing a president who has for years operated under the threat of impeachment and longed for vindication.
The vote by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday provided Trump another last-hour escape from a mortal threat to his presidency, even though the outcome was tarnished when Mitt Romney became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president from his own party.
The Romney decision, along with the unified Democratic front, soured an acquittal that otherwise appeared perfectly timed for the president, clearing the decks just as campaign season enters its full fury. But the bipartisan vote to convict -- a day after his State of the Union address, where he claimed credit for engineering a “great American comeback” -- laid bare the deep rancor gripping the Capitol.
The 2020 contest is now an unambiguous referendum, pitting Trump -- and a Republican Party inextricably wed to him -- against Democrats, who have depicted him as an extreme threat to the republic. Both sides leave the impeachment process carrying considerable political risk.
Following the Senate vote, Trump tweeted that he would make a public statement Thursday at noon from the White House on “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!” He later posted a video in which a narrator describes Romney as “slick, slippery, stealthy,” accuses him of “posing as a Republican” and taunts him for his 2012 election loss to President Barack Obama.
The GOP majority’s rejection of witness testimony in the trial gave Democrats a cudgel to argue Republicans covered up the president’s behavior. Polling showed that three-quarters of Americans favored calling additional witnesses, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
A poll published Wednesday by Reuters and Ipsos found that 60% of Americans believe Trump should have been either removed from office or censured for his scheme to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Just 31% said his articles of impeachment should be dismissed.
The proceedings reinforced perceptions of Trump as a self-interested and venal leader willing to put his own political interests above the nation’s. Despite acquitting him, a clear majority of the Senate publicly rebuked Trump’s conduct as inappropriate, including at least six Republicans besides Romney -- Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
The votes of Romney, a senator from Utah, and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, whom the White House had tried to persuade to join its side, underscored the political risk that the saga would alienate moderate voters in swing states.
“Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience,” Romney said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Still, the president enters the election year with the wind at his back from a string of policy victories -- including new trade deals with China, Mexico, and Canada that have goosed the economy.
If past is precedent, Trump’s post-impeachment victory lap could see a president who has previously demonstrated little restraint act fully unencumbered.
The day after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller appeared at congressional hearings in July -- testimony that fell short of accusing the president of a crime -- Trump placed the controversial call to Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the heart of his impeachment.
By his own unique standards, Trump has practiced restraint as the impeachment trial unfolded. He’s scaled back his freewheeling news conferences with reporters, taking only one question on the South Lawn as he departed the White House for travel in the past month.
He withdrew his early demands that the Senate call the Bidens to testify, and -- on the advice of his lawyers -- avoided directly identifying the alleged whistle-blower responsible for launching the impeachment probe.
But the acquittal -- which the White House on Wednesday called “full vindication and exoneration” -- could encourage Trump to return to the more controversial behavior the president believes helped propel him to the White House.
The vote also fanned questions that seemed to haunt Democrats throughout the impeachment process: Was an effort with little chance of success worth the political risk of alienating swing voters and firing up the president’s base? Did the decision to rush the House effort -- rather than fully litigate White House attempts to block senior officials from testifying –- ultimately doom the case? And what will it take to beat Trump, who has time and again escaped consequences for behavior that would likely end the careers of other politicians?
Leaders in the party argued impeaching Trump was important regardless of the political consequences -- an action demanded by the Constitution that would be validated by history.
If nothing else, they said, the ordeal would remind voters of the chaotic and self-serving approach the president brings to his job. And, Democrats say, the episode has put swing-state senators like Toomey and Colorado’s Cory Gardner -- both of whom opposed calling additional witnesses -- in a death pact with the president.
Three quarters of Americans said they supported the Senate calling witnesses, while a majority -- 53% -- said they believed Trump wasn’t telling the truth about Ukraine, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Republicans’ refusal to call additional witnesses was “deeply disturbing on something of such importance to the future of our democracy.”
Still, public opinion polls show Trump with some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency. A survey from Gallup released this week pegged Trump’s approval at 49%, his highest to date. His opponents say the president’s popularity should be far higher given the strength of the economy.
Trump’s consolidation of support was reminiscent of other polarizing moments of his presidency, like Mueller’s determination there was no evidence Trump himself colluded with Russia, or the Senate vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh despite allegations of sexual misconduct.
Schumer’s takeaway: Trump “will conclude he can do it again, and Congress will do nothing about it.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.