The consequences of the Senate impeachment trial that opens Tuesday could be considerable for former President Donald Trump.
And for almost everybody else.
Trump, accustomed to earning the word “unprecedented” while he was in office over the past four years, will do it again out of office: the first president to be impeached twice, and the first to face that historic rebuke even after he had moved out of the White House. That’s not the sort of distinction presidents typically aspire to.
But the stakes could be even higher for others, especially the Republican Party. In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol – the insurrection that triggered these impeachment proceedings – a GOP civil war has been ignited over the party’s direction and its tolerance for fringe conspiracy theorists.
For Democrats, the trial will be an early test of the new majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and members of his caucus. Last month, they gained control of the Senate for the first time in six years, albeit only courtesy of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.
Even President Joe Biden, despite doing his best to ignore the risky business at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, isn’t likely to escape its effects on his priorities and the capital’s political landscape.
One thing the impeachment trial can’t do: evict Trump from the Oval Office. Voters already did that by defeating him for reelection in November.
That said, it can do a lot to define the direction of the nation’s politics. It will set a precedent for political behavior (what actions by presidents are considered acceptable?) and for the separation of powers (how and when can Congress hold them accountable?).
For Trump, hardening history’s judgment
A Senate conviction would be another first: the first time the Senate had found a president guilty in an impeachment trial. The House impeachment of Andrew Johnson in the 19th century and Bill Clinton in the 20th ended in Senate acquittals. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 when his impeachment and conviction became all but inevitable.
If Trump were convicted, a simple majority of the Senate could then vote to bar him from holding federal office again, blocking the prospect of a 2024 bid to regain the White House.
But a conviction would be a surprise, regardless of the arguments made by the nine House Democratic impeachment managers being led by Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin. The safe bet is that Trump will be acquitted.
Conviction requires a two-thirds majority – all 50 Democrats, say, plus 17 Republicans. In an earlier vote, 45 of the 50 Senate Republicans endorsed Trump’s defense, saying a president can’t be impeached once out of office. (Constitutional scholars are divided on the question, though most cite precedents that indicate a former president can be impeached.)
For those senators, that process argument makes irrelevant any substantive debate over what the former president actually did.
For Trump, his second impeachment trial is more likely to reinforce opinions of him than change them. His loyalists are citing it as evidence bolstering his complaints that he has been a victim of unyielding partisan attacks since his inauguration in 2017. He presumably will argue that acquittal is vindication, as he did after his first impeachment trial.
But the trial will spotlight and detail the prosecution’s case that Trump violated his oath of office – to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” – when he refused to accept the certified results of the 2020 election, then rallied his followers before a mob of them stormed the Capitol.
Americans’ view of the 45th president, and history’s judgment, may harden as a result.
“The assessment of Trump’s presidency is already in and really unlikely to change, and that is: His presidency was a failure,” said Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and co-author of a book about impeachment. “The only interesting question historians are going to debate in years to come is: Do we put him above or below Buchanan, or do we create a separate category?”
James Buchanan, a Democrat elected as the nation’s 15th president in 1856, is consistently ranked by scholars as the worst, or one of the worst, presidents in history for failing to address slavery or avert the secession of Southern states.
“Buchanan is generally considered the lowest because he didn’t do anything to stop the Civil War,” Engel said. “Trump is in the unique category of being a president who deliberately attacked the Constitution he swore to defend.”
For Republicans, what comes next?
Republicans who were looking forward to a post-Trump era, one with less conflict and chaos, will have to wait.
The former president has exited Washington but not center stage, and his trial will once again cast him in the political spotlight. The support he is likely to command from all but a handful of Republican senators against conviction – weeks after commanding the support of all but a handful of Republican representatives against impeachment itself – sends a message that he remains the single most powerful voice in the GOP.
In the past five years, he has redefined the party in his image. Unlike any other modern president, especially those who were defeated for reelection, he has made it clear that he intends to continue to be the face of his party even after his term has ended.
“The party is his,” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told reporters Friday. “It doesn’t belong to anybody else.”
On the other side of that GOP fault line is Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, No. 3 in the House leadership. The Republican Party “should not be embracing the former president,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are the party of (Abraham) Lincoln. We are not the party of QAnon or anti-Semitism or Holocaust deniers, or white supremacy or conspiracy theories. It’s not who we are.”
The two congresswomen epitomize the roiling debate over what direction the Republican Party should take. On Thursday, 61 House Republicans voted to oust Cheney from her leadership post because she voted to impeach Trump. Only 11 House Republicans voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments to rebuke her for extremist remarks she has made in the past embracing QAnon, anti-Semitism and violence against Democratic officials.
Last week, Greene repudiated some of the controversial comments she had made in the past, including her denials that the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon or the Parkland school shooting had actually happened.
At issue for the GOP are its electoral prospects ahead and even the possibility, being discussed by some, that disenchanted Republicans will split off to form a third party.
During Trump’s tenure, Republicans lost control of the House, then the White House, and now the Senate. While he commands the loyalty of an unshaken core of supporters, dismay about his provocative rhetoric and erratic leadership have cost his party the allegiance of millions of moderate and establishment Republicans.
“The whole Trump era has been quite bad for Republicans,” said Charlie Dent, a seven-term Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who retired in 2018. “People talk about the base being so devoted to Donald Trump, but it seems to be a diminished base. You go to the suburbs and see nothing but disaster for the Republican Party.”
Based on his private conversations with GOP officials, Dent said, if the impeachment vote were secret, 80 or 90 senators would vote to convict Trump, a number that would include a majority of Republicans.
But of course the vote isn’t secret. The fact that almost all Senate Republicans are expected to stick with Trump, whatever their private views, is evidence of his clout.
For Biden, can bipartisanship survive?
Biden has done his best to simply ignore his predecessor’s impeachment.
“I ran like hell to defeat him because I thought he was unfit to be president,” Biden told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell in an interview broadcast Friday. Even so, he declined to say whether he thought the Senate should convict Trump. “I’m not in the Senate now,” he said. “I’ll let the Senate make that decision.”
Trump’s impeachment has been both a logistical and political headache for Biden – a reminder that the 2020 election isn’t quite over. The trial consumes time and attention that the new administration would like to use instead to confirm its nominees for senior posts.
And it will once again exacerbate the partisan divide that Biden has pledged to heal.
Congressional Democrats haven’t been swayed by concerns that the trial is going to complicate Biden’s start in the White House.
“It’s not about political consequences,” said Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman who is now director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. In an interview, the eight-term New York representative called it “a moment of truth” for House and Senate Democrats. “It’s about establishing an historic record of Donald Trump’s role in an attack on democracy and forcing Republicans to say what side of history they’re on.”
Whatever the consequences may be.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: On impeachment, stakes are high not only for Trump but also for almost everybody else