Out of the impeachment, into the fallout

The trial ended Wednesday with acquittal, but investigations and court fights continue

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks with President Donald Trump as he departs from the House chamber Tuesday night after delivering his State of the Union address. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks with President Donald Trump as he departs from the House chamber Tuesday night after delivering his State of the Union address. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 5, 2020 at 11:35am

The acquittal of President Donald Trump ended his impeachment trial Wednesday the way it always appeared it would, but the battle’s lasting fallout is just beginning for congressional power, the nation’s political landscape and ongoing legal fights between Trump and House Democrats.

The Senate voted 48-52 to reject the House’s abuse of power charge and 47-53 to reject the obstruction of Congress charge.

The trial’s ultimate result was never seriously in doubt, since at least 20 Republicans would have needed to cross Trump and party lines to get the supermajority of 67 votes needed to convict him for abuse of power or obstruction of Congress. Most of the drama ended with a 49-51 vote last week to reject a motion to subpoena more witnesses and documents.

But the end of the trial feels in many ways less like closing a book and more like turning the page to the next chapter.

House Democrats will continue to investigate Trump’s business interests, actions with Ukraine and more, and are free to pursue more articles of impeachment. The Supreme Court could by June clear the way for Congress to get Trump’s financial and tax records.

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Former national security adviser John Bolton’s book could be published as soon as next month. Deadlines in public records lawsuits could pull more information from the Trump administration.

Federal prosecutors in New York are investigating Ukraine-related activities of Rudy Giuliani and have a case pending against the Trump lawyer’s associates. That includes Lev Parnas, who faces charges but has given texts and recordings to House Democrats and the media.

And, because Trump is Trump, Democrats expect him to yet again test the bounds of his power and where Senate Republicans might draw a line in the run-up to his reelection vote in November.

“If my Republican colleagues refuse to even consider witnesses and documents in the trial, what will the president conclude? We all know: He’ll conclude he can do it again, and Congress can do nothing about it,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Friday. “He can try to cheat in his election again, something that eats at the roots of our democracy.”

Senate politics

The House impeachment that spun into a political hurricane at the end of last year aired Trump’s dealings with Ukraine in dramatic hearings and over three weeks of a trial.

But the storm dissipated in the Senate just as the presidential election season began in earnest, without blowing down Trump’s steady approval ratings among Republican voters.

The trial prompted several Republican senators to label Trump’s actions as “inappropriate” or wrong but not worthy of removal from office — a rare break from Trump’s insistence that he did nothing wrong.

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And the trial forced vulnerable Republican senators — such as Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Martha McSally of Arizona — to go on record with Trump-backing votes that could be used against them in their reelection campaigns through November.

Mitt Romney of Utah was the only defector in either party, voting guilty on the abuse of power charge.

Several polls showed more than 65 percent of voters supported more witnesses and documents in Trump’s impeachment trial, and a slim majority of voters supported the president’s conviction and removal from office.

Senators who voted to acquit or not hear witnesses such as Bolton will face questions whenever another embarrassing audio recording is leaked, another witness surfaces, when Bolton’s book comes out or public records lawsuits bring out documents, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

“Republican senators will become full-time exonerators,” Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, wrote.

Oversight

Some observers think Trump’s acquittal on the obstruction of Congress charge — Trump broadly declined to comply with numerous congressional subpoenas and documents and ordered administration employees to defy congressional subpoenas to testify — will make oversight efforts more difficult.

“To condone the president’s obstruction would strike a death blow to the impeachment clause in the Constitution,” House manager Hakeem Jeffries of New York told the Senate during closing arguments on Monday. “This will become the new normal with this president and for future generations.”

Many Republican senators argued that the House rushed that article and should have gone to court to fight the Trump administration’s refusal to honor subpoenas for witnesses and documents. Those fights have yet to play out, and the Trump administration has argued that the courts should not decide such political fights.

Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade tweeted that an acquittal on that article creates “the playbook of the future — stonewall on subpoenas from Congress and they can’t prove you committed an offense.”

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 04: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, are seen during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in the House Chamber on Tuesday, February 4, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, are seen during President Donald Trump’’s State of the Union address Feb. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Legal fights

House Democrats will still press lawsuits that assert some of those key oversight powers. The outcome of those cases in the next few months could reshape the limits for impeachment and other oversight investigations into a president.

The federal appeals court in Washington is mulling two committee cases related to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. One would decide whether Trump officials have “absolute immunity” or if former White House counsel Don McGahn should testify before the House Judiciary Committee; the other would give that committee access to Mueller’s grand jury materials.

The relative snail’s pace of lawsuits about Trump’s behavior raises questions about whether the nation’s courts are equipped to deal with the speed of modern politics and separation-of-powers fights. The House filed the McGahn lawsuit in August, and an appeals court held oral arguments Jan. 3.

A decision could come at any time but will almost certainly head to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 31 on subpoenas from House committees to accounting firm Mazars USA, Deutsche Bank and Capital One Financial Corporation seeking Trump’s financial and tax records. A decision would be expected before the end of the term at the end of June.

There’s an open question about how formative an experience the trial was for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who spent dozens of hours presiding over the trial, listening to evidence of Trump’s actions and seeing the raw politics of the Senate up close.

Roberts notably sided with the liberal wing of the court to hand the Trump administration a defeat in the last term in a challenge to the Commerce Department’s decision to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census — when the administration’s true motives were called into question.

Maybe only time will tell if the experience influences how Roberts sees Trump administration cases from now on. The chief justice, a conservative who has expressed an overriding concern to maintain the legitimacy of the court as nonpartisan, held a stern face while shaking hands with Trump at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Future impeachments

The true ramifications of Trump’s impeachment on future attempts to remove a president from office likely won’t be known for years, but legal experts and House Democrats sounded dire warnings.

Trump’s defense team argued that a president should not be convicted by the Senate on articles of impeachment that do not include a criminal violation — a standard that could be resurrected in future impeachments despite wide disagreement from constitutional scholars.

“I hope history treats this episode as an aberration, not a precedent,” Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said of the trial and pending acquittal Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Too many things that are right and proper had to be bent or broken to get to the preordained result, and too much of what was said by White House counsel was not only wrong, but disgraceful.”

Republicans countered that the partisan nature of Trump’s impeachment in the House — on an abuse of power charge that is too ambiguous, with House Democrats pressuring the Senate to subpoena witnesses and documents, during an election year — should not become the new normal.

“The Senate should take no part in endorsing the very dangerous new precedent that this would set for future impeachments,” Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley said Monday on the floor.

“We need no new normal when it comes to impeaching a president. We have precedents of the past that should be followed, and they have not been.”