The truth of impeachment.
Senate Republicans are preparing to acquit President Donald Trump — and convict the American political system.
Trump was never really on trial in the Senate. Not in the sense of a true trial, where the objective is to understand the truth. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made that clear from the outset. “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with White House counsel,” he said. “There’ll be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.”
Rather, it was America’s political system that faced the true trial. And the truth was revealed.
Let’s start with where the Senate’s impeachment trial effectively ended: Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) announcement that he’d vote against calling witnesses.
Alexander is retiring this year. He’s a member of the Republican old guard, an elected official who remembers the Senate before it was broken by polarization, who yearns for the way things used to be.
It was the combination of institutional memory and the freedom offered by retirement that made Alexander such a closely watched vote. That is, itself, an unsettling fact: that retirement was necessary to even imagine the independence necessary for a typical Republican to break with party.
Pause to note the strangeness of the situation: Why should a vote to simply hear John Bolton’s testimony be understood as a break with the Republican Party? Viewed from another, more principled, angle, to vote to hear Bolton should have been understood as loyalty to party. Bolton had proven himself to his fellow Republicans through years and years of service. He’s been a far more loyal soldier in the Republican trenches than Trump.
But even that wasn’t enough.
It is worth parsing Alexander’s reasoning for voting against witnesses closely. In a long series of tweets, he laid out his argument. It rests on two main points.
First, Alexander says:
I worked with other senators to make sure that we have the right to ask for more documents and witnesses, but there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the U.S. Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.1/15— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) January 31, 2020
In other words, we don’t need to know what Bolton knows because we already know enough, and what we know is that Trump is guilty, and what he is guilty of is not impeachable.
The problem here is obvious: This is an argument for voting against conviction, not for voting against witnesses. We do not truly know what Bolton knows until we hear from him. So why not hear from him? What is Alexander doing this week that is so important he can’t spend a few days hearing firsthand testimony?
This tees up Alexander’s deeper argument:
The framers believed that there should never, ever be a partisan impeachment. That is why the Constitution requires a 2/3 vote of the Senate for conviction. Yet not one House Republican voted for these articles. 12/15— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) January 31, 2020
I want to say this as clearly as I can: This is not an argument against impeaching Donald Trump, or calling witnesses. This is an argument that nullifies the legitimacy of the impeachment power so long as the president’s party can maintain discipline.
The founders didn’t believe there would be a partisan impeachment because they believed America would resist political parties altogether. But the founders weren’t naive. They understood that American society would see factions, and those factions would engage in politics. In Federalist 65, Alexander Hamilton writes that impeachment “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”
“In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
In joining his Republican colleagues to vote against witnesses, to say nothing of conviction, how is it possible to avoid the conclusion that Alexander is regulating the process through the comparative strength of parties, rather than real demonstrations of innocence or guilt?
His argument sets up a closed loop of partisan tautology: No Republican can or should vote for impeachment because no Republican is voting for impeachment.
Bipartisanship isn’t a condition external to Alexander’s decisions. It is a condition that will be decided by Alexander’s decisions. He is making impeachment more partisan on the grounds that others made it more partisan before him.
Alexander goes on to say:
If this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist. 13/15— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) January 31, 2020
As a kicker, this is darkly perfect. Alexander is voting for a shallower, more hurried impeachment trial partly on the grounds that the process has been ... shallow and hurried.
The revealed nature of the Republican Party
At times, impeachment has felt like an experiment in which we keep layering on more absurd conditions to see what the Republican Party will accept.
What if Trump releases a call record in which he said Biden’s name repeatedly, directly to Ukraine’s president?
Not enough? Okay, What if we also have him tell Ukraine and China to investigate Biden on TV?
How about if we have a series of Republican foreign policy appointees testify to the House that he did it?
Still nothing? Wild.
Okay, how about this: We get John Bolton, hero of the American right, scourge of liberals, to say that he will testify, under oath, that he personally heard Trump say the aid was contingent on Ukraine going after the Bidens, and that he heard Trump say it earlier than anyone has yet known.
I mean, surely?
And still, nothing. Worse than nothing. As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) put it, in response, Senate Republicans effectively voted to put cotton in their ears, so they wouldn’t have to hear what Bolton said.
What this reveals is that, in 2020, loyalty to Trump is what defines a Republican. It is also what defines a conservative, as CPAC, the leading conservative conference, made clear after Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted to hear Bolton’s testimony:
Polarization vs. the American political system
Richard Nixon wasn’t impeached over Watergate. He resigned. And the reason he resigned is that two Republican senators, Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, alongside John Rhodes, the leader of the House Republicans, told him his party wasn’t going to stand by him.
Buried in this story is a fundamental reality about our political system: There is nothing automatic in our system of constitutional accountability. Nixon’s misdeeds did not automatically trigger impeachment, and it was not even the technical impeachment process that removed him from office. Our system is driven by what political parties choose to do.
So let me ask a question: Does anyone honestly and truly believe that if Watergate happened today, with this Republican Senate, that Nixon would’ve been forced to resign? Even Fox News doesn’t think so. Recall what Geraldo Rivera told Sean Hannity:
Geraldo telling Hannity he’s the difference between Trump and Nixon pic.twitter.com/BFzTuPvzRn— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) October 2, 2019
If you look at charts of party polarization in Congress, the Nixon impeachment comes near a low point in party polarization. American politics was not split between two parties that were internally united but divided against each other. It was split between two parties internally divided and so able to work with each other.
In my book, Why We’re Polarized, I tell the story of how that changed. But for our purposes here, the point is it did change, and we are now at a historic high point in party polarization.
That our system worked to stop Nixon is part of our national mythology. It is part of the story of American politics as successfully self-correcting. But if that story is no longer true, then what does that mean for American politics?
Impeachment is built atop the belief that Congress would be offended, as an institution, if the president were abusing power to amass power. It has no answer for a president abusing power in a way that amasses power not just for himself, but for his congressional allies. It has no answer for a political system in which a congressional majority recognizes it may lose power, even lose the majority, if they hold a president accountable, and so refuse to do anything of the sort.
Because make no mistake. Trump is not the last threat our system will face, and he is not the worst. He is clumsy and distractible. His moral compass is sufficiently broken that he cannot tell the difference between corruption and competition, and so he blurts out his schemes, believing them “perfect.” And yet the centrifugal pull he exerts on his party let his lawyer argue, in the well of the Senate, that so long as Trump believes that his reelection is in America’s interest, nothing he does to secure it can be impeachable:
Pres. Trump's counsel Alan Dershowitz: "If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment." https://t.co/8eDXJbxaT6 pic.twitter.com/SXR2Ms69Mi— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) January 29, 2020
That moment should have been a wake-up call to Senate Republicans. To hear the president’s handpicked lawyer make a case for functional despotism, a case that it is clear the president himself believes, should have shocked them into realizing what it is they were permitting.
But the fact that it did not shock them does not mean it cannot shock us.
The Constitution’s framers did their job, in their time. They designed a system of government that worked to call the country, with all our flaws and all our potential for greatness, into being. But they did not design a system of government that is working in our time. That is our job.