By Anna Noble
Donald Trump was acquitted.
This was no surprise. The outcome was predetermined from day one. The House Impeachment Managers were never going to persuade 17 Senate Republicans to convict the man that is still very much the face of the Republican party. Trump stated in 2016, at a rally in Iowa, that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and [he] wouldn’t lose any voters.” The Republicans’ refusal to convict Trump, for his actions leading up to and on January 6th, does little to disprove this assertion.
This is not to say that if the parties were reversed, the Democrats would be any better. In 1998, after Bill Clinton was accused of lying under oath – denying and then admitting to an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky – he faced two articles of impeachment. One for perjury, one for obstruction of justice. Not a single Senate Democrat voted to impeach him on either charge. He was acquitted.
The truth is the impeachment process is inherently flawed.
No president has (or probably ever will) be convicted in an impeachment trial. The closest was Andrew Jackson, who escaped conviction by one vote. The requirement of a majority of two thirds in the Senate (67 votes in today’s Senate) is practically impossible to overcome. Whilst senators, in theory, are meant to be independent judges, in reality, they are unlikely to vote against their own president. In fact, Trump’s second impeachment, where seven Republican Senators voted against him, was the most bipartisan in history.
In practice, the only realistic way of impeaching a president is perhaps if the opposing party held a two-thirds majority in the Senate. There have been 117 Congresses since 1789, but there have only been 24 whereby a party has held a two-thirds majority in the Senate, the most recent being the 89th Congress (1965-67). Furthermore, only when Andrew Johnson was president (1865-69) did the opposition party hold a majority in Congress – even then, Johnson survived conviction. Whilst many argue that Richard Nixon would have been convicted in an impeachment trial, the fact that he resigned before articles of impeachment were filed means that there is no way to prove this.
The Founding Fathers framed the Constitution to ensure separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary, in accordance with Montesquieu’s theory of separation of powers. However, the reality is that party ties are incredibly strong in America. Whilst members of Congress often criticise their president, they tend to be reluctant to go against them through actual action. Presidents will also often find some of their strongest allies in Congress. This was certainly the case for Trump, whose allies including Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz went as far as to hold meetings and consult with Trump’s defence team during the trial.
Even Mitch McConnell, who voted to acquit Trump, made it clear that he considers Trump responsible for the insurrection. He justified his ‘not guilty’ vote by arguing that it is unconstitutional to impeach a former president, overlooking the fact that it had been him that delayed the impeachment proceedings until after Trump left office. It would have been politically damaging for McConnell to vote to convict Trump. Liz Cheney, a senior Republican in the House leadership, faced fierce backlash and was ultimately censored for voting to convict Trump. Within hours of voting, Senate Republican Bill Cassidy was also censured. Simply put, voting to convict Trump would be significantly damaging to Senate Republicans. Modern hyper-partisan politics also makes conviction in impeachment trials practically impossible. Party loyalty and the willingness of the GOP to punish those who go against Trump proves this.
Perhaps two hundred years ago convictions in impeachment trials may have been possible but the reality of modern politics has made such an outcome impossible. The presidential impeachment process has digressed into political theatre. It looks dramatic, provides interesting TV, but poses little threat to presidents. It is no longer a check on presidential power, in fact, it is arguably little more than a farce.
Illustration: Samantha Fulton.