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Two key Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander, decided Friday to vote against hearing witnesses and seeking new evidence in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. The final tally: 51 no, 49 for.
That means the Republican majority in the Senate will acquit Trump on a mostly party line vote. Following some negotiation among Senate leaders on Friday, that vote has been set for 4 p.m. ET next Wednesday, which is after both the Iowa caucuses – where Trump will be on the ballot – and after the State of the Union, where Trump will deliver his annual address to Congress with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presiding.
But what we do know is that the Senate will never hear from John Bolton, whose book, if it is published, will allege that Trump directed him to help with the pressure campaign on Ukraine back in May.
We also know that the government that emerges from this has changed. Here’s what we’ve learned so far from the impeachment by Democrats and presumptive acquittal by Republicans of Donald John Trump.
Trump has changed the balance of power in the United States
New separation of powers - Every American kid learns about the three co-equal branches of government envisioned and enacted by the framers of the Constitution, an ingenious invention to ward against the abuse of power and keep any one person from gaining too much control.
Trump did not act perfectly - People are welcome to debate whether Trump has too much power and whether he abused power by using tax dollars to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden over unfounded and false claims of corruption. Republican senators like Alexander, Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey admit that Trump didn’t act perfectly, although they elected to stick with him rather than remove him from office.
A newly empowered Presidency - But what’s absolutely clear from this impeachment is that the presidency has risen far above the other branches of government, freeing the occupant of the White House from the system of checks and balances designed to constrain him.
The Senate ceded power by declining to call witnesses or hear evidence against Trump. His attorney Alan Dershowitz claimed new and expansive power for the President by arguing the President’s personal interest in reelection can be synonymous with the national interest. The Senate granted that power to the President by acquitting him.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead House impeachment manager, called this “a descent into constitutional madness.”
More power - But Schiff’s warnings didn’t matter, since Republicans frustrated by Trump’s behavior decided not to act against him.
The President now has new power until a President, in the future, is checked. If you don’t think Bernie Sanders, were he elected, would use executive authority seized by Trump, you should give it some thought. Also read this story about his campaign assembling a list of things he could do via executive action – just as Trump did in his first 100 days back in 2017.
There are new rules for US politics
New precedent set – There’s a second way this impeachment, and Trump’s ability to stay in office afterward, has changed the country. It is now presumably OK, in the eyes of the Senate, for a President to use his office and US foreign policy to do political harm to his rivals. Trump has argued it was absolutely above board for him to seek political help from Ukraine. And he’s asked China for the same kind of help. Democrats continue to howl about it and some few Republicans complained in statements on their way to acquit him. But there is, as Mitch McConnell would say, now precedent for it.
A pattern of asking foreign governments for help – You might argue the precedent came in 2016, when Trump publicly asked Russians to hack Democrats. Plenty of Democrats wanted to impeach him after the Mueller report was released. But it wasn’t until he more actively sought help from Ukraine and used taxpayer dollars to do it, that impeachment reached a tipping point. That impeachment failed could mean he will feel no compunction about asking foreign governments for more help in the future.
Trump tainted Biden
When Donald Trump picked up the phone to call the Ukrainian President, his goal was to push in the American public the idea that there wasn’t something quite right about Biden’s son being hired by a foreign natural gas company. That call caused his own impeachment. But it also unleashed the Biden/Burisma conspiracy theory more effectively than Trump could ever have imagined. His attorneys dedicated a good portion of his impeachment trial defense to it. Democrats would ignore at their own peril Trump’s ability to politically slime his opponents.
Donald Trump will stop at nothing
Trump has now faced and survived impeachment. The man who once said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose political support now knows that no matter what he does in office, his party will rally behind him. That’s not an overstatement. Trump sees nothing wrong with pushing a foreign government to help him politically. So he’ll do it. Trump has tested the Constitution and survived. The only way to end his presidency is at the ballot box.
Trump owns the GOP
Some few Republicans have criticized Trump’s behavior – Lamar Alexander called it inappropriate in the statement where he announced he’d vote to acquit Trump and let Americans decide who should be President in November.
“The question then is not whether the President did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did,” Alexander said. “I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday.”
Of course, the Constitution doesn’t give that duty to the people, exactly, but instead to the Electoral College, which favors red states.
Two choices: acquit or remove – Marco Rubio said in a mind-bending statement that he assumed all the allegations were true and still decided to acquit Trump because, in part, it would further divide the nation.
“For me, the question would not just be whether the President’s actions were wrong, but ultimately whether what he did was removable,” Rubio said. “The two are not the same. Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office.”
He didn’t need to hear witnesses confirming the story because he was assuming it was true. And he said there are other ways for Congress to contain the President, rejecting the binary choice offered by the impeachment trial.
Those are nuanced arguments from thoughtful lawmakers. But they’re likely to be lost as Americans, either groaning in despair or whooping in triumph, look to the bottom line: Trump’s party protected him from the ultimate accountability for his conduct.
Democrats are in a state of denial
Asked about Trump’s likely acquittal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quibbled with language.
“Well, he will not be acquitted,” she told reporters. “You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. And you don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation.”
In other words, what we just watched wasn’t a trial, so Trump wasn’t acquitted in the meaningful sense of being found not guilty.
The coverup argument – Democrats will try to argue Senate Republicans and the White House covered up Trump’s wrongdoing. That may be correct and it may be a winning political argument in November.
CNN’s John King explained, I think very well, what Pelosi is up to.
“She’s trying to speak to the Democratic base, which ultimately actually pushed her to do this,” he said on CNN. “Remember, if we rewind the tape a few months, Nancy Pelosi did not want to do impeachment because she was worried it would be partisan, and she was worried if it was all partisan, it would backfire in the Democratic party. Now she’s trying to tell the base, we impeached him, the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, sham trial. That will be the democratic argument.”
Trump will also have an argument.
“He’s going to say I was acquitted by the US Senate,” King said. “And if a couple of Democrats vote for that, even on one count, he’s going to say I was acquitted on a bipartisan basis by the United States Senate. That will be the blaring conversation for the next week or so. It’s actually an interesting question, will it be the blaring question all the way through November?”
Democrats are unsure how to stop Trump
You might not have been paying much attention if you’ve been all-in on watching this impeachment trial, but there is a Democratic primary going on. While every Democratic candidate agrees that defeating Trump is their number one priority, there are many miles that separate them in how to go about it.
There’s a middle lane, embodied by Joe Biden, offering a relic of the Obama era to undo what Trump has wrought.
But there’s also a left lane, embodied by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, that would serve up a nearly socialist agenda of government programs as the antidote to Trump’s nationalist populism.
If their organizing principle as a party is to defeat a President who they say is threatening the fiber that holds the country together, they have not yet done a very good job agreeing how to go about it.
Trump has generated a political gravity that leaves no room for dissent against him in the GOP. Democrats are still trying to find their feet.
Democrats had to impeach Trump
Even as it was always pretty clear Trump would be acquitted, it should be equally obvious that Democrats had to impeach him. If they are to argue that he is a danger to the Constitution and to the Republic and prove that the GOP will do anything he asks, they had to reveal that fact.
It’s now up to American voters and the Electoral College to use that information in November.
Trump’s paranoia about a deep state is only going to grow
Trump survived impeachment, but he’s not likely to be more comfortable with the government he leads as a result of the ordeal. He was convinced, after talking to business-seeking GOP donors and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that his ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was out to get him. So he recalled her.
His political appointees all followed his lead and refused to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. But career civil servants at the Pentagon, the State Department and on the National Security Council all did, providing testimony that backed up the allegations of the whistleblower, the bureaucrat who raised a flag to Congress about Trump’s behavior.
Republicans and supporters of Trump have continued to vilify the whistleblower, who should be protected by law. Roberts refused to read the name of a person thought by some to be the whistleblower during the Senate trial, but it’s clear from the repeated efforts to unmask the whistleblower that Trump’s allies will not let this go.
We will learn the truth about all of this
Arguing they had to act before the election, Democrats didn’t wait for the courts to force cooperation by the White House. They just impeached Trump for what they knew at the time – in December – and took the case to the Senate, where the Republican majority voted its political interest and acquitted him.
But John Bolton’s book will ultimately come out, despite this latest attempt by the White House to stop it. All of the documents that likely confirm the storyline still exist. They will ultimately come out. All the people who refused to testify will ultimately answer questions. And then we’ll be left to figure out what to do with whatever else we learn.