Words spoken by two Republican senators fairly summarize the impeachment experience.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska stated sadly, “Given the partisan nature of the impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, concluded, “Just because action met a standard of impeachment does not mean it is the best interest of the country to remove a president from office.”
The bottom line in the House was that impeachment was political. By giving the impeachment power to the House and requiring only a simple majority, the founders well understood they were allowing for charges against the president that could be entirely partisan.
The situation is different in the Senate. By requiring a two-thirds majority to convict, the Constitution almost mandated the agreement of members of both parties. This requirement raises the level of the proceeding beyond simple partisan politics to an issue of the greatest national importance.
The House Democrats must have known that they could not get the Senate to convict Trump. They may have calculated that by revealing his effort to get Ukraine to help his campaign, they would gain support in November.
Their case suffered from being thin, based only on the withholding from Ukraine of desperately needed military aid in an effort to get its president to undermine Joe Biden, then Trump’s most likely opponent. The Democrats avoided obstruction of justice issues raised in the Mueller report or the emoluments clause, relating to his profiting from the presidency.
They tried to use the stark revelations by John Bolton, former national security advisor, of Trump’s direct involvement to buttress their case, but he came forward too late.
Republican senators have become dependent on Trump’s popularity and would not likely oppose him so close to an election. The case was not flagrant enough to detach them from partisanship.
Trump has continually violated so many governmental norms that it was difficult for the Democrats to show his attempt to get political help from Ukraine was extraordinary enough to remove him from office. To some degree, both Washington and voters had become accustomed to Trump’s expansive tactics and frequent lies.
It was obvious that at least some GOP senators believe Trump is guilty of the charge made against him. Despite their trial support, they cite technicalities to put distance between themselves and the president.
Whatever he may claim, it is evident that Trump was not exonerated in the minds of a Senate majority.
Murkowski called his behavior “shameful and wrong.” Impeachment at least elevated the issue of foreign involvement in elections. That alone may have been worth the effort.
Republicans claimed that the Democrats had always sought to reverse the 2016 election results and remove Trump from office. That’s an almost irrelevant argument, because an election cannot be reversed, Trump has been president for three years and the loss of the president is covered by electing a vice president as well.
Because both the House and Senate votes were almost purely political, the arguments for and against Trump, some bordering on the absurd, become less important in an historical context.
Little has been done that is likely to have a lasting constitutional effect, any more than the Clinton impeachment did. In perspective, Clinton looks purely political and almost nobody remembers the legal arguments.
The impeachment experience has educated some voters about the lengths of Trump’s efforts to justify his 2016 upset win and use the 2020 election to confirm its validity. The Democrats see his open willingness to accept foreign help in a U.S. election as a major negative that can be exploited to their advantage.
Trump’s gamble, which he could win, is that voters appreciate the state of the economy, leading them to overlook his possible constitutional violation. The GOP appears to believe that most people won’t care about his Ukraine move. It is possible many voters saw impeachment as political and boring.
With the benefit of hindsight, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might have chosen to hold a vote of censure of the president. Censure could have been voted by the House without requiring additional Senate action. But it might have sparked a similar effort in the Senate, where only a 51-vote majority would be required, not the two-thirds needed for removal.
But a House vote of censure and a Senate attempt, successful or not, might have done as much politically for the Democrats as political impeachment-acquittal. It would have also put pressure on GOP senators, like Susan Collins, who thought Trump had made a serious mistake, though insufficient for removal.