Did The Impeachment Trial Of Donald Trump Really Accomplish Anything?

The impeachment drumbeat kicked off as fodder for hot-take artists trying to sound edgy. There was a giddy exhilaration in going out there to argue that this is a rare moment in history that calls for drastic constitutional action. It spread to politicians looking to raise money from a base increasingly riled up by the constant impeachment talk. Nancy Pelosi seemed to be the only one out there pumping the brakes and no one was going on TV to defend her. Eventually the Ukraine allegations came to light, providing the House an abuse of power that dwarfed the lackluster Mueller allegations and the horse was fully out of the barn. Now, the impeachment trial everyone clamored for has come and gone. And what have we accomplished as a nation?

This seems like a good time to revisit my article from May of last year arguing that the fixation on impeachment was a terrible idea all along to see just how things turned out. Why go back to my old predictions? Well, as Jim Brockmire put it, “You think I’m the kind of guy that likes to say, ‘I told you so,’ but that’s not true. I love to say it, and I will be doing so in the days and months ahead at random moments when you least expect it.”

To recap the piece, my reticence to join the impeachment train was pretty clinical: if the goal of the political process was to ensure Donald Trump ceases to be president in either the short- or long-term, does impeachment accomplish either of those goals? I concluded it did not and could well do the opposite. So what happened?

Prediction 1 — Donald Trump Will Be Acquitted
Verdict: Confirmed

The most obvious prediction because only the most partisan fever dreams contemplated the Senate getting to 67 votes to convict. Some, like my intrepid podcast cohost, tried to chart a path to conviction but it was always a stretch. In any event, the impeachment failed to remove Trump from office in the short-term.

Prediction 2 — Vulnerable Republicans Won’t Defect In Numbers
Verdict: Confirmed

I never bought the “retiring and purple state Senators will have to convict” line. Just because a Republican is retiring doesn’t mean they don’t still have to go home and not get egged by the MAGA hat electorate that put them there. Lamar Alexander still has to hob-knob with these people. Vulnerable Republicans aren’t as naive about triangulation as Democrats. While the liberals delude themselves into thinking everyone loves a moderate, the Republicans by and large understand that they win purple states by turning out the base. Whether they do it boldly or through winks and nods, they know they aren’t winning most of these states in landslides — they win those seats in tight, turnout-based elections where the right is engaged. Any feints to the middle are superficial at best and trying to remove the right’s favorite president would wildly alienate that base.

Prediction 3 — Any Republicans That Do Defect Would Actually Be Bad For Democratic Senatorial Aspirations
Verdict: Mixed

Where I whiffed was in predicting that purple state defections would actually be a disaster for Democrats, giving those Republicans a chance to have their cake and eat it too. I thought someone like Susan Collins might comfortably shift her vote to keep Trump in power while walking into reelection claiming that she “tried” to get him out. As it turned out, Collins decided she didn’t need to take the risk. Probably for the reasons detailed above.

But I’m giving myself partial credit on Mitt Romney. Not a purple state senator by any means, but he followed the logic of the argument: he voted to convict knowing that it wouldn’t matter and parlayed that into fawning coverage as a paragon of bipartisanship. Someone absolutely will spout off about making Romney the Democratic running mate on a harebrained “unity ticket.” For a senator whose goal is national relevance, it was the right play. He’s now going to pretend to be the arbiter of “the middle” and the press will largely let him get away with it.

Prediction 4 — Trump Declared Acquittal Provides “Finality”… And People Will Believe Him
Verdict: Still Early, But Appears Likely

When the Mueller report concluded that the Trump campaign was too stupid to realize that they were advancing Russian interests, Trump had his Attorney General lie about the report so the White House could claim he was “exonerated.” It strikes at what people don’t get about Trump: he doesn’t need to be cleared, he just needs these things to be over. He can make up whatever story he wants once the spectacle is in the can and through repetition he can get traction. As I put it in May:

A Senate trial may be rigged affair, but it would hand him the rhetorical flourish he desperately wants — “it’s over… they tried me and found nothing.” Trump would get to repeat this mantra twenty times a day for a year and a half. He gets to point and say “scoreboard” whenever anyone challenges him. For a candidate whose electoral success is entirely tied to exuding the appearance — deserved or not — of “winning” this is a tremendous risk for his opponents to invite.

Will the public believe him? Checking in on Trump’s approval rating post-acquittal we find that he’s… more popular than he’s ever been. A 49 percent Gallup result may still fall below 50 percent, but for the comparable week in 2012, Obama was only at 47 percent.

So the Democrats placed a speedbump on the path to Trump’s long-term removal. In my earlier piece and on podcasts touching on this topic, I’ve always held that marathon investigations would be far more successful than impeachment. Even with witnesses ducking subpoenas, the spectacle of hearing after hearing would rob Trump of the finality he craved to begin spinning his cover. Consider the years of substance-free Benghazi hearings trying to tie the embassy attack to Hillary Clinton somehow. There wasn’t even a whiff of smoke there on the evidence and it still played into a narrative that she was vaguely corrupt. Instead, Democrats took their shot and watched it sail into the stands.

Prediction 5 — Democrats Will Suffer From Setting Themselves Up To Fail
Verdict: Unknown

Sure the whole thing got donors to open up their wallets to give to Democrats, but it also whipped people into a delusion that this was all going to amount to something. Frustrated Dems might realize this was doomed from the start and redouble their efforts to win in November. But there’s something demoralizing about failing to meet the expectations you set. Does this leave the party with the narrative mark of “failure”? This one is too early to call.

But if this does end up weighing down the Democrats in November, it should be a sobering moment for all those who uncritically pushed this process for over a year. Unfortunately, sober self-reflection is hard to come by in the media these days.

Earlier: Impeachophilia: The Democrats’ Futile And Self-Destructive Attraction To Impeachment

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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