WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump didn’t get away with it — at least, not without paying a price.
In the lowest moment of his presidency so far, the House impeached Trump Wednesday on charges that he solicited foreign help in his re-election campaign, using taxpayer dollars as leverage, at the expense of national security interests and then covered it all up.
“This was, quite simply, a geopolitical shakedown,” Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said.
The particulars of the two articles of impeachment — falling under the headings of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — are unquestionably more serious than those levied against Presidents Andrew Johnson, who was impeached along party lines in three days, and Bill Clinton.
The articles alluded to a broader pattern of behavior that has pervaded Trump’s term in office: a carefree attitude toward political norms, a willingness to pressure foreign allies for personal beliefs and gains, and a lack of interest in expanding his base of support.
While Trump and his Republican loyalists in the House insist that he is a blameless victim who will be exonerated by the Senate in the winter and voters next fall, there will now be a big black asterisk emblazoned next to his name in ledger of American history. He will face those voters as one of only three presidents to suffer his fate in 230 years, even though more than two dozen of them have worked with a House majority of the other party — a sign that partisan division alone has not been sufficient to trigger impeachment.
“If the 700 historians and legal scholars who have weighed in are correct, this impeachment will look righteous and just in the eyes of history,” said Paul Begala, who was an adviser to Clinton. “The Republicans’ craven kowtowing will look shameful and cowardly.”
Trump put on a brave face at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, a pivotal swing state Wednesday evening.
“It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached,” he said, speaking as the House began to vote on the first article of impeachment.
But the gravity of the moment was hitting the president hard, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“I talked to him today. I said, ‘How you doing?'” Graham told reporters earlier in the day. “He said, ‘Well, I’m being impeached, but other than that, I’m OK.'” Graham said he assured the president his legacy would be more than just being impeached.
The silver lining for Trump is his belief — one some Democrats worry could be realized — that the episode might be turned to his political advantage as he seeks re-election.
“There’s one reason Nancy Pelosi held off on impeachment for as long as she did: she knew it would be bad for her caucus and her party,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s campaign, said in a text message. “No one wants to be impeached, but the Democrats have made what will be known as the worst miscalculation in American political history.”
Without question, the national focus on impeachment has allowed Trump to elevate the allegations at the heart of the investigations he wanted Ukraine to announce it was opening. And as he tries to rally his base supporters and convince swing voters that they shouldn’t reward Democrats with power, he and his allies are turning to the familiar politics of the aggrieved.
“Every time Democrats and the media go into a frenzy, the president’s campaign gets bigger and stronger and we raise more money,” Murtaugh said. “Independent voters don’t like one party trying to take the choice in the next election out of voters’ hands.”
In the hours before the House voted, Republican lawmakers rushed to the floor Wednesday to depict Trump in historical and histrionic terms of unjust persecution. At turns, he was described as Jesus before the cross, a Salem “witch” on trial and one of the many ordinary Americans whose lives were ruined when the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., accused them of being communists or gay. The last bit was ironic, given that McCarthy’s controversial staff lawyer, Roy Cohn, would later become a friend and adviser to Trump.
“When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said. “During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president in this process.”
Trump has “made the calculation that he’s going to do everything in his power to mobilize his supporters,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who noted that Trump’s combative behavior during his impeachment broke with Clinton’s combination of contrition and concentration on legislative matters. “He’s actually magnifying the significance of impeachment. I think that speaks to his mindset about what he thinks works.”
Of course, Clinton, who was impeached midway through his second term, didn’t have to worry about running for re-election. His vice president, Al Gore, was defeated by George W. Bush, who campaigned on restoring integrity to the Oval Office in the ensuing presidential election.
The politics of Trump’s impeachment have been playing out for well over than a year. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, he warned Republican voters that Democrats would seek to remove him from office if they won control of the House.
That admonition didn’t work.
Democrats racked up a nearly 10 million-vote edge in their historic House victory last year, sweeping Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., back into the speakership and putting her in the position of managing her party base’s desire to impeach the president. Moderate House Democrats, particularly in the freshman class, were wary of moving against the president, and Pelosi held back the impeachment push until a whistleblower report that was made public in September alleged that he had conditioned aid for Ukraine on political investigations.
That’s when the floodgates opened and Pelosi commissioned an official impeachment inquiry that led to Wednesday’s dramatic daylong debate and historic vote.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., suggested Wednesday the Democratic majority would regret its decision to recommend that the Senate remove Trump from office.
“Impeachment will be their legacy,” Scalise said of Democrats.
The most high-profile targets for the GOP as it tries to take control of the House in 2020 are the 31 Democrats who represent districts Trump won in 2016, of whom all but two voted for at least one of the articles of impeachment. Many of those lawmakers made a point of saying they didn’t care about the politics of the vote, with some Democratic strategists offered that they believe the vote won’t define the next election.
“This may be heretical, but I think it’s a wash,” Begala said in a text message. “We are 320 days from the election. Does anyone really think impeachment will still be an issue 320 days from now? If Trump is not convicted, it will generate more heat for the Democrats, since grievance drives turnout.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., implored Republicans to cross the aisle and vote to impeach Trump.
“Party loyalty must have its limits,” he said on the floor a few minutes before the vote on the first article of impeachment. “Democrats and Republicans together face a test before our constituents, our countrymen and our creator.”
Hoyer’s words didn’t make much of an impression, as the votes were nearly perfectly along party lines.
But the House’s impeachment of Trump is now indelible in the annals of American history.