Not Guilty

Trump’s historic impeachment trial ends on predictable terms, but the political fallout will continue.

U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump waits after his arrival at the White House in Washington on Feb. 5. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The impeachment trial of Donald Trump fizzled to a predictable close on Wednesday as senators voted largely along party lines to acquit the U.S. president of the charges against him, ending a historic chapter in American political history. 

Trump was acquitted on the first charge—abuse of power—by a 52-48 vote and the second charge—obstructing Congress—by a 53-47 vote.

The only real dramatic twist occurred when a lone Republican senator robbed Trump of a victory along partisan lines. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney—the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, who has long had a contentious relationship with Trump—voted in support of the first article of impeachment, though not on the second. Romney became the first U.S. senator in history to vote to remove a president from his own party.

“What [Trump] did was not ‘perfect.’ No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests, and our fundamental values,” an emotional Romney said on the Senate floor in explaining his vote. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”

Several other Republican senators have expressed their misgivings about Trump’s conduct on Ukraine but said being thrown out of office was a punishment that didn’t fit the crime. “I think he shouldn’t have done it. I think it was wrong. Inappropriate was the way I’d say—improper, crossing the line,” said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander. “I think what he did is a long way from treason, bribery, high crimes, and misdemeanors.”

Romney cited his religious conviction in explaining his decision. “I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. 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?”

On Tuesday, Maine Sen. Susan Collins also announced that she would vote to acquit the president. The moderate was one of only two Republicans, along with Romney, to break with her party last week and join Democrats in calling for new witnesses and evidence to be brought forward in a vote. That vote ultimately failed. In announcing her reasoning, Collins said that while Trump was “improper and demonstrated very poor judgment” in asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, there was conflicting evidence about his motivation for doing so. 

Collins, Alexander and several other Republican senators suggested the Trump would learn from the episode and, as Collins said, “will be much more cautious in the future.” But the day before the vote, at a luncheon with television anchors, Trump reportedly continued to insist that his now-infamous telephone July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which he asked for the investigation of the Bidens, was “perfect.” After the impeachment vote Trump tweeted a video of news clips that attacked Romney and called him a “Democrat secret asset.”

For several moderate Democratic senators facing tough reelections, impeachment put them in an awkward spot, but all stuck with their party, voting in support of impeachment. Two House Democrats—Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew—broke with the party to vote against both articles of impeachment in December. 

So ended a historic drama that began on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, when an anonymous CIA officer filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had solicited foreign interference from Zelensky to help him win the 2020 presidential election. For a reality TV star president whose tenure has been defined by dramatic twists and turns, the nine-page complaint gave rise to the biggest scandal of his term yet, as thousands of pages of testimony and dozens of hours of public hearings ensued. That culminated in Trump becoming the third president in U.S. history to be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The impeachment investigation lifted the lid on the chaotic foreign-policy making in the Trump administration, revealing how the president had instructed officials to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as he carved out a back channel to Ukrainian officials, circumventing established diplomatic processes. Bill Taylor, who served as acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified about how over the summer an “irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking” began to emerge as Giuliani and his allies sought to lean on Ukrainian officials to announce corruption probes that could benefit Trump politically. 

Current and former career officials were called before Congress to testify about what they had known about the Ukraine pressure campaign, with many racking up eye-watering legal bills in the process. Some came under attack by the White House and the president’s allies as “radical unelected bureaucrats” and members of a shadowy deep-state conspiracy working to topple Trump.

Trump’s own reputation looks set to emerge from the impeachment probe largely intact, as a Gallup poll published on Tuesday found his job approval rating had risen to 49 percent, its highest point since he took office. Despite the dramatic twists and turns of the impeachment investigation, support for impeaching Trump remained remarkably stable. There was a rise in support in late September when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the investigation, with more Americans in favor of impeachment than opposing it, according to a poll tracker by the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight

Since then, support has remained largely stable and sharply divided along party lines. The one thing Americans did seem to agree on was the question of calling for further witnesses and documents to be brought as evidence in the Senate trial, which polls show had strong support from voters in both parties. 

Correction, Feb. 6, 2020: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor. It has been updated to correct the error.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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

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