Does Trump’s impeachment trial set a dangerous precedent for our nation’s future?

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Will history judge President Trump’s impeachment trial as an indictment on his record and the surge of American populism, or as precedent further normalizing the political dominance of the executive branch and divisive partisanship? (graphic by Jessica Tapia)

Joey Weslo, General Assignment Reporter

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Impeachment trials make for the most boring game of Russian roulette when you forget to load ammunition into the chambers.

Without public pressure, without the fear of voter retribution, the Senators we are entrusting to be impartial jurors are free to exhibit the most brazen partiality. When given this impunity, politicians will always be politicians.

In the wake of the historic proceedings, how will history judge Trump’s impeachment and short, 15-day Senate trial acquittal? What precedents does this set for the future of our representative democracy? And if judged by history to have been a partisan sham and miscarriage of justice, can we ever restore balance and trust to the political institutions enshrined by our nation’s founders?

“I’m not an impartial juror,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to reporters on Capitol Hill after he rejected Democrats’ request to allow witness testimony in President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. “This is a political process. There’s not anything judicial about it. The House made a partisan political decision to impeach. I would anticipate we will have a largely partisan outcome in the Senate.”

After becoming only the third President to be impeached by the House in U.S. history (Nixon resigned before likely impeachment), Trump’s Senate trial to remove him from office mostly followed in predictable party-line votes. The Senate acquitted Trump 52-48 on charges of abuse of power (with only Mitt Romney (R-UT) voting against party) and 53-47 on charges of obstruction of Congress. A two-thirds majority vote was needed on each charge for conviction.

Democrats accuse Trump of abusing the powers of his office by withholding $391 million in Congressional approved military aid to Ukraine, an ally embattled in territorial conflict with Russia, to coerce the Ukrainian government to publicly announce an investigation into the family of Joe Biden, a Democrat political adversary to Trump, once seen as the biggest threat to Trump’s reelection campaign. House Democrats also impeached Trump for obstruction of Congress after the White House blocked witnesses from testifying, ignored Congressional subpoenas and refused the handover of documents sought by Congressional impeachment investigators.

College of DuPage Professor of Political Science Maureen Ponicki believes history must learn the real trial transpired before the Senate impeachment process even began.

“The public feels they don’t have a lot of power, but politicians respond to voters,” said Ponicki. “If the public had voiced outrage, protested in the streets and phoned to pressure their Senators, more Republicans might have moved. Nixon’s own party would have voted against him because the public largely turned on him. If the public had been significantly pro-majority impeachment, the outlook might have looked different.”

While both Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999 were impeached, they were both acquitted by the Senate.

An unfortunate truth in coalescing public sentiment is it’s more crucial to control the national narrative than presenting an empirical, evidence-based argument. For 24-hour news networks centered on entertainment and dependent on stoking divisive polarized distortions of reality, it’s bad business if the public agrees upon anything. In today’s self-serving political climate, it’s much more profitable to divide every political issue along identity and tribalist lines.

“Democrats thought if they just presented the facts, the public would respond,” said Ponicki. “However, neuroscience shows it’s not about facts and policies, but about the emotions of an individual. Crafting a narrative is the best way to access a person’s emotions. Trump masterfully manipulates the media and is able to constantly get his narrative out there. The argument against the Democrats is since Trump first took office there has been one concerted effort to impeach and remove him from office. This created a block in the minds of many Americans. Therefore, when an offense really happened, many in the public were distrustful of the allegations.”

Ponicki said she didn’t fault Democrats on the frenzy surrounding the necessary Mueller Report, but it fed into Trump’s narrative of labeling every Democratic action a “witch hunt.” Even with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office ruling Trump’s withhold of military aid was illegal, even highly-educated people were headstrong in their beliefs regardless of new evidence.

An impeachment trial is not a criminal court. In the Constitution, impeachment regards treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors, with no definition of what justifies high crimes and misdemeanors.

Democrats failed to persuade Fox News and its viewers that upholding Constitutional checks and balances is more important than any perceived political victory. Democrats also failed to acknowledge Trump’s loyalists buy in to his cult of personality campaign because it intentionally affronts traditional political norms.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria reports during the height of Watergate, 55% of independent and 34% of Republican voters supported Nixon’s removal. However, today, only 48% of independent and 8% of Republicans supported Trump’s ouster. Zakaria argues while Trump’s offenses were no less egregious than Nixon’s, we are in an era where identity politics rule.

Fear of being labeled an outsider, and fear of retribution from Trump and his loyalists has accelerated the trend of the two parties eradicating their long practice of encompassing diversity in opinions while sculpting an obedient voting monolith. Diversity within parties has always been the antidote to American society’s polarization.

Ponicki said future voters must recognize our democracy is intentionally built upon compromise by the voting public and within the three branches of government.

“Our political system is structured so no one group dominates,” said Ponicki. “For impeachment, this means we must respect the institutions and the separation of power written in the Constitution. Congress is meant to check the executive’s power. An unchecked executive was the Founding Fathers’ biggest concern when they designed our government. If you support Trump, respect the institutional process and acknowledge Congress has responsibility to thoroughly investigate. If Trump did nothing wrong, there should be nothing to worry with allowing witnesses and additional evidence.”

If all available evidence wasn’t impartially considered during this trial (like testimony from former National Security Advisor John Bolton, whose book alleges Trump told him to pressure Ukraine), what motive would future Senators have to exert their independence from the executive and carry out the ethical procedures of justice?  

Ponicki fears because of the Constitution’s ambiguity and lack of guidelines for impeachment proceedings, Trump’s denial of Congressional investigative subpoenas furthers the erosion of protections against the executive exacting too much power over the legislative and judicial branches.

“It sets a very dangerous precedent,” said Ponicki. “The executive branch took too much power and undercut the ability of the legislative branch to check the executive’s power. This is why Trump poses a threat to the institutions. In the past, despite partisanship, there’s been more respect for the institutions of government. When you start chipping away at those institutions like we saw during the trial, it creates a dangerous situation going forward.”

Ponicki said because of executive privilege’s Constitutional ambiguity, Trump’s overreach could become the new, irreversible norm. Constitutional ambiguity, while creating societal tension, has allowed the document to stand the test of time. However, it leaves the democracy particularly vulnerable if the president has a majority in the Senate. One wonders, if Congressional subpoenas were ignored now under partisan grounds, what future power could they possibly maintain.

Setting just as dangerous a precedent was Trump’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz’s defense, “Every public official believes his election is in the public interest. If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, (it) cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Like French King Louis XIV arguing, “I am the state,” Trump’s pernicious defense aligns all interests of the executive with the American public. Would not the same defense have protected Nixon and any future president who subverts the Constitution to get reelected?

Ponicki said it’s the public’s responsibility to demand their political representatives uphold their Constitutional responsibilities.

“With an outrageous defense like that, it’s crucial the public stays informed, understands what the Constitution says and why separation of powers exists,” said Ponicki. The more we respect these institutions, the more alarmed people will become if the executive branch ignores a subpoena or if a party gerrymanders districts to skew voter representation and avoid political accountability. We need a massive investment in civic education. If you’re not informed, it’s too easy to fall into a partisan bent because you can’t think broadly about the situation. The more we appreciate civics, the healthier our democracy will be.”

Ponicki argued a lack of responsible civic engagement is what makes the American public so vulnerable to fake news outlets and foreign interference in our elections.

“The way Russia interfered in the 2016 election was not by manipulating our voting systems, but by manipulating us and our minds,” said Ponicki. “They spread fake news across social media, and people clicked away. I always tell my students, don’t let your news come to you. It’s your responsibility to decide what are reputable sources and seek out trusted information. The public must become more judicial in refusing disinformation.”  

The biggest question history will judge regarding the trial is, “Does acquittal mean the impeachment failed?”

While the 2018 midterm slaughter of Republicans who didn’t fully support Trump by members of their own party must have been on many Senator’s minds, Romney became the first Senator to ever vote for the removal of a president of his own party. Romney said Trump had been “guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust (and) a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values.”

Time will tell if his calling to uphold his Constitutional responsibility to protect checks and balances on executive overreach will survive the nation’s surge towards polarization and abandonment of a compromising middle-ground.

Ponicki said the antidote to polarization is acknowledging the totality of different voices our democracy was established to represent.

“There’s no set rules to protect us against tyranny,” said Ponicki. “Some political scientists argue democracy is prone to turn to tyranny because people are so easily manipulated by emotions rather than thinking institutionally. Our government really is responsive to the sentiments of the people, so the best way to combat the public’s erosion of trust is by building respect and faith in the institutions that make our democracy thrive.”