Chronicle of an Acquittal Foretold

Months of partisan sparring over impeachment looks set to end in Trump’s exoneration. But there are outstanding questions—some of which will be resolved in November.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer on Capitol Hill.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives for closing arguments in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 3. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial appears ready to end with a whimper, not a bang. On Monday, Democratic House impeachment managers and the president’s defense team presented their closing arguments to the Senate, wrapping up the third-ever impeachment trial of a U.S. president in history, which was defined by Trump’s controversial foreign-policy maneuvering in Ukraine and bitter partisan feuds in Washington.

Formally, the final vote that will end the four-month impeachment investigation and trial will come on Wednesday, ending in Trump’s all-but-inevitable acquittal, but the repercussions will undoubtedly be felt into November. Over the coming months of the 2020 campaign season, both sides are expected to invoke the impeachment trial record—with Trump boasting exoneration but using the chance to smear one of his leading Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his Democratic opponents contending that the evidence shows Trump should not be reelected.

By Monday, most of the tension and drama that defined the impeachment investigation and first part of the trial had passed. Both sides presented their cases to senators who had mostly made up their minds about how they would vote on two impeachment counts of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. A monthslong investigation in the House and heated trial in the Senate fell short of convincing enough Republicans to break from their support for Trump and vote to impeach; Democrats even failed to gain a simple majority to vote for new witnesses and documents in the trial.

Perhaps the biggest remaining unknown was whether some Democratic senators from states where Trump is still popular might vote to acquit him on one or both counts, giving the president a chance to claim that he’d won a bipartisan victory. Democratic Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have not said yet whether they would vote to convict Trump. 

On the Republican side, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said on Monday that she privately decided which way she would vote but didn’t offer any more details. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a statement that he believes the House Democrats proved their case—Trump wrongfully pressured a foreign government to investigate one of his political rivals—but that did not warrant removing him from office, let alone 10 months before a presidential election. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said, “Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.”

Either way, Trump is expected to be acquitted a day after he gives his annual State of the Union address. A supermajority of two-thirds of the Senate is required to convict a president facing impeachment charges—and it’s unclear whether the Democrats can peel off even one vote in favor of conviction from the Republicans, who control the Senate 53 to 47.

In their closing arguments—speaking for history and perhaps to voters in November—House Democrats made a final effort to convince enough senators in the Republican-controlled chamber to convict Trump. Both sides made their case citing U.S. history, the upcoming 2020 elections, and, in one case, referencing Harry Potter: “It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities,” implored one of the House managers, Rep. Jason Crow, quoting Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

“Absent conviction and removal, how can we be assured that this president will not do it again?” said Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, one of the House impeachment managers. “If we are to rely on the next election to judge the president’s efforts to cheat in that election, how can we know that the election will be free and fair?”

Trump’s lawyers repeated arguments that Democrats were using impeachment to undo the 2016 election results. “At the end of the day, this is an effort to overturn the results of one election and to try to interfere in the coming election,” said White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

Trump became the third president in U.S. history to be impeached after a House investigation found that he had sought to leverage military aid and the promise of a White House visit to pressure Ukraine’s president to open investigations that could aid his 2020 reelection campaign.

Dozens of hours of testimony by current and former officials revealed how over the spring and summer of 2019, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had defied diplomatic protocols to carve out a back channel to Ukraine in a bid to convince the country’s new president to commit to investigating the work of Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had accepted a well-compensated seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was involved in policymaking toward that country. In December, the Democrat-controlled House passed the two articles of impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for stonewalling the investigative work of House committees.

The State Department found itself at the center of the impeachment maelstrom as several current and former diplomats were called as fact witnesses, often accruing extensive legal bills in the process. Reports that Giuliani and his allies had successfully worked to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch last May put Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the spotlight and raised questions about whether he had sufficiently defended his diplomats from politically motivated attacks. 

The impeachment investigation was set in motion after an anonymous whistleblower complaint filed by a CIA officer alleged that Trump had used his power to solicit interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by asking his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate his political rivals.

A transcript of the call released by the White House revealed that Trump made reference to widely debunked conspiracy theories about the source of the 2016 hack on the Democratic National Committee and about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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