As the U.S. Senate prepares for the certain acquittal of President Donald Trump, the American public may be still trying to figure out what and whom to believe after weeks of back-and-forth between the president’s Democratic accusers and his Republican defenders.
As with most issues on which the partisan lines are so stark, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But President Trump made a serious mistake. The House Democrats’ evidence and the news media’s reporting clearly have established, despite the president’s denials, that he withheld military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to bribe that nation’s leaders to help him out politically. The fact that the president abandoned the unsuccessful coercion does not negate his abuse of power.
He then compounded his error by instructing aides to ignore House subpoenas for documents and testimony, thus defying Congress’ legitimate and constitutional right to oversee the executive branch.
By the same token, however, the Democrats who pushed for impeachment overreached, chasing a verdict they knew from the outset was not politically obtainable, even with proof on their side.
The Constitution requires, for good reason, a two-thirds majority in the Senate to remove a president. To take a step that severe — in essence to nullify an election — the misconduct must be so egregious that even some members of the president’s own party will concur with removal.
In this country’s history, a president’s misconduct has only come close to that standard twice — Andrew Johnson in 1868 for openly defying a law enacted by Congress, and Richard Nixon in 1974 for trying to cover up criminal activity by his re-election apparatus. Johnson survived removal by one vote, and Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment and probable removal.
Trump’s misconduct — soliciting foreign meddling in a U.S. election, strong-arming a foreign ally (Ukraine) while giving preference to a foreign adversary (Russia) — was reprehensible but did not sink to the level that would unquestionably justify his removal.
Lamar Alexander, a moderate Republican senator from Tennessee and former Cabinet member, put it right when he explained last week his pivotal vote to deny the Democratic request for new witnesses. There was no need for additional testimony, Alexander said, because while the Democrats had proven their case, they had failed to show why that case was an impeachable offense.
Those disappointed by the acquittal will say it emboldens Trump to greater abuses of power and encourage future presidents to defy congressional investigations. It’s too early to make such a prediction. Hubris, if left unbridled, will eventually take down any politician, including one with a devoted base of support.
What is more likely is that, in the future, the House of Representatives will think twice before pursuing an impeachment that does not have the support of a single member of the sitting president’s party. That would be a good thing. It is a waste of time — and arguably an abuse of the process — to impeach a president when there is not even a smidgen of bipartisan agreement.