On Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States. A magnificent and terrible machine engineered by the founders, still and silent through almost all of American history, has for only the third time in 231 years shifted into motion, to consider whether Congress must call a president to account for abuse of power.
So why does it all seem so banal? The outcome so foreordained?
Most people say they know what’s going to happen, and who are we to say they’re wrong? The House voted to impeach Donald Trump by a party-line vote, with the exception of three Democrats representing Trump-friendly districts who voted against at least one article of impeachment. In the next month or two, the Senate will almost surely acquit him, also on a party-line vote.
It isn’t supposed to be this way. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the intense — really, infantilizing — degree of polarization that has overwhelmed American politics across the past 40 years. But the nihilism of this moment — the trashing of constitutional safeguards, the scorn for facts, the embrace of corruption, the indifference to historical precedent and to foreign interference in American politics — is due principally to cowardice and opportunism on the part of Republican leaders who have chosen to reject their party’s past standards and positions and instead follow Donald Trump, all the way down.
It’s a lot to ask of Republicans to insist on holding their own leader accountable, just as that was a lot to expect of Democrats during the Clinton impeachment inquiry. But while many Democrats then criticized President Bill Clinton and some voted to impeach him, Republican lawmakers would not breathe a word against Mr. Trump on Wednesday.
Instead, they competed with one another to invoke the most outlandish metaphor of evil — from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — and suggest that Mr. Trump is enduring even worse.
Senate Republicans are preparing to follow the example of their House colleagues, though many know better. Not so very long ago, several of them — including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, even the majority leader, Mitch McConnell — warned that Donald Trump was wrong for the country. Lindsey Graham memorably called Mr. Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” who was “unfit for office.” Now these senators seem eager to endorse the very sort of behavior they feared.
It is not too much to wonder how much of this cynicism and betrayal of principle any democracy can handle.
Every president from George Washington onward has been accused of misconduct of one kind or another, and many have faced calls for their impeachment. But Congress has resorted to the ultimate remedy so rarely because of the unspoken agreement that it should be reserved for only the most egregious and inexcusable offenses against the national interest.
Mr. Trump himself drew this distinction in 2008, arguing that President George W. Bush should have been impeached for lying about the reasons for the Iraq war, while at the same time rejecting the Republicans’ impeachment of Mr. Clinton for lying about sex as “nonsense,” done for something “totally unimportant.”
By any reasonable measure, Mr. Trump’s own conduct in office clears the bar for impeachment set by the founders. The case against him is that he solicited foreign interference to help in his 2020 re-election campaign, that he used hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to do it, that his administration tried to hide the evidence and that he then blocked Congress from performing its constitutionally mandated role of checking the executive branch. Multiple government officials, some appointed by the president himself, have confirmed all of these facts.
There may be no better illustration of what the Constitution’s framers considered to be impeachable conduct. And that’s leaving to the side strong evidence that Mr. Trump has committed other impeachable offenses, including taking foreign money at his personal businesses, obstructing justice and violating campaign-finance laws — the latter two of which are also federal crimes.
Through it all, Mr. Trump has had the opportunity to rebut the charges. By his account, he could have extinguished both articles of impeachment by allowing top administration officials to testify under oath. If he really did nothing wrong, the testimony of these officials would exonerate him of the charge of abusing his power, and simply their appearance under oath would dissolve the charge of obstructing Congress.
And yet when given the opportunity to defend himself, the president has refused to participate, defying all of the House’s subpoenas for witnesses and documents, effectively declaring himself unaccountable.
His defense has consisted of sending all-caps tweets accusing the Democrats of perpetrating a “hoax” and trying to overturn an election. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump delivered an unhinged, error-ridden six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which he called the impeachment inquiry “an illegal, partisan attempted coup” and claimed that the Salem witch trials provided more due process. Tell that to the women and men who were hanged in Massachusetts.
The president’s letter demonstrated again his complete failure to offer a substantive defense. His refusal to admit he did the slightest thing wrong, or to offer witnesses who could affirm his innocence, left the House with no choice but to impeach him. By the sworn testimony about his actions, and by his own public statements calling on China and Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, he has shown not only that he tried to cheat to win the 2020 election, but that he is continuing to do so.
The case now moves to the Senate for a trial, which will be presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts. The chief justice will have the power to rule on any disputes that arise, but his rulings can be overturned by a majority of senators. Though he may be reluctant to be dragged into what might seem political disputes, Chief Justice Roberts has the authority and the duty to make this process more than a partisan farce.
Ideally, many of those disputes would be hammered out by Senate leaders before the trial begins, and would include rules that allow for compelling the production of documents that the White House has withheld, as well as requiring the testimony of witnesses whom Mr. Trump blocked from appearing before the House, including John Bolton, the former national security adviser; Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Unfortunately, the Senate is led by Mr. McConnell.
Mr. McConnell, who like all senators will swear an oath to “do impartial justice” at the start of the trial, has already vowed to violate that oath. “I’m not an impartial juror. This is a political process,” Mr. McConnell said on Tuesday. “The House made a partisan political decision to impeach. I would anticipate we will have a largely partisan outcome in the Senate.” He has also vowed to coordinate directly with the White House on all aspects of the trial.
No one is suggesting that House Democrats are above playing politics, but at least they held hearings, considered evidence and did their best to get at the truth. Mr. McConnell won’t even promise that much.
The bottom line is that impeachment in the House is unlikely to protect the country from Mr. Trump’s abuse of power, because his fellow party leaders prize their power more than the principles they say they stand for. The only way to protect American democracy is for those who value it to put it to work, and vote these people out.