Another year, another presidential impeachment trial.
Three hundred and sixty-eight days after the US Senate voted to acquit Donald Trump on charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, the 117th Congress is staring down the barrel of another impeachment trial, with the same protagonist and most of the same players.
The ending has been accepted as a foregone conclusion. In 2020, only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to convict Trump on the charge of abuse of power. This time, just five Republican senators have agreed that the Senate can impeach the former president after he has left office. To imagine that 17 Republican senators would join Democrats to convict Trump would be foolish.
While Washington scandals, from Watergate to the Russia investigation, have been television milestones, the current proceedings have been greeted with less interest, with much of the drama subsumed by the pandemic and simultaneous economic crisis.
While slightly more Americans now support Trump’s impeachment than in 2020, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, interest in the proceedings is wearing thin both inside and outside Washington, a product perhaps of Trump fatigue on both sides of the aisle.
Already both parties seem to be in agreement about the type of trial they would like to see: “Hopefully as short as possible,” in the words of Rand Paul, one of the Republican senators arguing against the constitutionality of the proceedings.
More US media attention has been allotted to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial House Republican freshman, over the past week, than the country’s fourth presidential impeachment. President Joe Biden, who is fighting to push a $1.9tn stimulus package through Congress, has shown little appetite for the proceedings. Nor have many Senate Democrats. Conscious that their narrow Congressional majorities could vanish in the 2022 midterms, they want to use this narrow window for legislating.
Trump’s most recent impeachment proceedings in the House took just 48 hours — from the articles of impeachment being introduced until the vote. The Senate trial is likely to last just under a week.
That is not to say — despite the lack of enthusiasm — that the entire exercise has been in vain.
Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and a co-author of Impeachment: An American History, says the lack of public enthusiasm is probably because of the fact that Trump is out of office.
Impeachments, he says, “should consume all the oxygen in the room. But the guy is gone. And we’ve got a lot of other problems.”
Engel believes US presidential impeachments fall into two categories: those focused on bad behaviour and those that raise genuine questions about the balance of power. He argues that the current proceedings mark only the second time an impeachment has fallen into the second category — the first was Andrew Johnson’s in 1868.
In the upcoming trial, Engel says he will be looking to see how many senators acquit Trump based on the merits of the case and refuse to accept that he intended to incite the US Capitol riot versus those who argue that convicting Trump would be unconstitutional now that he’s out of office. Many legal scholars dismiss that claim but the president’s legal team is preparing to argue it and most Republican senators are likely to concur.
In the House, the second impeachment was a defining moment for a small group of Republicans, most notably Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the House Republican conference chair, who broke with her party to impeach the president. This earned her the enmity of the party’s most pro-Trump members, who tried and failed to oust her from the House leadership.
The second trial may very well end up being a footnote in Trump’s political biography. But for some of the Republican lawmakers involved it may not — nor will the events that preceded it.
As Engel argues: “We’re not going to remember Trump for being impeached for inciting a riot and sedition . . . We’re going to remember him for inciting a riot and sedition.”