President Donald Trump is the clear winner of the now-resolved Senate impeachment battle — the question is at what cost.
He was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, and he even got his way on persuading the Senate to eschew any witnesses, defying Democratic requests and the overwhelming preference of public opinion.
It’s a bit of a strange victory for Trump, whose approval rating at this point in his presidency is lower than that of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, or Jimmy Carter at the same point in theirs. This is the case even while the economy is strong and the nation, while not exactly at peace, isn’t suffering major casualties or threats from abroad.
Facing a structurally similar situation in 1998 and 1999, Clinton secured not only acquittal but a clear political triumph over his adversaries — emerging from impeachment very popular even though his underlying conduct was sordid at best. Trump, by contrast, is truly skating by with underwater approval ratings and a path to reelection that’s built on Electoral College bias rather than popularity.
But while Trump’s standing remains ambiguous, impeachment and acquittal did generate a few other clear winners and losers.
Winner: Nancy Pelosi and frontline House Democrats
To understand the impeachment 2020 drama, you have to understand it from the perspective of the key decision-makers — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the vulnerable House Democrats on whose behalf she’s acting.
From her point of view, as of last fall, impeachment was a problem, not an opportunity. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report included clear evidence of obstruction of justice, but he punted on the question of whether that’s what he found. That left a growing chorus of safe-seat Democrats agitating for impeachment, even as polling showed public support for impeachment was underwater.
Many pro-impeachment pundits argued at the time that if Democrats unified behind the cause, they’d sway public opinion to their side. Pelosi evidently didn’t buy that. Then the Ukraine story broke, a key group of frontlines came out for impeachment, impeachment’s poll numbers improved to become slightly popular, and leadership got on board.
Still, frontline members — and Pelosi — were worried about Republican messaging that Democrats were so obsessed with impeachment that they weren’t getting anything done.
The strategy the House took — to impeach Trump, to do it on a narrow grounds, and to conduct a fast investigation rather than litigate extensively over evidence — was built around those political concerns. And if you share Pelosi’s key premises, her strategy worked. She went from a situation where she was facing base pressure to do something unpopular to one where she and her members did something popular and then moved on — even while leaving Senate Republicans to take multiple unpopular votes against hearing witnesses.
Lots of people never shared Pelosi’s view of the issues, and to many of them, impeachment may look like a failure. But she achieved what she set out to, confirming her stature as a master tactician whether or not one agrees with her approach to broader strategic issues.
Loser: The rule of law
Senate Republicans made it pretty clear throughout this process that they were basically indifferent to the underlying question of what Trump did.
They listened with equanimity to Alan Dershowitz argue that there’s no such thing as abuse of power unless it violates specific statutes. But then they also didn’t care about a Government Accountability Office finding that holding up duly appropriated aid to Ukraine was illegal. They decided they didn’t want to hear from John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, or anyone else with relevant information. And indeed, despite a fair amount of speculation about possible deals to force Hunter Biden or someone else to testify, they ultimately didn’t explore those ideas seriously either.
Their reasoning is easy enough to understand: They were committed to voting to acquit Trump, so a full and extended airing of the facts could only set them up for embarrassment.
Critically, Trump got himself acquitted without even a token gesture of contrition. Bill Clinton survived his sex and perjury scandal, but part of him doing so was to concede in public that what he did was wrong. Ronald Reagan survived Iran-Contra, but disposing of the situation involved identifying fall guys and an internal personnel shake-up. Trump didn’t distance himself from Rudy Giuliani, hail internal dissenters for cutting short an inappropriate mingling of politics and foreign policy, or concede that there was any problem with holding up the aid in the first place, even though he eventually released it.
This was all fairly predictable to any observer of American politics, but we didn’t know for sure until we saw it happen. Before acquittal, members of the Trump administration had to worry at least a little that getting caught doing something wrong would lead to consequences. And potentially, whistleblowers had to hope at least a little that spilling the beans would lead to positive change. Now we know that none of that is the case.
The concern that impeachment would only lead to acquittal and further erosion of the rule of law was aired in Democratic circles before the House acted, and the doubters turn out to have been entirely correct on this score. Still, it’s hard to see any other possible tactical course of action by Democrats generating a better result. The essence of the problem is that almost every Republican has decided to stand by Trump no matter what.
Loser: Vulnerable Republican senators
Cory Gardner narrowly won a Senate race in the blue-leaning swing state of Colorado in the context of a huge GOP wave back in 2014.
Since then, the same demographic shifts that have made heavily white working-class Midwestern states redder have only acted to make Colorado bluer. That’s an obvious problem for Gardner as he runs for reelection in 2020, but during his time in the Senate, he’s done next to nothing to build a reputation for moderation or demonstrate any independence from Trump. The impeachment fight could have been an opportunity to do that, but Gardner once again preferred to play loyal foot soldier and avoid taking any kind of risk. The small-c conservative approach is understandable, but it’s also very hard to see how he wins reelection in a bluish state without taking some risks.
Arizona’s Martha McSally and Maine’s Susan Collins benefit from more conservative electorates than Gardner’s but structurally speaking found themselves in the same position.
Mitt Romney’s bold decision to vote for conviction only further underscores the extent to which vulnerable Republicans didn’t display any courage or independence. Of course, there’s a reason Romney can be bold. He has a personal political brand separate from Trump and isn’t up for reelection in a Trump-unfriendly state until 2024.
Overall, the growing correlation of Senate elections with national politics is helpful to the GOP caucus. But these three specific members are disadvantaged by it, and especially so when party loyalty forced them to repeatedly take unpopular stands against hearing further evidence.
Winner: GOP Russia hawks
This tends to be a bit lost on liberals, but a key point for many Republicans in Congress is that at the end of the day, Ukraine got its aid money.
The whole reason Trump had to resort to things like Giuliani’s irregular diplomatic channel and eventually putting an illegal hold on the flow of assistance is precisely that support for giving Ukraine assistance was widespread among congressional Republicans. If Trump’s personal skepticism of the merits of helping Ukraine were a widespread GOP stance, it could have been held up in Congress as a normal policy dispute. But it wasn’t. And then the reason House Democrats were able to find compliant witnesses for their impeachment hearings was, again, that many of Trump’s own appointees felt strongly about the aid on the merits.
Contrary to what you sometimes hear about Trump having completely taken over the Republican Party, he frequently gets pushback from congressional Republicans over policy issues they care about. Aiding Ukraine was just such an issue, and the reason the aid was eventually released is that Trump was facing internal and external pressure to turn it over.
What Democrats wanted was accountability for Trump’s scheme. And they were hoping, at least initially, to find some allies among Republicans. But what Republican Russia hawks got instead was compliance with their policy preferences — not only did Ukraine get its assistance, but the White House has reversed its position in budget proposals to now favor helping Ukraine.
The White House will propose keeping security assistance for Ukraine at current levels when it releases its upcoming budget, abandoning past attempts to slash State Department funding for Ukrainehttps://t.co/oWVQcczneZ— John Hudson (@John_Hudson) January 30, 2020
This is cold comfort for those whose concerns about this matter was more focused on the integrity of the American political system than the alleged need to fight for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But you’d be misunderstanding the nature of GOP solidarity behind Trump if you miss the fact that there are ongoing tugs-of-war over the direction of American public policy, battles in which Trump bends to the Republican establishment far more than vice versa.
Winner: Rep. Adam Schiff
House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff has been a frequent cable news guest for a while.
But his dual roles first as the head of the main investigating committee and second as the lead impeachment manager gave him much wider public exposure. And while he didn’t persuade enough Republican senators to call additional witnesses, he did get public opinion squarely on his side. More broadly, across hours and hours and hours of argumentation, he clearly stood out as not only the formal head of the Democratic impeachment team but also its most effective public spokesperson.
Given that Pelosi is not an incredibly commanding television presence and the No. 2 and 3 figures in the House leadership hierarchy are even worse, this suggests a potential larger role for Schiff as the caucus’s informal public communications lead.
That Schiff’s performance was widely praised by Democratic observers also sets him up well for a political future in the crowded space of California politics. It’s not hard to imagine him running for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat when she retires, or some other statewide office, or else making a play for a top role in the next generation of House Democratic leadership.
Loser: Fans of congressional oversight
The Ukraine aid scandal happened to be the issue that tipped frontline Democrats over into supporting an impeachment inquiry. But it’s hardly the only Trump administration scandal that raises fundamental questions about his fitness for office.
Some of us called last fall for a broader impeachment inquiry that would more or less take for granted that conviction was impossible, and instead simply try to amass a full public record of Trump’s misconduct. That would include looking into serious questions about the president’s personal business interests in Turkey and the Persian Gulf, as well as China and other foreign countries, along with the big-picture question of violations of the emoluments clause and his continued stonewalling of legally valid requests for his tax returns.
The Watergate inquiry, after all, ended up uncovering evidence of misdeeds that were actually much more wide-ranging and severe than helping cover up a burglary at the DNC. But that only came about because investigators decided to really kick the tires of the whole situation rather than maintaining a laser-like focus on the easiest-to-explain narrative.
Democrats wanted to avoid getting bogged down in litigation over witnesses or the perception that impeachment was all they were doing. And while in principle there’s nothing stopping Democrats from doing more investigations, all signs are that the party leadership wants to focus attention on banal governance issues like a reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program. And even if Democrats do go back to issuing subpoenas, it’s clearer than ever that Republicans have no interest in trying to make the Trump administration comply.