WASHINGTON — After five months of hearings, investigations and cascading revelations about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, a divided U.S. Senate acquitted him on Wednesday of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress to aid his own reelection, bringing an acrimonious impeachment trial to its expected end.
In a pair of votes whose outcome was never in doubt, the Senate fell well short of the two-thirds margin that would have been needed to remove Trump, formally concluding the three-week-long trial of the 45th president that has roiled Washington and threatened the presidency. The verdicts came down almost entirely upon party lines, with every Democrat voting “guilty” on both charges and Republicans uniformly voting “not guilty” on the obstruction of Congress charge. Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, broke with his party to judge Trump guilty of abuse of power.
It was the third impeachment trial of a president and the third acquittal in American history, and it ended the way it began, with Republicans and Democrats at odds over Trump’s conduct and his fitness for office, even as some members of his own party conceded the basic allegations that undergirded the charges, that he sought to pressure Ukraine to smear his political rivals.
“Senators how say you?” Chief Justice John Roberts, the presiding officer, asked shortly after 4 p.m. in Washington. “Is the respondent, Donald John Trump, president of the United States guilty or not guilty?”
Senators seated at their wooden desks stood one by one to deliver their verdicts of “guilty” or “not guilty.”
“It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles,” declared Roberts, after the second charge was defeated.
But in a sign of the widening partisan divide testing the country and its institutions, the verdict did not promise finality. Democratic leaders immediately insisted the result was illegitimate, the product of a self-interested cover-up by Republicans, and promised to continue their investigations of Trump.
The president, vindicated in what he has long called a politically motivated hoax to take him down, prepared to campaign as an exonerated executive. And both parties conceded that voters, not the Senate, would deliver the final judgment on Trump when they cast ballots in just nine months.
As expected, the tally in favor of conviction fell far below the 67-vote threshold necessary for removal on each article. The first charge was abuse of power, accusing Trump of a scheme to use the levers of government to coerce Ukraine to do his political bidding, did not even garner a majority vote, failing on a vote of 48-52. The second article, charging Trump with obstructing Congress for an across-the-board blockade of House subpoenas and oversight requests, failed 47-53.
“It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles,” declared Chief Justice John Roberts, the presiding officer, after the second vote.
Like this one, the trials of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton also concluded in acquittal — a reflection of the Constitution’s high burden for removing a chief executive.
But in a stinging symbolic rebuke of the country’s leader aimed at history, Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, broke with the party and voted to convict Trump of abuse of power, saying that the president’s pressure campaign on Ukraine was “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.” He voted against the second article, but cast his first as a matter of conscience and became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party.
“I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Romney said. “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Romney’s defection, which he announced a couple of hours before the final vote, was a stark reflection of the sweeping transformation of the Republican Party over the past eight years into one that is that is now dominated entirely by Trump. And it deprived the president of the monolithic Republican support he had eagerly anticipated at the end of an impeachment saga that he has been eager to dismiss as a politically motivated effort carried out exclusively by Democrats.
At the White House, Trump was expected to accept the decision with characteristic bravado, and badly wanted to deliver a public statement immediately afterward to declare victory. But his advisers argued forcefully against the move, and shortly after the Senate vote, he wrote on Twitter that he would wait until noon Thursday to appear at the White House “to discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax.”
The president has looked forward to the Senate’s verdict as an authoritative rejection of the House’s case that he committed high crimes and misdemeanors, even if many in his party ultimately broke from his absolute insistence that his actions were “perfect.” But Trump, too, was looking beyond it toward the long campaign season ahead, vowing retribution from the forces that he believes have tried to destroy him: the Democrats, the news media and a deep state of government bureaucrats.
Several Republican senators ultimately acknowledged the heart of the House case — that Trump undertook a concerted pressure campaign on Ukraine to secure politically beneficial investigations into his rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, using nearly $400 million in military aid as leverage. Still, all but one voted to acquit and suggested it had not been a close call. Earlier, not a single House Republican had voted for impeachment, either, rendering Trump’s impeachment historically partisan.
Some Republican senators argued that the conduct was not sufficiently dangerous to warrant the Senate removing a president from office for the first time in history — and certainly not with an election so near. Others dismissed Democrats’ arguments altogether, insisting their case was merely one more attempt to dress up hatred for Trump and his policies as a constitutional case.
A few Republicans urged Trump to be more careful with his words in the future, particularly when speaking with foreign leaders, but there was no serious attempt to censure him as there was around the trial of Clinton.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republican swing votes who have tilted against the president in the past, both voted against conviction and removal. And two Democrats from traditionally red states, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted to convict Trump, denying him a badly wanted bipartisan acquittal.
Democrats, who had lobbied hard to include witnesses and documents that Trump shielded from the House in the Senate proceeding, wasted little time in declaring the trial a sham. Senators had been offered evidence, including testimony by the former national security adviser John R. Bolton, that would have further clarified the president’s actions and motivations, they said. All but two Republicans refused, making the trial the first impeachment proceeding in American history to reach a verdict without calling witnesses.
As they closed their case this week, the seven Democratic House managers who prosecuted the case warned that Trump would emerge only emboldened and monarchical and that those who appeased him would be judged harshly by history. Republicans, they said, had chosen to leave the president’s future up to voters in the very election in which they believe Trump is still trying to cheat.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, made a similar case in the minutes before the vote.
“The verdict of this kangaroo court will be meaningless,” Schumer said. “By refusing the facts — by refusing witnesses and documents — the Republican majority has placed a giant asterisk, the asterisk of a sham trial, next to the acquittal of President Trump, written in permanent ink.”
Seldom used in American history, impeachment is the Constitution’s most extreme mechanism for checking a corrupt or out of control office holder. In unsheathing it, even reluctantly, House Democrats took on political risk that could backfire in November on their presidential nominee or the House majority if voters conclude the effort was an overzealous partisan attack. Senate Republicans and Democrats up for reelection in swing states may face their own judgment for their stances on including witnesses in the trial or on Trump’s guilt.
At least one Democrat, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, glancingly acknowledged that his vote to convict would most likely contribute to his loss this fall in deeply conservative Alabama.
“There will be so many who will simply look at what I am doing today and say it is a profile in courage,” Jones said before the vote. “It is not. It is simply a matter of right and wrong.”
For now, the impeachment of Trump appears to have evenly divided the nation. Public opinion polls suggest that as the proportion of Americans grew in recent weeks who agreed that the president most likely abused his office and acted improperly to deny Congress the ability to investigate, never meaningfully more than half of the country agreed he should be removed from office.
If Trump’s standing among the public has been hurt by the trial, it is not yet evident. To the contrary, the latest Gallup poll, released on Tuesday, showed that 49% of Americans approved of the job he was doing as president — the highest figure since he took office three years ago.
The possibility of impeachment has hung like a cloud over Trump’s presidency virtually since it began. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had resisted when the special counsel released the findings of his investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 and possible collaboration with the Trump campaign. Impeachment was too divisive and unlikely to gain bipartisan support, she said then.
Her calculations changed in September, when the Trump administration was forced to give the House an anonymous CIA whistleblower complaint that accused the president of marshaling the powers of government to press Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and a theory that Democrats had colluded with Ukraine in the 2016 election. Authorizing the third impeachment inquiry in modern times, Pelosi tasked the House Intelligence Committee to investigate the scheme and build a case for impeachment.
Trump issued a blanket directive to all government agencies not to comply with the inquiry — a fateful order that robbed investigators of key witnesses and facts that could have filled out their case but which ultimately gave rise to the obstruction of Congress charge.
Still, a dozen and a half U.S. diplomats and White House officials came forward, offering testimony in private and then in scintillating public hearings, that confirmed nearly every aspect of the whistleblower complaint. On Dec. 18, the House voted to impeach Trump on both counts, despite their earlier pledges not to pursue a partisan impeachment.
To protect his Senate majority as much as the presidency, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, promised a swift acquittal and he delivered it. From the time the articles of impeachment were first read on the Senate floor to Wednesday’s vote was just 20 days. By comparison, the 1999 Clinton trial lasted five weeks and in 1868, the Senate took the better part of three months to try Johnson.
With acquittal never really in doubt, the real fight of the trial was over witnesses and McConnell used the full accumulated force of his position to ensure none were called. Trump’s lawyers used their time on the Senate floor to argue that none were needed not only because the president’s behavior toward Ukraine was a legitimate expression of his concern about corruption there, but because neither charge constituted high crimes and misdemeanors.
The final shift in defenses by all but the most conservative of Trump’s allies came just last week, when The New York Times reported the first in a series of stories revealing that Trump told Bolton in August that he would not release the military aid for Ukraine until the country helped out with the investigations into the Bidens and other Democrats.
Each of those decisions will loom large over history. Just as Trump’s impeachment was constantly measured against the precedents set in 1999 and 1974 and 1868, so any future one will be measured against the decisions made by House Democrats and Senate Republicans this time around.
Impeachment was seriously contemplated for a president only once in the first two centuries of the American republic; it now has been so three times since the 1970s, and two of the past four presidents have been impeached.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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