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On The Trail: A historic vote that defines legacies

In the 66 days between June 14 and August 19, 1946, three American presidents were born. Two of them have now been impeached.

The historic vote taken Wednesday by the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump will stand as a permanent stain on his legacy, a blotch inflicted by congressional Democrats who have written themselves into that same history.

The coming trial in the Senate, likely to begin early next month, faces the same all-but-certain acquittal that torpedoed the case against former President Clinton in 1999.

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But regardless of the Senate vote, and regardless of the outcome of his reelection bid, Trump’s obituary will mention prominently that he became only the third U.S. president to be impeached, just as major newspapers led former President Nixon’s 1994 obituary with his resignation.

“One thing is sure: Trump will look bad. What we don’t know at this point is whether his presidency will stand as an aberration or as the opening paragraph to a dark chapter in American history,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California and former top official at the Republican National Committee during the Reagan administration.

Trump is not the voracious consumer of history that some of his more recent predecessors have been, but he seems to understand the gravity of the ignominious distinction bestowed on him with Wednesday’s vote.

He sent a scathing, at times scattered, letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday, a last-minute effort to derail impeachment. And on Wednesday, 10 minutes after White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham sent a statement saying Trump “could catch some of the proceedings between meetings,” the president issued an all-caps tweet accusing Democrats of “atrocious lies.”

The House Democrats who voted to impeach Trump also understand the weight of their actions, none more so than Pelosi. The California Democrat resisted pressure from more liberal members of her caucus who wanted to impeach Trump months ago, but ever since a government whistleblower brought to light Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president and his pressure for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, she has adopted a somber tone. On Wednesday, Pelosi and some other Democrats wore black to mark the occasion.

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“No Member came to Congress to impeach a President,” Pelosi wrote to fellow Democrats the night before the vote. “During this very prayerful moment in our nation’s history, we must honor our oath to support and defend our Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Pelosi’s transition from resisting impeachment to embracing it will also be studied by historians, Pitney said.

“Russia and other countries will surely try to influence the 2020 election, and maybe with more effect than in 2016. If the House did not impeach Trump, people would look back and say, ‘He was openly asking for foreign interference and Congress did nothing,’ ” Pitney said. “House members would seem like the bystanders who witnessed a murder but didn’t even bother to call the police.”

The bright light of history will soon shift to the Senate. Only a handful of GOP senators have voiced even the barest openness to considering the merits of the House’s case, while senior members including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have said they do not see themselves as impartial jurors in the upcoming impeachment trial.

McConnell is one of five Senate Republicans who voted to convict Clinton on counts of lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice; a sixth, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), voted to convict on the obstruction charge. Graham served as one of 13 House managers tapped to prosecute the case against Clinton.

Even some of the few centrists who might be open to convicting Trump have suggested they are concerned by the process.

“There has been little to no, I think, efforts to try to work with either the Republican House members on the committees or to kind of come to some terms of rules of engagement,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the more moderate members of the Senate Republican Conference, told the Anchorage Daily News. “And so it has made this appear even more partisan than perhaps it might have otherwise.”

Trump will attempt to win a presidential election less than a year after being impeached, a feat never before achieved in the United States. Clinton was ineligible to run again, while President Andrew Johnson was denied renomination by delegates to the 1868 Democratic National Convention.

Trump also faces a skeptical public as he begins his reelection push. Today, a little under half of voters tell pollsters they believe the president should be impeached and removed from office; polls conducted two decades ago showed that no more than 30 percent of Americans ever wanted Clinton impeached and removed.

National surveys also show Trump’s approval rating is virtually locked in place between 40 percent and 45 percent. In the short term, a partisan vote in the House and show trial in the Senate are unlikely to change many minds.

But in the long run, historians said the impeachment vote would stand as a unique indicator of an unusually bitter moment in American history, one in which a president’s own habit of breaking conventions and traditions have created the conditions for his impeachment.

“This impeachment process will define both Democrats and Republicans from history’s perspective, most notably as a continued sign of partisan polarization and whether the constitutional procedures and norms that we have experienced over the past 200-plus years serve as a bedrock for the nation’s republican experiment,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina.

“Historical events like these tend to be personality-based. And with Trump’s novel approach to the presidency, historians will likely focus on the president’s disposition to the office and his power, while Democrats reacted to his norm-breaking manners through this most significant constitutional check,” Bitzer said.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

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