It ended quietly and mostly as expected Wednesday, with a decisive vote in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate that chose not to call witnesses or consider new evidence in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
So, what, if anything, was gained by the nation’s third impeachment of a U.S. president? Will history judge the process as the beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency, or as a Democratic political blunder that gave new momentum to his re-election campaign?
Those Americans who followed the House inquiry and the Democratic-controlled chamber’s impeachment votes learned much about the inner workings of the Trump administration. It wasn’t pretty.
Trump used the power of the U.S. government and $400 million in promised aid to try to dig up dirt on a political rival. A cast of questionable characters that included the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and oddball helpers Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were part of the cabal.
Once it was clear he had been caught in the act, Trump did what he could to obstruct the congressional inquiry into his politically motivated dealings, instructing members of his administration to ignore subpoenas for documents and witnesses.
Yet the truth was revealed in House testimony from courageous diplomats, some of whom had their distinguished careers upended because they wouldn’t do Trump’s bidding.
The case died in the Senate, where Trump’s allies, including some who worship the red-state ground he walks on, faced a test: Take their role seriously or choose the politically expedient path to move to a vote without seeking the truth.
That they chose to acquit Trump was no surprise. And, in fact, many reasonable Americans were torn over removing a president from office — based on this set of charges — just months before an election. But those senators who rejected fact-finding and gave little or no consideration to alternatives such as censure will eventually face their own voters, for better or worse.
The sole Republican outlier was Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted to convict Trump of abuse of power. “I believe that attempting to corrupt an election to maintain power is about as egregious an assault on the Constitution as can be made,” the Utah senator and former presidential candidate said in an emotional statement before the vote was taken.
But Trump, even more than Ronald Reagan, is the “Teflon President.” The House inquiry provided more evidence of his fully self-interested approach to leadership, yet a new Gallup poll put his job approval rating at 49% — the highest mark since he took office — with a record-setting 87-point gap between Republicans and Democrats.
Trump’s impeachment, like his presidency, has exposed America’s political divide as a canyon — with friends, co-workers and family members choosing sides and refusing to consider differing viewpoints. It will take a new national self-awareness of that condition to start the healing process.
Searching for glimmers of hope, the Constitution remains intact. The House successfully exercised its “sole power” to impeach the president, forcing him to mount a defense and forever branding his legacy. And the Senate’s rationale for its decision — that Trump showed poor judgment, but not bad enough to justify his ouster — has been the basis for acquittal in all three of America’s presidential impeachment trials.
Despite the far-from-perfect phone call, the unsavory diplomat shuffling, and the antics of Giuliani and his strange associates, the constitutional structure has survived. For that, we should be thankful.
That same Constitution calls for a president seeking re-election to face the voters every four years. And so a bitterly divided nation moves toward Nov. 3, when the American people, not Trump’s kowtowed Senate followers, will decide the president’s fate.