But in the annals of Trump’s presidency, Wednesday’s deliberations in the House reflected nothing particularly extraordinary. Split sharply along party lines, with only the barest of defections among the Democrats and none among Republicans, the people’s House became the nation in miniature, a people torn over the conduct of a president who has defied political odds and broken the rules of politics — and who is braced for more to come.
The word “history” can be an overused term about matters of the day, tossed around casually and often without good reason. That cannot be said about impeachment, which was included in the Constitution by the framers as an ultimate remedy for the legislative branch to check the power of the president. Trump became only the fourth president to face articles of impeachment and the third to see the House approve those articles. It is a club no president would seek to join.
Trump has been defiant throughout the process and perhaps for reasons beyond his assertions that he did nothing wrong in pressuring Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 political rival. The president’s angry letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, released a day ahead of the House vote, seemed to reflect his understanding of what was about to transpire. As always with this president, the six pages of blistering language highlighted his determination to have both his words and his feelings clearly reflected in the historical record.
But that written record, like much else that emanates from the president in tweets, speeches and other public appearances, was replete with exaggerations, distortions and outright falsehoods. Which is how the extraordinary has become ordinary, if no less an issue of his presidency. However much he has deviated from the truth, he has shown the ability to tell the story the way he wants people to hear it, especially those in his base.
Wednesday brought about the split screen of history and spectacle. House Democrats were admonished to avoid gloating or displays of celebration as the articles were being read, debated and voted upon. Trump’s loyalists at a campaign rally in Michigan on Wednesday evening displayed their support for the president and their disdain for what the Democrats had done. There was no remorse to be shown.
Twenty-one years ago, almost to the day, a Republican-controlled House voted for articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, for lying about an affair with an intern. That day was extraordinary in its own way, for all that was swirling about the Capitol.
Days earlier, Clinton had launched strikes against Iraq and was being condemned by Republicans for trying to create what they said was a distraction, though Newt Gingrich, on his way out as speaker, defended Clinton on the House floor. In perhaps the day’s most dramatic moment, Gingrich’s designated successor, Bob Livingston, announced that he would not seek the office because of his own marital indiscretions. Turmoil reigned as history was made.
Coverage of that day highlighted all of those events, but it was impeachment and the forces that brought the country to that decision that occupied center stage in the acres of newsprint the stories consumed. A consistent theme of analysis focused on the broken politics of the time, the rancor and rank partisanship that had taken hold in Washington and the continuum of events that had brought the country to that dark moment.
After the vote that day, Clinton rallied with fellow Democrats on the South Lawn of the White House, condemning the politics of personal destruction as his accusers spoke of his trampling on the honor and dignity of the Oval Office.
The stories that day provide an echo of what is being said and written about this moment, but few today see the period of two decades ago as equivalent to what the country is going through now. Whatever conditions existed then have grown worse. Many factors contribute to the mix: the velocity at which information moves; the endless news cycles; the fractured and more partisan media; the toxicity of social media.
Among the most important differences are the way Trump runs the office of the presidency, the degree to which everything has become personal and no grievance goes unnoticed or un-attacked. And then there is the breakdown in the acceptance of facts and truth, amplified by the president’s strategy of keeping his base both loyal and inflamed toward his detractors. As much as anything, this has created a noxious atmosphere in which to conduct debate or to govern.
America was certainly polarized two decades ago, but it is worse today. The gulf between the two camps has widened, and the lines of resistance have hardened. One small but not insignificant measure is the difference between the approach of Senate leaders then and now as preparations for an impeachment trial get underway. Two decades ago, then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) sought cooperatively to set the terms for the Senate trial. Today, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are in a war of words without signs of a cease-fire.
Another measure of the differences between then and now is public perception about the charges against the presidents. Clinton was condemned even by members of his own party for personally reprehensible acts, but by 2 to 1, the public did not see that private conduct as worthy of impeachment.
The actions that brought about Trump’s impeachment involved his role as president of the United States in seeking foreign help for personal political objectives. Support for impeachment, though closely divided, is much higher than in Clinton’s case. One after another Republican took to the floor on Wednesday to assert that the charges against Trump were baseless and politically motivated. Some Republicans privately are troubled by what Trump did, even if elected leaders have been reluctant to say so publicly.
For all the gravity of the moment, reflected in the general tone of much of Wednesday’s floor debate in the House (there were some who strayed into histrionics and distortions), the impeachment proceeding is likely to become one more way station in a four-year struggle between those who oppose this president and fear his conduct will have long-term detrimental effects on the country, and those who support him as the person who is willing to do combat daily with forces and institutions they see as destructive to their way of life.
Given the near-certain outcome in the Senate, where Trump is expected to be acquitted by a party-line vote, the issues that resulted in the impeachment vote on Wednesday will fold into the ongoing political conflict as the nation heads toward the 2020 presidential election.
Those who practice politics for a living disagree on just how much impeachment will be a factor when people cast their votes in November. But as the impeachment of this president moves to its next phase, it’s likely that what this process has wrought will at the least be in the minds of many in the electorate.
Trump’s character is one, and now that his conduct has drawn the stiffest rebuke the Constitution allows, short of removal from office, the question of presidential character could loom larger in the minds of some. The strength of institutions now feeling the stress of a president who has attacked various agencies in the executive branch is another. The exhaustion felt by many Americans because of the never-ending turmoil of Trump’s presidency is another.
The political fallout from impeachment is uncertain, for Pelosi’s Democrats and for the president as well. Answers will not come until next fall. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution said Wednesday, “There will be no calm after the storm.”