It’s a panic button the nation had pushed just twice before in the Constitution’s 230-year history (three times, if you count Richard Nixon’s resignation to preempt his certain removal in 1974).
Yet, in the event, the impeachment of Donald Trump packed all the novelty of a tepid Super Bowl matchup.
Long before Wednesday’s anticlimactic acquittal vote, it was clear Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus had no stomach for confronting a president who has displayed only contempt for their constitutional role.
The only frisson of suspense — a dispute over whether to subpoena eyewitnesses whose testimony threatened to decisively contradict the president’s own account — fizzled when GOP senators closed ranks to spare Trump (and themselves) that humiliation.
But for Americans who paid little attention to the House impeachment inquiry that preceded it, the Senate trial provided incontestable evidence of Trump’s fundamental unfitness.
Those who sampled the three-week melodrama even sporadically witnessed the president’s retreat from a defense of categorical (if unconvincing) denial to an assertion of unbounded presidential authority. In the end, defenders who initially insisted that Trump had been misquoted or misconstrued were reduced to arguing that even his most flagrant misconduct was beyond the Senate’s jurisdiction.
The nadir may have come when defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz insisted that the national interest and Trump’s political fortunes were so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.
Even Republicans who voted to acquit him were loathe to excuse the president’s conduct, much less embrace his expansive view of presidential authority.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the sometimes-independent-minded Alaskan who fell into line by refusing to call eyewitnesses, nevertheless rejected the president’s spurious claims of innocence. Murkowski said the president’s conduct had been “shameful and wrong” and that “his personal interests do not take precedence over those of this great nation.”
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander acknowledged that House prosecutors had “proved” that Trump conditioned the release of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine on a promise to pursue investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. But he joined his Ohio colleague Rob Portman in concluding that what was indefensible was not necessarily impeachable.
Even the incurably sycophantic Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) expressed confidence that he would “think twice” before pressuring another foreign leader the way he had leaned on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The admission of fallibility, of course, is foreign to Trump’s nature. So he will spend the next 10 months portraying his acquittal as an exoneration, rather than a failure of nerve by an unprincipled Senate. So even if they lack the courage of their convictions, give Republican senators credit for knowing right from wrong. They may have made a calculated decision to look away from Trump’s malignancy, but they know the tumor they’re ignoring is anything but benign.