In Depth

How Donald Trump survived impeachment - and what comes next

Democrat Schumer claims there is ‘giant asterisk next to the president’s acquittal’

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Donald Trump has been acquitted on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress at the US president’s impeachment trial.

The Republican-controlled Senate found the president not guilty on abuse of power by 52-48 votes, and not guilty of the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, by 53-47.

How did he avoid conviction?

Despite being impeached by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, there was never much chance of Trump being convicted in the Senate.

A two-thirds majority (meaning a total of 67 senators) would have been required to remove Trump from office, but Republicans hold 53 of the upper chamber’s 100 seats.

As predicted, votes were almost all cast along party lines. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump, on the first charge of abuse of power. In doing so, Romney became the first US senator in history to vote to convict a president from his own party.

The Guardian reports that “the unchanging opposition of the Republican base to removal” played a huge role in protecting Trump from impeachment. According to polling by FiveThirtyEight, the number of Republicans favouring removal was 8% to 10% during the trial.

So the base remained loyal to Trump, and so too did elected Republicans. Romney said: “The president is guilty of a flagrant abuse of public trust… Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.” But his Republican colleagues in the Senate were unmoved.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell admitted from the outset that he would not be an impartial juror, while fears that two other moderate Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, might vote against the president proved unfounded.

Does this mean he is off the hook?

The acquittal means that Trump will stay in office, and be able to seek re-election later this year.

But in speeches on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Democrats said Trump’s acquittal was not a vindication of him, but rather a condemnation of the Senate, says The Guardian.

“This is not an exoneration of Donald Trump,” said Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. “It is a failure to show moral courage and hold this president accountable.”

Democrats hoping that the president will have been damaged by the impeachment process may be disappointed. Trump’s personal approval rating with American voters hit a “personal best” of 49% this week, according to pollsters Gallup.

However, as investigative journalist Ari Berman notes, the “48 senators who voted to convict Trump represent 18 million more Americans than 52 Republicans who voted to acquit”, leaving the door open for American voters to punish Trump at the ballot box. 

In the short term, the White House has welcomed the embarrassing malfunction in the reporting of Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Some Democrats have also expressed concern that Trump’s acquittal could further embolden the president, says the BBC.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump remains “an ongoing threat to American democracy” and that Senate Republicans had “normalised lawlessness” by failing to convict him. “No doubt, the president will boast he received total exoneration,” added New York senator Chuck Schumer. “But we know better.”

There will always be “a giant asterisk next to the president’s acquittal”, Schumer said.

What happens next?

The only two previous presidents to be impeached, Bill Clinton in 1999 and Andrew Johnson in 1868, were both acquitted by the Senate but did not seek re-election.

Trump, however, will seek re-election in November. After the acquittal, Trump’s campaign team released a statement saying: “President Trump has been totally vindicated and it’s now time to get back to the business of the American people.

“The do-nothing Democrats know they can't beat him, so they had to impeach him.”

Whether this is the last of the Ukraine investigation remains to be seen. Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday that the House would “likely” subpoena Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton.

A forthcoming Bolton memoir reportedly claims Trump asked him to help pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Senate Republicans voted against calling witnesses – including Bolton – during Trump’s impeachment trial, provoking uproar from Democrats.

But polling between Trump and the remaning 11 Democratic presidential nominee candidates is close, with nine months of campaigning still to go.

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