On Dec. 19, 2019, the United States House of Representatives voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the body’s third time impeaching a president in its 230-year history. The votes on these two articles of impeachment fell largely along party lines, with all Republicans and two Democrats voting against impeachment. The House took its time investigating Trump’s alleged crimes, with an impeachment inquiry that lasted nearly three months. The Senate vote to acquit Trump again fell largely along party lines, with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, standing as the sole Republican who voted to convict Trump.
It would have been difficult for the 2021 impeachment of our former president to be different from the one just over a year ago. Members of Congress immediately began calling for Trump’s removal after the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, and when the 25th Amendment wasn’t invoked, Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered what Democrats wanted: a speedy impeachment. Unlike last year, not only did the House vote to impeach Trump a mere two days after the resolution was brought to the House floor, but 10 Republicans voted in favor of impeachment (including Michigan Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids), and many other Republicans agreed with the Democrats that Trump had engaged in unacceptable behavior.
The country knew going into Trump’s trial in the Senate that the likelihood of conviction was low. Seventeen Republicans would have had to break with the party to convict Trump, an unlikely event given the hyperpolarized time we live in. Besides conviction itself, some Republican senators don’t even believe that impeaching a former president is constitutional, let alone necessary.
Inevitably, on Feb. 13, the Senate voted to acquit Trump for inciting an insurrection, with 57 senators voting “guilty,” and the remaining 43 senators voting “not guilty,” falling short of the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction. Seven Republicans joined the Democrats and voted guilty, making this impeachment the most bipartisan in history — for comparison, when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, no Senate Democrats voted to convict. But saying that this impeachment process was bipartisan obscures the reality of the situation.
Seven current senators were in the Senate during the impeachment of Clinton. Of these senators, five of them voted to convict Clinton for at least one article of impeachment and did not vote to convict Trump. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. Trump was impeached for inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Five Republican senators essentially told the nation that they think that lying under oath and obstructing justice are worse offenses for a U.S. president than inciting a mob at the Capitol to overthrow an election.
To make matters worse, those senators that voted to acquit the former president understood Trump’s role in the insurrection and knew that he should no longer be allowed to hold office. After he voted “not guilty,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a speech on the Senate floor, saying, “There’s no question—none—that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. … The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”
Although this impeachment was bipartisan, it does not mean that the United States is moving past the division that has been building for years and was highlighted during the Trump presidency. If anything, the actions of Republicans show that they know that their constituents’ widely held belief that there was rampant voter fraud is a lie, and they know that Trump should have been held accountable for his actions that perpetuated that lie.
But Republicans’ fear of their own voters prevented them from taking action that would have strengthened American democracy. Republicans know that their voters will continue to back Trump and that any perceived slight of him will not be looked at kindly by those voters, nor by fellow politicians who believe in the necessity to continue to support Trump. For example, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who was a surprise vote in favor of Trump’s conviction, was censured by the Louisiana Republican Party hours after the vote.
Trump lied to his voters, who believed him and acted on those beliefs. But it is the actions of Republican politicians — particularly members of the House and Senate who know that his words are lies and are dangerous — that are responsible for this attack on democracy. Without the efforts of the Republican Party to bring their voters away from believing conspiracy theories and falsehoods, the U.S. will be ushered into an era of distrust, misinformation and further polarization — a country of people who have no trust for those who do not share their political ideology.
Lydia Storella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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