As expected, the Republican-dominated Senate on Wednesday acquitted President Trump of the two impeachment charges the Democratic-led House had imposed upon him. Of course, this does not end the affair; rather, it only begins the next phase of bringing the case to the people.
That phase ends on Election Day.
Throughout the impeachment process, many GOP lawmakers and Trump defenders insisted that the trial, through which the House sought to remove the president from office, was an effort to put the selection of our chief executive in the hands of Congress rather than the voters. With the presidential campaign well under way, it’s easy to just let the people decide.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted pursuing impeachment until the White House acknowledged that Trump had asked Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to look for connections between a congressional allocation of $391 million in military aid and the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company at the time. Trump himself released a purported transcript of his phone conversation with Zelensky, asserting that as president he was authorized to make the request and tie release of the funds to the response.
That became the part of Republican defense, with also included assertions that since the administration ultimately released the funds despite Trump’s order to hold them, the alleged extortion never actually occurred, and that a president’s actions can’t be illegal if he believes he’s acting in the country’s best interests.
Of course, neither argument is logical. The first would suggest that a person who fires a gun at someone, but missed, didn’t actually commit a crime. With regard to the second, an authoritarian leader might think that suppressing dissent might be for the best as it makes governance easier, but it actually reduces the flow of new ideas.
Pelosi is probably right that the affair might actually work against Democrats’ election chances by mobilizing Trump supporters on Election Day. Surely she knows that simply playing up the president’s impeachment, campaigning on a “we’re not Trump” platform isn’t likely to work.
It didn’t in 2016.
For their part, Republicans likely will use the impeachment to strengthen their argument that the traditional political establishment has always been out to get rid of Trump because he challenges their control on the government.
In reality, Trump has been such a polarizing figure that his impeachment and ultimate acquittal aren’t likely to change many minds, but instead solidify their resolve.
If that is the case, then the president’s reelection fate rests in whether or not one side is more motivated to cast their ballots than the other. With roughly half of Americans voting for president — or choosing not to, depending on your point of view — turnout in November will render the ultimate verdict on Trump.
Will his presidency be legitimized, and endorsed, with his reelection, or will his defeat by the electorate become his ultimate adjudication?