The impeachment of a president is a rare moment in the history of the country, and so Wednesday’s vote in the House puts President Donald Trump into the annals of the nation in the most ignominious of ways. The stain of the House action on his biography and legacy, whatever the final resolution in the Senate, is now part of his permanent record.
But in the annals of Trump’s presidency, Wednesday’s deliberations in the House reflected nothing particularly extraordinary. Split sharply along party lines, with only the barest of defections among the Democrats and none among Republicans, the people’s House became the nation in miniature, a people torn over the conduct of a president who has defied political odds and broken the rules of politics — and who is braced for more to come.
The word “history” can be an overused term about matters of the day, tossed around casually and often without good reason. That cannot be said about impeachment, which was included in the Constitution by the framers as an ultimate remedy for the legislative branch to check the power of the president. Trump became only the fourth president to face articles of impeachment and the third to see the House approve those articles. It is a club no president would seek to join.
Trump has been defiant throughout the process and perhaps for reasons beyond his assertions that he did nothing wrong in pressuring Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 political rival. The president’s angry letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, released a day ahead of the House vote, seemed to reflect his understanding of what was about to transpire. As always with this president, the six pages of blistering language highlighted his determination to have both his words and his feelings clearly reflected in the historical record.
But that written record, like much else that emanates from the president in tweets, speeches and other public appearances, was replete with exaggerations, distortions and outright falsehoods. Which is how the extraordinary has become ordinary, if no less an issue of his presidency. However much he has deviated from the truth, he has shown the ability to tell the story the way he wants people to hear it, especially those in his base.
Wednesday brought about the split screen of history and spectacle. House Democrats were admonished to avoid gloating or displays of celebration as the articles were being read, debated and voted upon. Trump’s loyalists at a campaign rally in Michigan on Wednesday evening displayed their support for the president and their disdain for what the Democrats had done. There was no remorse to be shown.
Given the near-certain outcome in the Senate, where Trump is expected to be acquitted by a party-line vote, the issues that resulted in the impeachment vote on Wednesday will fold into the ongoing political conflict as the nation heads toward the 2020 presidential election.
Those who practice politics for a living disagree on just how much impeachment will be a factor when people cast their votes in November. But as the impeachment of this president moves to its next phase, it’s likely that what this process has wrought will at the least be in the minds of many in the electorate.
Trump’s character is one, and now that his conduct has drawn the stiffest rebuke the Constitution allows, short of removal from office, the question of presidential character could loom larger in the minds of some. The strength of institutions now feeling the stress of a president who has attacked various agencies in the executive branch is another. The exhaustion felt by many Americans because of the never-ending turmoil of Trump’s presidency is another.
The political fallout from impeachment is uncertain, for Pelosi’s Democrats and for the president as well. Answers will not come until next fall. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution said Wednesday, “There will be no calm after the storm.”