What Donald Trump’s impeachment means for America
The public reaction ahead of next year’s election is more crucial than ever
The US House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump on Wednesday night, making him the third president in American history to face removal from office for charges of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Following a day of strident, angry debate which further exposed the partisan rift dividing Washington, Trump now faces trial in the Republican-controlled upper house - the Senate - where he is expected to be acquitted.
Two impeachment charges were levelled at the president by the Democratic-majority House. The first, abuse of power, was passed 230-197, while the second, obstruction of Congress, was passed 229-198.
Opening proceedings dressed in all black, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke of her solemnity and sadness. That this was a sad day was one of the only things both parties could agree on. “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty,” she said. “It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”
When the vote was passed confirming Trump was officially going to be impeached, Pelosi was stoic.
Republican representatives, however, went on the offensive, echoing many of the points outlined in Trump’s coruscating letter sent to Pelosi the day before.
One after another, they repeated their defences of the president: the impeachment is a partisan venture, they said, enacted by politicians who admitted as soon as Trump took power that they were looking for a reason to impeach him, before they even knew what for. They argued the process had been rushed to fit a political timetable, and was a sham - and it was a verdict in search of a crime, with no victim and no proof.
“This day is about one thing and one thing only,” said Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah. “They hate this president. They hate those of us who voted for him. They think we are stupid. They think we made a mistake. They think Hillary Clinton should be the president and they want to fix that.”
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Democrats also hammered their position home: Trump put his personal political interests ahead of those of the nation, abusing the power of his office to secure re-election, and obstructed Congress in their attempt to investigate him.
“He doesn’t care about Ukraine or the impact on our national security caused by withholding military aid to that country fighting for its democratic life,” said Congressman Adam Schiff, who chaired the committee that led the investigation to decide whether to impeach Trump. “All that matters to this president is what affects him personally: an investigation into his political rival and a chance to cheat in the next election.”
Each side claimed to act on America’s behalf, and on behalf of the constitution. Every speaker denied theirs was a partisan position, but when the vote took place at 8pm, the numbers alone cast doubt on these claims: almost every Democrat had voted to impeach Trump, and every Republican had voted not to.
The fact that no Republican turned on their commander in chief is a big win for the president on an otherwise challenging day. It also bodes well for his prospects in a Senate trial, the next process in impeachment, which would require a two-thirds majority - 67 senators - to convict and remove the president.
What does it mean for the US?
Crucially, it remains to be seen how the country as a whole will react to these events. After all, with little prospect of Trump being removed by the Senate, what is really being vied for in Washington is public opinion, with the presidential elections in November next year approaching.
As each speaker read their pre-prepared statement during Wednesday evening’s debate, it was clear their purpose was to shape the public narrative.
Again and again, Republicans referred to Trump as “our duly-elected President”, seeking to paint the impeachment as a violation of America’s democratic decision. Of course, every president is duly-elected - Bill Clinton was elected when Republican impeached him - but this was a warning that Democrats will be punished by the electorate for what they were doing.
Speaking at a campaign rally as the House debate went on, Trump also argued that the vote showed Democrats’ dislike not just for him, but for the people who voted for him. “The do-nothing Democrats are declaring their deep hatred and disdain for the American people,” he told the crowd. “This lawless partisan impeachment is a political suicide march for the Democrat party.”
Some would argue the UK has recent experience of what happens when voters feel the political establishment is trying to circumvent their democratic will.
Schiff, however, envisaged the future differently. “When the history of this time is written, it will record that when my colleagues found that they lacked the courage to stand up to this unethical president, they consoled themselves by attacking those who did,” he said.
The New York Times says: “If anything, the process underscored the extent to which the nation is pulling apart into two, with each side claiming its own news sources and fact sets that make meaningful debate between Democrats and Republicans over the significance of president’s conduct almost impossible.
“Public opinion polls show that the nation is as closely divided over Mr. Trump’s impeachment and removal as it was on Election Day 2016.”