WASHINGTON — Andrew Johnson. Bill Clinton. Donald Trump.
On Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives impeached a sitting president for just the third time in American history, charging Trump with the high crimes of abusing his power to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election and of obstructing Congress’ efforts to investigate his international shakedown.
The House voted 230 to 197 to impeach Trump for abuse of power and by a near-identical margin to impeach him for obstruction of Congress. Both votes fell almost entirely along party lines: Michigan’s Justin Amash, an independent who left the Republican party this summer, voted to impeach, but no current Republicans joined him. Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat running to replace Trump, signaled neither support nor opposition by voting “present” both times.
Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) were the only two Democrats to vote against both articles, while Jared Golden (D-Maine) voted to impeach the president for abuse of power, but not obstruction of Congress.
Wednesday’s vote is historic. And yet the occasion has a pre-ordained feeling to it. This is, it seems, the natural and inevitable outcome for a man who, first as a candidate and then as the president, has spent nearly four years smashing norms, ignoring the rule of law, and waging daily combat on members of the Democratic Party, on the media that covers him, and on reality itself.
Trump’s impeachment is akin to an indictment by the House of Representatives. The evidence for the articles of impeachment brought by the House is so clear that Republicans hardly bothered to dispute it, instead marching behind their leader into the world of “alternative facts,” invented history, and outright conspiracy theories. The impeachment process now moves to the Senate, controlled by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has vowed to work hand-in-hand with the White House to acquit the president and ensure this problem goes away as fast as possible.
The more meaningful verdict, however, will be handed out by voters in November, and Wednesday’s votes were proceeded by eight hours of lawmakers making their case to voters, one predictable floor speech at a time. After the final votes are cast in the House, it’s far from clear if either side is set up for success.
Have Democrats damaged their chances of keeping the House majority and retaking the White House in 2020 by impeaching President Trump? Will the GOP pay the price next November for its blind loyalty to a lawless president who couldn’t care less about the Constitution? In our time-warped politics, will any of this even matter 11 months from now?
It’s too soon to know. But the path that brought us to this point has put into stark relief the true character of this president, the blind loyalty of his party brethen, and the lengths they together will go to preserve their power. “It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at the opening of Wednesday’s floor debate. “He gave us no choice.”
“Impeach The Motherfucker”
It was an outcome that, in certain respects, felt inevitable. The rowdy fringe of the Democratic Party had clamored for and demanded it. Even before Democrats took back the House majority, Democratic members took to the House floor to introduce articles of impeachment, accusing the president of apparent high crimes and misdemeanors. In January, only a few hours after she was sworn into Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman Democrat from Michigan, was recorded on video vowing to “impeach this motherfucker” to raucous applause from supporters in the room.
Pelosi and her lieutenants resisted those calls, even after the final report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out the clearest evidence yet of obstruction of justice by Trump in his efforts to thwart the FBI and the Mueller investigation. Pelosi and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, insisted that impeachment needed to have bipartisan support among the public. As Nadler told Rolling Stone earlier this year, there needed to be “such strong proof of such terrible deeds that when they’re laid out in public to the American people, an appreciable fraction of the opposition voters will admit, ‘They had to do it.’”
Democrats believed they reached that inflection point in September, when they received an anonymous intelligence officer’s whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The whistleblower accused Trump of pressuring the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden as well as a baseless conspiracy theory (pushed by Russia) that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
The White House, in what will go down as one of the great self-owns in modern history, responded by releasing a partial transcript of the conversation at the heart of the whistleblower complaint: Trump’s July 25th call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Rather than rebut the whistleblower’s claims, the transcript reinforced them.
Trump had asked Zelensky for the “favor” of investigating the Biden. He had asked Ukraine to “find out” what happened with a discredited 2016 election conspiracy theory. He had urged the Ukrainians to work with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s world-traveling henchman and bumbling consigliere, and he had trashed the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who had stood in the way of Trump’s and Giuliani’s “drug deal” scheme, as one senior administration official so memorably described it.
It was there on the page, in black and white, plain as day. If there was a smoking gun in the Trump-Ukraine affair, this was it. Democrats united behind opening an impeachment investigation into Trump’s drug deal, and Pelosi announced it on September 24th. “The president must be held accountable,” she said, “and no one is above the law.”
“Everyone Was In The Loop”
More than a dozen current and former officials working in the Trump administration defied the White House’s orders and provided information to the three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight — tasked with jointly investigating Trump’s Ukraine scheme.
These witnesses — among them Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat and respected U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was ousted by Trump; EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland; and many others mainly from the State Department — each told one piece of a larger plot that saw American foreign policy and national security hijacked by a mad-king president and his comic-book-villain cronies like Giuliani and Giuliani’s two associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who has since been indicted for campaign finance violations.
The witnesses who came forward put their careers, reputations, and in some cases personal safety at risk. None of them offered exculpatory evidence that validated the president’s decision to withhold congressionally approved security aid for Ukraine and an official White House meeting for Ukraine’s new president in exchange for helping Trump’s reelection bid.
If there was a John Dean moment in the Trump impeachment investigation, it arrived in the unlikely form of Gordon Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who scored the ambassadorship to the EU after having donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. Sondland’s testimony was a scorcher. He said he worked “at the express direction of the president of the United States” when he pressured Ukraine’s leaders to announce investigations into Biden and the 2016 U.S. election in order to help Trump’s reelection prospects. He used the words “quid pro quo” to describe Giuliani’s requests that Ukraine do what Trump wanted in order to release the security funds and schedule the White House meeting.
Sondland sought to correct any misperception that Trump and Giuliani’s scheme was some off-the-books, rogue operation. The vice president knew about it, Sondland testified. The secretaries of State and Energy knew about it. The acting chief of staff, too.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.”
“A Carefully Orchestrated Media Smear Campaign”
The impeachment hearings also brought home just how subservient the party of Reagan, the supposed law-and-order party, is to a man with little use for the law. Under the white-hot glare of the impeachment process, House Republicans reaffirmed their blind loyalty to this president.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, used every opportunity he could to attack the process, journalists, and his Democratic colleagues. He dismissed the impeachment hearings as “a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.” Despite Trump publicly calling on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, Nunes dismissed the idea as a “conspiracy theory.” Watching Nunes’ opening statements and lines of questioning felt like tuning into an alternate reality.
The most striking thing about the Republican defense of Trump was how little effort was made to dispute the actual facts and testimonies that formed the heart of the case. Instead Republicans gummed up the works with parliamentary inquiries and amendments; questioned the patriotism of at least one witness (who happened to be an American veteran and Purple Heart recipient); and raged against their Democratic counterparts for daring to hold their dear leader accountable.
Right up to the day of the vote, Republicans pointed the blame not at a president who had trampled the Constitution but a Democratic Party that they claimed had run off the rails. “The only way [Democrats] hoped to have the American people behind them was to go fast, make accusations, and not allow for an exhaustive investigation,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told Rolling Stone. “It’s part of their strategy to move it through quickly in the hope they could garner public support or not lose it. They ended up losing some; the needle hasn’t moved a lot in either direction.”
Rep. Justin Amash, who quit the Republican Party this summer after he came in support of impeaching the president for obstruction of justice, lamented his former party’s capitulation to the president. History, Amash vowed, would judge the GOP harshly. “Conservatives will someday face the horrible truth,” he tweeted, “that the Republican Party fought so hard to justify and excuse an amoral and self-serving president, and what he gave them in return was bigger government and erosion of the principles and values they once claimed to cherish.”
The players all took their places on the day of the vote. The camera crews and correspondents staked out their spots in the soaring rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The lawmakers shuttled between the House floor and quick hits on MSNBC or FOX. Politico’s Playbook tipsheet left nothing to the imagination as it laid out the schedule of events (“WHAT THE DAY WILL LOOK LIKE”) and played out every angle of the story (“WHAT IT MEANS FOR TRUMP’S LEGACY”).
History rarely feels like history when you’re living it, but it was hard to shake the feeling it was always going to come to this. The proceedings on Wednesday felt more like a regular order of business, with little of sweep and drama around the passage of a major bill or a State of the Union address.
Of course, how can any one impeachment vote feel monumental when the leader of the free world engages in potentially impeachable acts on a weekly basis? Or when defiant Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to disregard his constitutional oath and work in lockstep with the White House to acquit the president as hastily as possible?
Set aside the Republican obstruction. Set aside the president’s desperate tweets. This much holds true: There will forever be a stain on the Trump presidency. And the next president who considers whether to pressure a foreign ally to interfere in our politics can expect to meet the same fate.