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After the Trump Impeachment Trial

Acquittal virtually guarantees future presidential abuses of power, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

February 4, 2020
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Sarah Silbiger/Getty

The looming result of the Senate trial of Donald Trump will strike a serious blow against constitutional democracy as we’ve known it. The acquittal of this president, based on this evidence, justified in this fashion by his allies, isn't just another American tragedy. It also marks the end of this Senate as a respectable legislature, never mind the hoary idea of it as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” It marks the end of what we all were taught in school about checks and balances and about common notions of good faith and patriotism. When the time came for Senate Republicans to stand up for themselves, and Congress, and the truth, they cowered and left us with an authoritarian president unrestrained by the law, the body politic, or anything else. 

For the majority of Americans who recognize the magnitude of the problem, and the clear and present danger the Trump administration poses to the nation, the question now is where do we go from here? It’s easy to say, as so many have done over the weekend, that the answer lies with the ballot in November. But the lawmakers who voted last week to suppress the truth about the president’s effort to cheat in the 2020 election are the same ones who gave him a pass for cheating in the 2016 election and belong to the same party as those officials around the nation seeking to suppress millions of Democratic votes.

Indeed, that was perhaps the biggest point of the impeachment case the House managers offered these past few weeks, a point journalists repeatedly missed in their coverage of what just happened: Trump’s removal from office was required, House Democrats argued, not just because he had cheated before (with Russia, at the least) but because he was cheating again (with Ukraine, at the least) and showing no inclination that he won’t continue to cheat again between now and November. The Senate Republicans last week didn’t just cover up evidence of past election interference — they covered up evidence of current election interference. 

They did this with the tacit approval not just of the defendant in the impeachment trial but of the man he has chosen to lead the Justice Department. Attorney General William Barr, at a minimum, is a witness to the corruption at the heart of the Ukrainian scandal. At worse he’s a co-conspirator to the president’s designs. And not only has he escaped any meaningful congressional oversight, but he is now positioned to serve this election season as an instrument of the president’s whims to investigate Donald Trump’s enemies, real and imagined. Buckle up. This part of the story isn’t over. Not by a longshot.

So there is an executive branch that cannot be trusted to ensure the integrity of the upcoming election. There is a feckless federal judiciary that has largely countenanced obstruction by the White House — congressional subpoena fights that should take or days or weeks take months or longer. And there is a legislative branch stymied in its oversight by Republican collusion that shows no sign of stopping. On Sunday, for example, the same GOP senators who ignored evidence of Donald Trump’s offenses, who said they were unimpeachable, were talking about plans to impeach Joe Biden should he become president. 

As Republican Even McMullin tweeted Saturday morning: “For anti-Trump Republicans—a small but electorally significant segment—it’s been uncomfortably possible to oppose Trump but remain affiliated with the party, looking instead to more reasonable Republican senators for leadership. The witness vote may mark the end of that for many.” That may be true. But where does it lead us going into November? How many of these people actually are going to put aside a lifetime of conservative commitment and vote for a Democrat? If the Senate trial taught us anything, it is that the very phrase “anti-Trump Republican” may be an oxymoron. 

Republican gaslighting about the president’s misconduct didn’t begin with the impeachment trial and it surely won’t end there. Over the weekend also came the theme, from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and others, that somehow Trump is going to be chastened by his impeachment. That is, as commentator Catherine Rampell bluntly put it, “delusional.” Perhaps there was some reasonable hope before the trial that Senate Republicans themselves would be chastened by their defense of this president, but that hope died with 51 votes in favor of pretending that former National Security Advisor John Bolton had nothing to add to the story of Trump’s corruption.

One of the lessons of Watergate was that the constitutional system could withstand a corrupt administration. No more. One of the lessons of the Reagan administration a decade later was that American foreign policy toward the Russians required strength. No more. One of the lessons of the Clinton impeachment a decade later was that America demanded remorse and regret from an impeached president. No more. One of the lessons of the Bush administration a decade later was that failing to hold public officials accountable for their misconduct only leads to more misconduct and less accountability. What a bitter lesson to learn. 

There is cause to be angry about all of this, of course, and sad, too. How many millions of us have grown up believing in the myth that the words of the Constitution, interpreted by men and women of good faith, enforced by public servants tethered to evidence and legal standards, would serve as a bulwark against this sort of president, this kind of corruption, this type of administration? How many of us believed, until it was too late, that the same party that stood up to its own Richard Nixon would stand up again to its own Donald Trump? Or that whatever our political differences, no national party ever would countenance foreign influence over an election?

It’s all come undone now. There should be no illusions about what lies ahead between now and November and even, should the president be defeated, between the election and the inauguration next January. Anything is possible. Special Counsel Robert Mueller didn’t save the republic or its norms. Neither did Rep. Adam Schiff, though he tried mightily. No Republican senator ended up being this generation’s Howard Baker, a GOP Senate member who was one of the heroes of Watergate. And no reasonable person ought to think that Trump will be stopped by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who gutted the Voting Rights Act and gave us the disastrous Citizens United ruling.

The silver lining, I suppose, lies in the clarity of this moment. We don’t need to take seriously anymore the musings of self-proclaimed conservative “constitutional scholars” in the Senate who have lectured us for years about accountability and transparency and healthy oversight over the executive branch. It’s clear they don’t really mean what they are saying. Likewise, we don’t need to search anymore for legitimate reasons why GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee keep confirming patently unqualified candidates for lifetime jobs on the federal bench. It’s clear they have no interest in ensuring that judicial nominees aren’t simply toadies for the White House and the Federalist Society. 

And we no longer need to pretend that it’s good journalistic practice to repeat or amplify the president’s daily false statements or to offer news consumers “false equivalence” about what’s actually happening in Washington. Those stenographic practices are not neutral. They are not exercises in objective reporting. They have been weaponized by Trump and his tribunes. If it wasn’t already dead, the obligation to handle things the old way ended Friday when 51 senators who had sworn an oath to be impartial jurors chose not to hear more evidence about a crime against the Constitution and the people it was written to protect.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.