The Senate on Wednesday acquitted President Trump on two impeachment charges surrounding his dealings with Ukraine, ending the historic, months-long battle over the president’s fitness to remain in office and leaving his fate to the voters who will head to the polls just nine months from now.
The outcome was never in doubt. With Congress and the country both bitterly divided over the provocative president, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Senate voted virtually along party lines — 48-52 and 47-53 — to sink the two articles, which both fell far short of the 67 votes Democrats needed to convict Trump and remove him from office.
The stunner of the day was Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee from Utah who broke with his party and voted to convict Trump of abuse of power. A handful of Democrats who had been seen as potential swing votes all stuck with their party.
The long-term impact of the impeachment saga remains an open question — and won’t really be answered until November’s elections. Both sides have launched a furious messaging campaign to win the battle for public sentiment.
“No matter what the senators have the courage or not to do, he will be impeached forever,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said heading into the votes.
“He will be acquitted forever beginning today,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway countered on Wednesday.
Democrats maintain Trump withheld millions of dollars in security aid for Ukraine for the sole purpose of coercing the country’s leaders to find dirt on his political rivals. In seeking foreign help in a U.S. election, they charged, the president abused his power, then obstructed Congress as Democrats sought to investigate the affair.
With polls showing roughly 50 percent of the country supporting Trump’s removal, Democrats are hoping Trump’s acquittal is just a temporary victory.
Trump, for his part, has accused Democrats of conducting a politically motivated “witch hunt” designed to overturn his 2016 victory. After the verdicts, he appeared poised to go on the attack a day after delivering a State of the Union address remarkable mostly for underscoring the deep partisan tensions in Washington.
Trump’s GOP allies have been energized by the process, driving the president’s approval rating to 49 percent this week — the highest since he took office, according to Gallup’s surveys.
The president also gloated this week as the Democratic Party’s caucuses in Iowa descended into chaos and ended in a muddled result that suggests a long primary battle to come.
“The president has his highest approval rating since he’s been in office. I can tell you as a poll watcher … every one of our people in tough races is in better shape today than they were before the impeachment trial started,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the votes.
Yet Democrats are equally as confident that impeachment will shift the landscape in their favor, citing their own polls indicating that a majority of voters back Trump’s removal.
“Donald Trump will do a victory lap today … but history and the truth are right behind them and they are going to overtake them,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said a few hours before the Senate votes.
“President Trump corruptly abused his power by soliciting foreign interference in an American election solely for his personal political gain,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “We have proved that decisively.”
The impeachment battle was full of historic firsts and rife with dramatic twists.
Trump is just the third president to be impeached in the country’s history — following Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — but the first to be targeted during his first term. Like Trump, both Johnson and Clinton survived removal by the Senate; unlike Trump, neither of them had to face voters afterward.
The debate also marked the first presidential impeachment featuring a House and Senate controlled by different parties — a dynamic that gave rise to career-headlining battles between Trump, Pelosi and McConnell while stoking the flames of what many experts have deemed the most sectarian and acrimonious of the three impeachment fights.
The facts underlying Trump’s impeachment are not seriously contested. Trump and his allies pressed Ukrainian leaders to open two investigations that might have helped him politically: the first into Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential hopeful; the second into debunked theories that Kyiv, not Moscow, meddled in the 2016 election.
At the same time, the administration temporarily delayed $391 million in aid to Ukraine, which is fighting Russian-backed separatists in the eastern parts of the country.
Throughout the Senate trial, Trump’s lawyers leaned on several arguments in the president’s defense. First, they rejected the notion that Trump had abused his power, saying the president was merely fighting corruption in Ukraine, in general, not specifically targeting his political opponents. They also asserted that, even if Trump did abuse his power and obstruct Congress, that conduct wouldn’t be impeachable since neither constitutes a technical crime.
Most of Trump’s Senate allies adopted that defense — but not all of them.
In a blow to White House talking points, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is close to McConnell, said House managers “proved” Trump held up the aid, in part, to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. The behavior was “inappropriate,” according to Alexander, but not impeachable.
There were others. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called Trump’s behavior “wrong and inappropriate”; Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) acknowledged that Trump “may have acted in the wrong manner”; and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Trump’s request to Ukrainian leaders was “just improper,” urging him to apologize for actions the president has characterized as “perfect.”
In the end, however, all of them voted to acquit Trump of any wrongdoing.
“In the actual articles of impeachment, there are no accusations that the president broke the law,” Collins told CBS Tuesday.
The Senate trial brought more immediate political consequences: With the final votes delayed until Wednesday, the four Democratic senators running for president were grounded in Washington for much of Monday, the day of the Iowa caucuses.
The 2020 hopefuls made a final two-day sprint across the state over the weekend but were sidelined on the trail for nearly three weeks as the Senate sat through opening statements, questions and procedural fights.
Despite Trump’s acquittal Wednesday, the investigation into the Ukraine saga might not be over.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that Democrats would “likely” subpoena for the testimony of John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, whom Republicans had blocked from appearing as part of the Senate trial.
Bolton’s forthcoming book includes first-hand allegations of the president telling him directly that he was withholding aid to Ukraine to secure investigations into his Democratic rivals — a direct contradiction of Trump’s defense — creating plenty of interest among Democrats to have him tell his story under oath.
Pelosi, meanwhile, is dismissing the notion that Trump was truly acquitted, accusing McConnell of tipping the scales in favor of the president in a way that makes the outcome invalid.
“There can be no acquittal without a trial, and there is no trial without witnesses, documents and evidence,” she said after the votes. “By suppressing the evidence and rejecting the most basic elements of a fair judicial process, the Republican Senate made themselves willing accomplices to the president’s cover-up.”