Watching it all, Democrats could be forgiven for asking whether impeachment was all a waste of time. Trump is no weaker, no less buoyed by his cultish supporters, and certainly no less likely to seek foreign help for his reelection campaign or cheat in any number of other ways we don’t yet know about.
Yet Democrats should hold their heads high. They didn’t miscalculate by impeaching Trump. They did the only thing they could have done.
It’s telling that the judgment of history has been invoked many times over the course of the impeachment process — but only by Democrats. Republicans are none too eager to think about how this episode, and their own part in it, will be remembered.
“He’s impeached forever, no matter what he says,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at her weekly news conference. “History will always record that you were impeached for undermining the security of our country, jeopardizing the integrity of our elections, and violating the Constitution of the United States.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), in his closing argument, sounded a similar note. “History will not be kind to Donald Trump," Schiff said. “I think we all know that.” Nor to those who helped Trump do what he does.
Schiff was absolutely right. We all know it. Republicans may say that they like the tax cuts Trump signed or they’re happy about the far-right judges he has appointed, but they know it too. For some, their hearts go aflutter as they bow down before him, their long-held desire to submit themselves totally to an authoritarian strongman finally fulfilled.
But the others, the ones who believe themselves to remain in possession of something resembling principle, know that he’s the worst of us, in spirit and in deed.
You could see this in their behavior, as they scurried into elevators to avoid reporters’ questions or twisted themselves into logical pretzels to explain why Trump should avoid accountability. Their shame was some small measure of justice. A few, like Susan Collins (Maine) or Cory Gardner (Colo.), may even face a more tangible punishment at the polls.
Another measure of justice was on display in all the ways Trump forced Republicans to defend his misconduct. Their cowardice and dishonesty was laid bare, as their pathetic excuses for Trump’s behavior couldn’t even keep up with the president’s pride in his own sins. He didn’t do it, they said, only to watch him step to the cameras and say that he did do it, and he’d do it again.
True, it can feel like cold comfort when you wonder if, just as he has so many times in his life, Trump has escaped accountability once again.
But the truth is that the impeachment did much of what it should have — the Senate’s verdict and burial of witnesses notwithstanding. It exposed Trump’s corruption of the government, fleshing out in great detail the way he turned over Ukraine policy to his goon Rudy Giuliani and his sub-goons. It brought Trump’s petty venality into the light, and showed us the extent to which even those who work for the president find him to be at once an ignorant buffoon and a dire threat to the rule of law.
It also showed us a parade of officials — Marie Yovanovitch, William B. Taylor Jr., Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill and many others — offering testimony that both indicted Trump and modeled the best of what we want public servants to be.
There were moments that made you proud to be an American, even as you lamented how Trump is perverting our government for his own purposes.
In the end, Democrats should be proud that they took a stand without much obvious political advantage to be gained, knowing that they would not prevail, simply because it was right.
What would we have concluded if in the face of Trump’s corrupt actions Democrats had said that they wouldn’t impeach him because they couldn’t win a conviction? What would they have said about their obligations to the Constitution, to the country, to the ideals that we want our government to embody?
They would be the ones feeling shame, and rightly so. Instead, they can say that at least for a moment, their own political fortunes became less important than principle and the truth.
Trump does not care about history; he cares about money, and about the adulation of the angry crowd, and about humiliating others, and about quelling the insistent voice of his boundless insecurities. But the rest of us should care.
History’s judgment does matter. A hundred or even 500 years from now, Americans will look back and say that Trump was the worst the country could cough up at a moment of fear and rage. Those who enabled him will be remembered as knaves and cowards. And those who stood up to him will be honored. Don’t doubt it for a moment.