On Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump became the first person in American history to be impeached twice. By a vote of 232 to 197, Trump was once again branded with the political mark of Cain by the House of Representatives. Unlike the 2020 impeachment, the 2021 vote did not divide neatly along party lines. In the end, 10 Republicans broke ranks to support removing Trump from office, and another four failed to vote, even by proxy. Trump now faces the prospect of a Senate trial, which will take place after he leaves office on January 20.
How Do You Impeach a Former President?
The Senate could vote to bar him from ever running for office again
The damage Trump has done to his legacy over the past two months was clear in how Republicans chose to defend him — or rather, not defend him. While Trump was depicted as a victim of a witch hunt, and even compared to Jesus Christ during the first impeachment, his defenders were far less zealous on Wednesday.
Some, like Rep. Jodey Arrington of Texas, conceded that Trump had shown bad judgment, while others — like Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the number two Republican in Congress — opposed impeachment because they thought it would be divisive. He brandished Lincoln’s immortal line from his Second Inaugural, “with malice towards none, with charity for all” as an argument for moving on from the January 6 putsch without rebuke.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, and a longtime Trump ally, said, “the president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters” and indicated he would support censuring the president for his actions last week, though he voted against impeachment.
That’s not to say that all Republicans were critical or subdued in their support. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida pledged to go after “the Biden crime family” and newly elected members Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado engaged in the inflammatory rhetoric that already, after less than a fortnight in office, has become their trademark.
In contrast, Democratic rhetoric covered familiar ground. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas described Trump as a “dangerous man to occupy the Oval Office” while Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him “a clear and present danger,” language that would not be unfamiliar from the last impeachment. But the Democrats’ core critique was rooted in the events of January 6 and the attack on the Capitol, a moment without any precedent in American history.
What happens next is an open question. Trump has faced unprecedented Republican opposition, even from those who opposed impeachment over concerns about process rather than the president’s conduct. Chip Roy of Texas went so far as to say that Trump “deserves universal condemnation for clearly what was in my opinion impeachable conduct.” Roy just did not believe that the article of impeachment submitted to the House described the appropriate impeachable act.
Further, Trump’s term will end before a Senate trial can begin. There is little precedent for “a late impeachment” in American history, though there is the case of Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of war, who resigned during his 1876 impeachment.
Everything now is uncharted waters. This is already the most bipartisan impeachment in American history, happening in the immediate aftermath of a mob storming the Capitol. It took place with troops stationed around the Capitol complex and bivouacked on its floor beneath statues. They were there not to guard legislators against foreign invaders, but from insurgents egged on by the president.
As bizarre as the first impeachment was, it could still be categorized as a somewhat conventional partisan battle in the current political era. The facts were different but the party lines were not too different from that of the Clinton impeachment. This latest legislative effort to hold him accountable is something new and unusual. The president wasn’t impeached for corruption, for veniality, or for abuse of power. He was impeached for “inciting insurrection against the United States,” an offense without precedent.
The Senate is not likely to begin its trial until after Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. On the calendar, it is just over a week away. But in the current environment, it is an eternity. Eight days ago, Republicans were favored to keep the Senate, Donald Trump’s Twitter account was one of the most formidable weapons in conservative politics, and Officer Brian Sicknick of the Capitol Police was still alive.
In the meantime, Donald Trump will remain in office for seven more days, with the full power of the presidency: the ability to pardon, to send troops to combat, and use the vast machinery of the United States government as he chooses. And he has absolutely nothing to lose.