On January 6, 2021, a group of impassioned Trump supporters overran the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C.. This marked the first breach of the building in over 200 years and resulted in the deaths of five people and the injury of over a hundred more. If the tangible impacts of this event—namely the injuries and visible destruction to a much-revered democratic institution—weren’t enough to mark its gravity, the then President of the United States’ role in the incident surely did. Just miles away from the Capitol, President Trump had given a speech that prompted many to think that he bore responsibility for the riots. The situation veered into something that at best, might be demonstrably illegal, and at worst, warranted an impeachment trial.
As Trump’s second impeachment trial ensued, many felt his role in the attempted insurrection made a conviction for incitement imminent. However, while the House impeached him, the Senate acquitted him on all charges. This outcome raised questions among impeachment scholars, lawyers, and politicians about the relative strength of the impeachment process. After all, what appeared at least partly attributed to President Trump’s speech and history of divisive rhetoric was still not enough to equate to an impeachment conviction. If a president as unconventional as Trump—who disillusioned an entire sect of the American electorate by espousing conspiracy theories about a ‘rigged’ election t culminating in an unprecedented riot—couldn’t be impeached, what would a president have to do to be convicted? After all, not a single president has ever been convicted using the impeachment process.
The Founding Fathers considered impeachment of public officials, or a process akin to it, so essential a prerequisite to the Constitution that they included it in writing before even enumerating the powers bestowed to the executive branch. According to the House of Representatives’ Archive of History and Art, the Founding Fathers were gravely concerned with the possibility of a corrupted president, as was detailed in Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers and included in various accounts of the constitutional conventions. When a public official disobeys their civil (and often legal) duty to provide for the public good by breaking a law or displaying egregious misconduct, they must be held accountable.
If we look back on the history of the execution of impeachment, there are similarities in the circumstances surrounding the respective Presidents. For instance, the first invocation of impeachment was for President Andrew Johnson in 1868. In the similar way Trump has declared himself the arbiter of truth in a sea of fake news, Johnson directed mistrust to government institutions, namely, Congress. He did so by vetoing much of the legislation passed by Congress at the time in an effort to abate reconstruction efforts as much as possible, according to the Senate’s Art and History Archives. His eventual impeachment did not lead to conviction, however, as many Senators harbored concerns over a conviction ultimately disrupting the balance of powers by weakening the executive branch. According to UVA’s Miller Center, the impeachment still had visible effects on President Johnson’s presidential tenure. Once the impeachment trial ended, government officials largely disregarded his authority, though officially intact,, and his influence on public policy dwindled until his term ended.
Impeachment is a warning for abuses committed by presidents, though there were some differing circumstances that distinguish Trump’s impeachment.For example, as Dr. John Dearborn, a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at Yale explained in an interview with The Politic, what made this impeachment trial so distinct was the nature of Trump’s presidency. What made Trump different was his position within the general scope of “presidential party development where you have presidents that have really loyal partisan followings.” To him and many others, Trump appeared to be “pursuing a unitary executive” in that he was “trying to exercise hierarchical control over the executive branch.” Numerous of Trump’s actions give credence to this view, for instance, the fact that he would continually fire and rehire officials in other government departments, such as the Attorney General of the United States. The true implications of the impeachment could be seen in Trump’s final weeks, when, according to Dearborn, an interesting situation arose “where it informally seemed like he lost some of his power, but formally he did have it.” In other words, Trump’s overarching control of the executive branch and its subsidiary departments, which at times seemed to stretch into near totalitarian rule, diminished after his impeachment. This suggests even more so that there are tangible results from impeachment—they just don’t necessarily necessitate full conviction.
The unanswered question remains, however, why this particularly noteworthy act of a sitting president didn’t result in conviction. After all, the Capitol Riots were arguably in the works for a very long time, and are a manifestation of Trump’s decisive rhetoric, which through sowing distrust in the media and the Democratic Party, inspired people to commit the heinous acts of desecration on our very government. These people, though clearly in the wrong, cannot be ignored. There is a whole section of the American populace, through Trump’s mobilization, that genuinely believed the election was ‘rigged’ and that Democrats had nefarious intentions against a ‘fair’ and ‘just’ president.
Professor Stephen Skowronek, the Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale whose work has interestingly labeled Trump as a mobilizer president, echoes these sentiments. In an interview with The Politic, he explained that “part of Trumpism was the stigmatizing of all of the government and potential critics as self-interested” and “when people believe that, it’s very hard to make an effective assault or criticism,” which is described at length in his and Dearborn’s recently co-authored book Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and The Unitary Executive. Essentially, as Skowronek eloquently pointed out, it was Trump’s mobilization of the electorate that partly inspired the Capital Riots, but it is apparent his mobilization extended to Republican legislators and senators who directly contributed to his acquittal.
This is a serious concern, as the Founding Fathers presumably did not have partisan politics and a two-party system in mind when framing the Constitution and the impeachment process. Trump truly radicalized the seat of presidency by making his campaign and the office so indistinguishable. In other words, before Trump, we’ve rarely ever seen such an intermingled relationship between the two.. He typically spoke and acted as if he were in front of an audience of his supporters, even in the most serious of diplomatic matters.
More than transforming the presidency, Trump also used his position as the figurehead of the Republican Party to gain, and sometimes demand, support from elected government figures, which contributed heavily to his acquittal. Dr. Patrick Tucker, a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale, reiterated these concerns, mentioning that general electoral politics could have been at play in the context of Trump’s impeachment. He explained that most elected officials in government “are worried about reelection and are always thinking about how voters are going to view their behaviors.” It is clear Trump was incredibly successful in bolstering his group of supporters who are typically centralized in Republican-dominated areas. A central part of being an elected official is listening to constituents. So, in areas that are extremely pro-Trump, littered with people who believed in most of his espoused conspiracies , a vote for conviction could have been “a losing prospect electorally,” according to Tucker. That’s certainly not to say these representatives should not have voted for acquittal, but it is nonetheless an important contributing factor that happens to be an intrinsic part of the American democratic process.
All things considered, a look at the failure of conviction is a look at the failure of government in our polarized political landscape, where bipartisan politics rule and private interests seep into democratic processes.
Despite these circumstances, Dearborn highlighted that there still were consequences to Trump’s overall impeachment. He mentioned that, though “the 25th amendment was not invoked, it almost felt like it was,” referring to how the Vice President assumes authority if a President is ever removed from office. In other words, though in a formal sense the President retained his presidential power following the trials, in the time following the final vote, the White House entered an“interesting situation where it informally seemed like he lost some of his power, but formally he did have it.” We saw President Trump’s authority wane as departments typically under his strict control, like the Justice Department, began to act more independently.
So what, then, is the purpose of conviction in the impeachment process? If, in both the cases of Johnson and Trump, it resulted in temporary loss of support (not official power), does it really serve any function at all? Trump has always been an unconventional president, and his base could just see impeachment as a calculated effort by Democrats to subvert a legitimate presidency. It’s been speculated that Trump will run for reelection in 2024, a prospect that conviction would have barred. For a base that loves him for being unconventional and thrives on conspiracies, in the long run, could his supporters be riled up and see impeachment as just another conspiratorial roadblock?