Donald Trump is unique. Not many US presidents were impeached, let alone twice – and that too within a single term of presidency. What’s more, he got acquitted twice – not to forget that the Senate trial for the unprecedented second occasion was held even is presidency was over, where he has now been acquitted of inciting a riotous mob to attack the Capitol Hill on January 6.
In a Senate having 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans at the moment, the vote was 43 not guilty to 57 guilty, ten fewer than the 67 guilty votes needed to convict. Most Republicans took an escape route on the weak procedural argument that the trial itself was unconstitutional because Trump was no longer president, although many constitutional scholars disagreed with that premise and the Senate had already voted earlier that the trial was constitutional.
What are the takeaways from this impeachment trial? Although seven Republican Senators voted that Trump was guilty of incitement, making this the most bipartisan impeachment vote in US history, the acquittal by the Senate exhibited the enduring power the former President still maintains over the Republican Party. He might have tremendous influence in the elections of 2022 and 2024 as well, and he is even free to run in the 2024 presidential election. Among the seven Republican Senators who voted for impeachment, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are not running for reelection. The other five are Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“Sorry haters, I’m not going anywhere,” Trump declared after his Senate acquittal. No wonder that Trump, barred from Twitter this time, played the victim again, as usual. He claimed that the impeachment trial was “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country”.
Not everybody, even the Republicans, would share this view, of course. Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan, a potential presidential contender said he was proud of the Republicans who voted against Trump. But Hogan admitted that “it’s not easy to go against your party and the base of your party and the former President… it’s hard to do the right thing sometimes.” And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is vowing to focus on electability over loyalty to Trump. McConnell, although he voted to acquit, has said Trump could face criminal prosecution for the events surrounding January 6 and stated that he was “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the violence. “President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot was a disgraceful – disgraceful – dereliction of duty,” McConnell observed.
Ten House Republicans also voted to impeach Trump in January, including Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, and nearly all of them now face at least one challenger for their seats in next year’s mid-terms. The Senate vote might have similar consequences. Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and North Carolina’s Richard Burr have already been censured by their respective state Republican parties. And Nebraska’s Ben Sasse would possibly face such a vote. Through his vote favouring impeachment, Sen. Burr possibly made Lara Trump, the ex- President’s daughter-in-law, almost the certain nominee for the Senate seat in North Carolina to replace him if she runs. Interestingly, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham observed that the biggest winner of this whole impeachment trial is Lara Trump.
While the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scoffs at ‘cowardly’ Senate Republicans who voted to acquit Donald Trump, opinion polls prior to the impeachment trial seeking public opinion for or against impeachment showed that it is a deeply divided United States. In most of the polls including those of YouGov, The Hill/HarrisX, Axios/Ipsos, Politico/Morning Consult, PBS/Marist, HuffPost/YouGov, Change Research, Quinnipiac University, Vox/Data for Progress, more than 40 per cent people were against impeachment, and there is little doubt that most of them were Republican voters. And, it is never easy for the elected representatives to go against the will of their voters, as Larry Hogan pointed out.
The US does not have the system of binding whips. And the votes of the House members and Senators may be treated as a reflection of the individual wisdom of elected representatives – not an ‘enforced consensus’ that curbs the free will of legislators. Yet there is no allegation of ‘horse trading’ and ‘resort politics’. That might be an encouraging side of the American democracy. However, the legislators would certainly care for their electorates’ mood, and of course their own winnability in the subsequent elections.
While Joe Biden maintained his stance that “democracy is fragile”, Trump’s impeachment trial may be treated as an indication of the strength of American democracy once again. McConnell claimed the Senate was “not invited to act as the nation’s overarching moral tribunal.” To some extent, I agree with this view. While there should be a fair trial in the Senate, there should also be a limit of its power and reach. If a majority of the Senators, including seven Republicans, feel that the former President is guilty, but that falls short of the required two-third mark to impeach him, let it be. The rest should be left to the judgement of the American people.
Certainly, the domain of democracy is beyond the scope of the Senate. Remember that there are hundreds of legal cases pending with the rioters. Take an example. Oath Keepers leader Jessica Watkins of Champaign County, Ohio, is charged with several counts including conspiracy, conspiracy to hurt an officer and violent entry in the Capitol riot. Prosecutors said: “As the inauguration grew nearer, [Jessica] Watkins indicated that she was awaiting direction from President Trump.” Such cases, even if they lead to convictions, cannot of course bar Trump from future office that an impeachment could. But they may certainly help in building public perception, and that is very important in a democracy.
And Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, said that the US Congress would move to establish an outside, independent 9/11-style commission to review the “facts and causes” related to the deadly 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol by Trump supporters. This is to investigate why government officials and law enforcement failed to stop the attack on the Capitol.
So, the wings of democracy are visibly quite widespread; they are not limited to the Senate acquittal only. That’s the beauty of democracy. And its balance, of course.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.