U.S. President Donald Trump's acquittal Wednesday on impeachment charges is a watershed moment in his presidency, exonerating him of wrongdoing just nine months ahead of next November's national election when he is seeking a second term in the White House.
He was found not guilty on the first charge of abuse of power, 52-48; and found not guilty on a second charge of obstruction of Congress, 53-47.
Trump's acquittal likely will have huge long-term implications on politics and the balance of power in Washington with the president's hand strengthened heading into the campaign season. Only one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney, the losing 2012 Republican presidential candidate, voted to convict the Republican Trump on the first charge of abuse of power, assailing his conduct as "wrong, egregiously wrong". On the second charge of obstruction of Congress, Romney voted not guilty.
Trump is in a position now to make use of Wednesday's acquittal to his advantage ahead of the election, even as a collection of national polls shows he remains an unpopular president with a job approval rating in the mid-40% range in a politically divided country.
"It’s amazing what I’ve done," he wrote on Twitter as his impeachment trial neared the end, "the most of any President in the first three years (by far), considering that for three years I’ve been under phony political investigations and the Impeachment Hoax! KEEP AMERICA GREAT!"
Power of the presidency
Trump now is the third U.S. president in the country's 244-year history to have faced impeachment charges, but been acquitted in Senate trials to remain in office, after Andrew Johnson in the mid-19th century and Bill Clinton two decades ago. Trump is the first, however, who has been cleared and then faces a re-election campaign to remain as the U.S. leader. An array of Democratic challengers, none of whom has yet to emerge from a large field of candidates as the clear choice of Democratic voters, is vying to be his opponent.
There possibly is a new etched-in-stone understanding of the power of the U.S. presidency, as evidenced by Trump's exoneration on two articles of impeachment, that he abused the power of the presidency by seeking help from Ukraine to investigate a political foe and then obstructed congressional efforts to investigate him.
At the outset of the trial, Congressman Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat prosecuting the case against Trump, laid out the stakes.
"Our relationship with Ukraine will survive," he said. "But if we are to decide here that a president of the United States can simply say that, 'Under Article 2 [of the Constitution], I can do whatever I want, and I don't have to treat a political branch of government like it exists,' that will be an unending injury to this country. Ukraine will survive, and so will we, but that will be an unending injury to this country, because the balance of power that our founders set out will never be the same."
But as the trial wound down, one of Trump's impeachment defense lawyers, noted criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, argued to the 100 senators acting as jurors for an expansive view of U.S. presidential power. He said that even if Trump had engaged in a quid pro quo deal with Ukraine to benefit himself politically, it was not an impeachable offense, a viewpoint disputed by U.S. constitutional scholars.
But Dershowitz's view, since Trump has been acquitted, could effectively become the standard by which the actions of future presidents are judged.“
If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz argued. He later said his comment had been misconstrued and that he did not mean to contend that U.S. presidents always have unlimited power.
However, another Trump lawyer, deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin, said a president asking Russia and China to look into his political opponents, as Trump has done, does not violate U.S. campaign finance laws making it illegal to accept or solicit a "thing of value" from foreign governments.“
Mere information is not something that would violate the campaign finance laws,” Philbin said. “If there is credible information, credible information of wrongdoing by someone who is running for a public office, it’s not campaign interference for credible information about wrongdoing to be brought to light.”
Interpreting Trump's words
During the weeks of the impeachment investigation in the House of Representatives late last year and the trial in the Senate the last two weeks, there was little dispute of what Trump did, rather the interpretation of it.
In a phone call last July 25, he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to "do us a favor," to investigate one of his chief 2020 Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to undermine his campaign. At the same time, Trump was blocking release of $391 million of military aid Kyiv wanted to help it fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
No one in the public knew about Trump's request for the Ukraine investigations to benefit himself politically until a still-unidentified government intelligence worker familiar with the call between the two leaders filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had sought help from a foreign government to help him in the 2020 election.
Trump adamantly and repeatedly insisted there was no link between the two elements central to his impeachment, denying that he was demanding a reciprocal quid pro quo deal with Kyiv, the military assistance in exchange for the Biden investigations. He claimed the "us" in his request to Zelenskiy referred to the United States, not him personally.
He described his request to Zelenskiy for the Biden investigations as "perfect." His Republican defenders said that Trump wanted corruption, broadly speaking, investigated in Ukraine, not just the Bidens, although Trump never raised the issue of corruption generally in the phone call with Zelenskiy, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House. Trump supporters also noted that the president released the aid after a 55-day delay without Zelenskiy opening any investigations of the Bidens, proof, they say, that the president had not carried out a quid pro quo deal with Ukraine.
But Democratic lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and Senate contended that Trump, despite his denials, had engaged in a deal with Ukraine, seeking to help himself politically while endangering the national security of the United States by denying an ally, Ukraine, vital military aid in its fight against Russia. It was a sentiment that only one Republican, Romney, now a senator from the western state of Utah after losing the 2012 presidential contest, agreed with.
Through weeks of testimony in the House impeachment inquiry, however, a string of government officials, some of them appointed by Trump, said they came to understand that Trump wanted announcement of the Biden investigations before the military aid would be released. But, as Trump's Republican defenders often noted, they had not talked directly with Trump and only assumed he wanted the investigations before the Ukraine assistance would be released.
That evidentiary shortcoming possibly changed, however, in the last two weeks as news surfaced of a claim in a new book by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton. In his as-yet unpublished manuscript, Bolton said that Trump told him directly last August that he wanted the Biden investigations before he would release the aid. A month later, Trump ousted Bolton from his key White House position as the two feuded over a host of foreign policy issues.
Trump denied Bolton's Ukraine claim, but House impeachment managers prosecuting the case against the president fought to have Bolton testify at the Senate trial. Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, said the trial could not be considered fair without testimony and Ukraine-related documents they wanted to subpoena from the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department.
Trump assailed his one-time security aide and complained again about the Democrats' conduct of the impeachment investigation and trial.
"No matter how many witnesses you give the Democrats, no matter how much information is given, like the quickly produced Transcripts, it will NEVER be enough for them," Trump tweeted. "They will always scream UNFAIR. The Impeachment Hoax is just another political CON JOB!"
But Schiff needed the votes of four Republican senators to join with 47 Democrats in the 100-member Senate for a simple majority calling Bolton as a witness. In the end, all but two senators of the 53-seat Senate Republican majority stood with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch Trump ally, and voted against hearing witnesses, including Bolton.
With that large hurdle cleared, McConnell moved toward the final stages of the trial on the two impeachment articles, reaching the conclusion with Trump's acquittal on Wednesday.