Amid the partisan breakdown over President Trump’s conduct in office, there was a rare statement of progress: a deal to cement a new U.S. trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, the only substantial legislative breakthrough of the year and one long sought by the president.
But in today’s hyper-polarized environment, agreement among elected leaders — once considered the norm — is now the anomaly. Instead, the House Democrats’ march to impeach Trump and the president’s continuing war with the FBI over the origins of the Russia investigation more clearly characterized the strained state of the nation and the rising prominence of distorting facts for political gain.
“This moment tells us something about ourselves,” said Ted Strickland, a former Democratic governor of Ohio. “Obviously, what’s happening is polarizing and will probably deepen the anger and the hostility that has characterized our politics for the last few years.”
The impeachment proceedings have revealed a Republican Party whose elected officials are loath to acknowledge any wrongdoing by a president who insists he acted perfectly despite evidence to the contrary, let alone the question of whether what he did warrants his removal from office.
Meanwhile, Trump took the Justice Department’s inspector general’s report on the Russia investigation, which knocked down his long-stated assertion that the probe was politically motivated, and used elements of it to continue his attack on the FBI — furthering the divide that has been created between the president and the bureaucracy he oversees.
This latest volley is of a pattern with White House efforts to discredit the testimony of career Foreign Service and other officials, who outlined before the House Intelligence Committee misconduct by Trump in pressuring Ukrainian leaders to announce an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden, a potential 2020 opponent, and his son Hunter.
The resulting division has led to an impeachment process now defined by Trump’s supporters as wholly partisan.
“People view their facts through that divide,” said Jim Doyle, a former Democratic governor of Wisconsin. “Sadly, we now have a president who rather than trying to do something about that exploits it for everything he can.”
Jeff Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona and a longtime critic of the president, said Republicans could reasonably say that the evidence presented in the impeachment inquiry doesn’t justify removing Trump from office.
“But to argue as House Republicans have done that the president did nothing wrong . . . has long-term implications for the party,” Flake said. “That is what baffles me and pains me deeply, to see people just contort themselves and to do the type of gymnastics it takes to justify this behavior and just the willingness to play for an audience of one.”
Other longtime GOP officials agreed.
“It amazes me,” added Jim Edgar, a former Republican governor of Illinois, noting how Trump uses whatever he can to defend himself, even if it strains or runs contrary to the truth. “You can catch him dead to rights, and he goes out and turns it around, and people believe it.”
But Edgar also noted that members of both parties are now being pushed by their bases. “You’ve got pretty smart people on both sides forced into taking the extreme position, whether hellbent on impeachment or impeachment never,” he said.
Everything collided quickly on Tuesday. First came the impeachment articles delivered with sobriety and resolve by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her committee chairs. The two articles — one accusing the president of abuse of power and the other focused on obstruction of Congress — will come before a politically divided House where a party-line vote, with few if any defections, is expected.
The most loyal Trump supporters portray the proceeding as its own abuse of power. Some Republicans who see wrongdoing by the president also fault Democrats for the way they handled the impeachment inquiry and say that in the end, it will accrue to Trump’s benefit.
Democrats say that the evidence presented is uncontested and that they feel a constitutional duty to protect the country from an abusive chief executive and to protect the prerogatives of the legislative branch. Trump, meanwhile, repeated his claim on Twitter that he had done “NOTHING wrong” and called impeachment “sheer Political Madness!”
An hour after the impeachment articles were unveiled came the celebratory Capitol Hill announcement of a trade pact, led again by Pelosi. Trump later told a rally crowd in Hershey, Pa., that the trade deal was “the silver lining of this impeachment, this witch hunt.”
Jack Markell, a former Democratic governor of Delaware, applauded that moment of bipartisanship, noting that “we don’t have the luxury” as a country of focusing on just one thing. “My hope is that where we are today is not the new normal and that it is a short detour in our history, which can be corrected quickly either by the elections process or our system of checks and balances,” he said.
Two hours later came another sign of the dysfunction and distrust that have infected so many elements of public life. Attorney General William P. Barr, contradicting a Justice Department report released Monday, said he believed the government had spied on Trump during the 2016 campaign and had initiated its Russia investigation on the flimsiest of grounds — choosing to side with Trump against the federal law enforcement agencies he leads.
“I think there were gross abuses . . . and inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI,” Barr told Pete Williams of NBC News. He added, “I think that leaves open the possibility that there was bad faith.”
The rapid shifts from partisan warfare over impeachment to legislative comity over trade to the top layers of the executive branch pitted against the bureaucracy might have proved dizzying to many people. “This is the moment that the Temptations song was made for: ‘Ball of Confusion,’ ” said Michael Nutter, a former Democratic mayor of Philadelphia.
“Donald J. Trump is absolutely the master of confusion, and it works in his benefit,” he added. “That’s all he wants because in this environment, when people are confused, often they just listen to the loudest voice.”
Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a longtime Democratic state representative from South Carolina, said in exasperation: “You’ve got people who believe everything that comes from the president’s mouth, and you’ve got others who believe absolutely nothing that comes from his mouth.”
As monumental as the announcement of the articles of impeachment may have been, given its place in history, the act was entirely expected. From the afternoon in September when Pelosi opened the inquiry in the House, the outcome has never been in doubt. From the Judiciary Committee vote in the coming days to the expected floor vote next week to the subsequent trial in the Senate, in which the Republican majority is expected to acquit its president, all seems preordained.
Millions of Americans have been transfixed with day after day of hearings, but polling suggests few if any minds have been changed. The proceedings may only have intensified the campaign to come.
The coming Senate trial will bring the impeachment proceedings to a close but without closure. With partisan lines hardening and with the president showing no signs of slackening from his attacks on political opponents, the media and those parts of the bureaucracy he distrusts, this will go on at least until the next election and probably longer.
“This impeachment process is just significantly increasing the antagonism on both sides, and I don’t see it going anywhere,” said Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. “It’s not settling the matter out. It’s doing the opposite. It’s driving larger and more divisive wedges into the process.”
Doyle added, “I just think this is an incredible roll of the dice.”