The Senate on Wednesday acquitted President Donald Trump of both impeachment charges, ending a monthslong battle that did little more than clarify the intense polarization between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and around the country.
Trump was impeached by the House in December for abuse of power over his role in attempting to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into announcing investigations that zeroed in on Trump's domestic political foes. The House also charged Trump with obstruction of Congress after he refused to turn over various documents and used executive privilege to prohibit certain witnesses from testifying in the inquiry.
In a near party-line vote, senators rejected the abuse of power article 52-48 and the obstruction of Congress article 53-47. The only defection was Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah), who broke with the GOP and voted to convict Trump on the former charge, making him the first senator to ever support removing a president from his or her own party. The move undercut Trump's argument that his impeachment was completely partisan and not supported by any Republicans.
The saga began with an August whistleblower complaint detailing a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. During that conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy to "do us a favor" and probe former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter—a request that was widely seen as an attempt to bolster his own 2020 re-election chances. In addition, Trump pushed to have Zelenskiy announce an investigation into a highly criticized theory that Ukraine, rather than Russia, executed widespread election interference in the 2016 presidential race. Also in July, the White House withheld millions of dollars of congressionally authorized security assistance to Ukraine without explanation; it was disbursed on September 11, following the release of the whistleblower complaint.
In September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) announced the start of an impeachment inquiry. In October, the House passed formal rules for the proceedings. A series of witnesses testified in closed-door depositions and again in public throughout November and December, culminating in the House's December 18 vote to advance impeachment against Trump.
During the House hearings, members of the GOP accused Democrats of trampling on Trump's right to due process by collecting the initial testimonies outside of the public eye; Democrats countered that the private setting allowed them to hear from witnesses without allowing them to coordinate their stories. These rules for impeachment inquiry hearings were set by House Speaker John Boehner (R–Ohio) and other Republicans in 2015.
GOP lawmakers continuously challenged the reliability of witnesses, most of whom painted a consistent story of Trump behaving inappropriately. Bill Taylor, the chargé d'affaires in Ukraine, said that it was "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, claimed that there was a well-understood quid pro quo between the two leaders in exchange for a White House meeting.
As the impeachment moved toward a Senate trial, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) referred to the proceedings as "the most rushed, least thorough, and most unfair impeachment inquiry in modern history." The Kentucky Republican lambasted Democrats for not even attempting to subpoena witnesses and documents by using the courts. It's a legitimate objection to the second article of impeachment. As Reason's Jacob Sullum notes, the House's case "suffered from an arbitrary, self-imposed deadline," driven largely by political motivations as opposed to practical ones.
While Trump's lawyers initially focused on proving his innocence, they pivoted to downplay the impeachable nature of the offenses after national security adviser John Bolton claimed that Trump directly tied the security aid to the investigations.
"Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense," said Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard professor turned lawyer for Trump. "Even if everything in there was true, it constitutionally doesn't rise to that level," echoed outside lead counsel Jay Sekulow. Dershowitz would go on to argue that a quid pro quo put forward by Trump in attempts to secure his re-election could not be impeachable because politicians believe their electoral success to be in "the national interest."
Also under scrutiny throughout the trial was whether impeachment requires the violation of a criminal statute. "It certainly doesn't have to be a crime," said Dershowitz in 1998—a position he would go on to retract in his 2018 book The Case Against Impeaching Trump. During Trump's trial, he refined his position further, asserting that the offense must be "crime-like." Legal consensus heavily favors Dershowitz's original position, with even McConnell acknowledging that impeachment does not demand the commission of a crime.
Ken Starr, the ex-independent counsel whose report led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, argued that impeachment proceedings are not valid unless they achieve broad bipartisan support. That claim fails to withstand historical evidence: impeachments have always been partisan affairs, including the one Starr helped facilitate.
Democrats throughout the proceedings stuck to a rehearsed script, continuously citing evidence that they say shows Trump leveraged his office for personal benefit. Although the minority party clearly knew that an acquittal was almost certain, impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D–Calif.) made an appeal to the center during his closing arguments as he tried to rebut claims that the impeachment was wholly partisan.
"History will not be kind to Donald Trump. If you find that the House has proved its case and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history," he said. "But if you find the courage to stand up to him…your place will be among the Davids who took on Goliath."
Some Senate Republicans have conceded that the House proved Trump acted improperly. In a statement, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R–Tenn.) provided the argument that is perhaps most emblematic of where many of his colleagues stand.
"There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a 'mountain of overwhelming evidence,'" he wrote. "There is no need to consider further the frivolous second article of impeachment that would remove the president for asserting his constitutional prerogative to protect confidential conversations with his close advisers."
In the end, Trump didn't have to convince Senate Republicans that he was innocent. He just needed them to say out loud that it doesn't matter.