The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A massive historical story’: Trump’s impending acquittal could have profound ramifications for future presidents

President Trump departs after a signing ceremony for the USMCA trade agreement on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The evidence of President Trump’s actions to pressure Ukraine was never in serious dispute. After a systematic presentation of the facts of the case, even some Senate Republicans concluded that what he did was wrong.

But neither was the verdict of Trump’s impeachment trial ever in doubt. The Senate’s jurors are scheduled to etch an almost-certain acquittal into the historical record on Wednesday.

The impending judgment that the president’s actions do not warrant his removal from office serves as a testament to Washington’s extraordinary partisan divide and to Trump’s uncontested hold on the Republican base. The expected acquittal also has profound and long-term ramifications for America’s institutions and the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, according to numerous historians and legal experts.

In effect, they say, the Senate is lowering the bar for permissible conduct for future presidents.

President Trump's lawyers concluded their defense, and after 16 hours of questioning, the Senate voted against calling witnesses like John Bolton to testify. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s a dispiriting moment for an American system that in many ways was founded on the insight that, because humankind is frail and fallen and fallible, no one branch of government can have too much power,” said Jon Meacham, an American historian and author. “The president’s party, instead of being a check on an individual’s impulses and ambitions, has become an instrument of them.”

Since the moment House Democrats opened their impeachment inquiry in September, Trump has projected a sense of persecution and self-pity. He called the effort a coup to overthrow him and defraud the results of the 2016 election.

Again and again, Trump proclaimed on Twitter, “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” — though the notes from his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not seem to exonerate him. Rather, the notes made plain Trump’s scheme to get Ukraine to open an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

With Trump commanding such exceptionally high approval ratings among Republican voters, however, even senators who acknowledged his actions were wrong voted Friday to block new evidence in the trial and pave the way for acquittal.

One of Democrats’ great hopes to permit fresh testimony from firsthand witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton, had been Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a self-described institutionalist who is retiring and would not have to face the wrath of the GOP’s pro-Trump base.

But Alexander demurred. Although he said Trump’s actions were “inappropriate” and had “already been proven” by House impeachment managers, the senator from Tennessee said there was “no need for more evidence” and that he believed Trump’s conduct did not meet the Constitution’s standard of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” for an impeachable offense.

“Let the people decide,” Alexander said in a lengthy statement Thursday explaining his position.

Another Republican seen as a possible supporter for permitting witness testimony, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, also came down against doing so. Although she did not comment specifically on Trump’s actions with Ukraine, she faulted the overall impeachment process as too partisan and unfair.

Days away from the Senate's vote on whether to acquit President Trump, lawmakers considered what the trial would mean to the president. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything,” Murkowski said in a statement. “It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed.”

Only two Republicans — Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine — voted to allow additional testimony, two votes shy of the threshold required for the measure to pass. And with the final impeachment vote requiring a two-thirds majority to convict the president, the outcome seems preordained.

“This impeachment was a fait accompli at all times,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “You talk to congressional Republicans and there’s a feeling that the president is being persecuted, that impeachment was a conviction in search of a crime.”

William A. Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, said acquittal “was not only perfectly predictable, but in my judgment, completely inevitable.”

“The United States political scene is as deeply polarized along partisan lines as it has been for at least a century,” Galston added. Noting Trump’s high ratings among Republican voters, he said, “It would take a very brave Republican indeed to break ranks with the president under these circumstances.”

This is not the first instance in which Trump has skirted penalties for wielding the powers of his office for personal or political gain. Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found that the president repeatedly worked to block or thwart the Russia investigation, acts that could potentially have prompted obstruction of justice charges were he not a sitting president.

But Trump sidestepped any punishment then, just as he appears to now with Ukraine.

One of the president’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, proffered a sweeping argument on the floor of the Senate last week that Trump using the powers of his office to pressure Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into the Bidens was not impeachable or illegal because it was done in pursuit of his reelection.

“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,” Dershowitz said during the trial.

In the face of stinging criticism from constitutional scholars and legal experts, Dershowitz said later on Twitter that his comments were being mischaracterized. “A president seeking re-election cannot do anything he wants,” Dershowitz wrote. “He is not above the law.”

Still, Dershowitz’s argument was persuasive for some Republican senators looking for arguments with which to defend Trump irrespective of what the evidence showed.

“Let’s say it’s true, okay? Dershowitz last night explained that if you’re looking at it from a constitutional point of view, that that is not something that is impeachable,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters.

Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, said the arguments advanced on Trump’s behalf in the Senate trial could have lasting consequences for the future of presidential power.

“The Republicans have embraced a theory that permits future abuses of power,” Naftali said. “The outcome of acquittal was predictable . . . but I’m afraid that this process in the Senate is more enabling of an abusive president than expected.”

The nation’s founders gave Congress oversight responsibilities and powers of impeachment as a check on the executive. Yet, with this week’s likely acquittal of Trump, Meacham argues, the Senate instead has become a tool in the president’s perpetuation of his own power.

“It is not hyperbolic to say that the Republican Party treats Donald Trump more like a king than a president,” Meacham said. “That was a central and consuming anxiety of the framers. It is a remarkable thing to watch the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and the Bushes become an instrument of Donald Trump’s. That’s a massive historical story.”