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Where Trump’s Acquittal Fits Into the History of Impeachment, According to Historians

8 minute read

On Wednesday, the Senate ended President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial with a result that was momentous, if not surprising: with their vote not to convict him and remove him from office, he became only the third President in American history to reach that point.

Trump was acquitted on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, with Utah Senator Mitt Romney breaking away from his fellow Republicans by voting to convict Trump on the first charge. But that wasn’t the only historic moment in this historic trial.

Here, six historians reflect on how the 2020 impeachment trial fits into the larger scope of American political history — and how it will be remembered.

Carol Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University:

Watching the refusal of evidence reminded me of a case in which a black man, Robert Mallard, was killed [by a white mob], and during the [January 1949] trial, two of the jurors came out of the jury box and testified on behalf of the defendant and then went back to the jury box to help find the defendant not guilty. When that case hit, folks were like, “What?” The Republican Senators in the impeachment trial did the same thing. Here we are, 70 years later, as if we haven’t learn a doggone thing. Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell said their minds are made up. Folks who are supposed to be the jury said we know what we’re going to do. That’s Robert Mallard’s case…

When Mississippi U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo was running for re-election in 1946, he encouraged his followers to stop black people from voting and said if they saw a black person trying to vote, “use the tar and feathers, and don’t forget those matches.” And there was a reign of terror on black voters and black veterans — and this was after the U.S. defeated the Nazis. The legitimacy of that election was called into question, and that question went all the way up to the U.S. Senate about whether they should seat Bilbo. The Senators hemmed and hawed, and then Bilbo got really sick. You could almost hear a collective “phew” because Senators knew what he had done was wrong but they did not have the will to call him out. Watching a massive interference in an election and the Senate being called to task to hold that person accountable and refusing to do so reminds me of this mess right now.

Jeffrey A. Engel, co-author of Impeachment: An American History:

Although we can’t predict the future, we know with certainty the date that something’s going to happen that tells us how we’re going to interpret what just happened. If Trump is re-elected, future historians will say it was a mistake [for the Democrats] to do the impeachment. If Trump is defeated, future historians will say it was a good idea to do the impeachment. History is going to basically give us the answer in November.

In two of the three impeachment cases that went almost this far, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon, the legislature in each case accused the president of abusing his powers and the legislature in subsequent years scaled back some of the president’s power. We didn’t see that after the Clinton impeachment, and I think one of the reasons is because 9/11 happened so quickly after, and it just changed the entire conversation overall. So typically, the legislature would recognize it’s their responsibility to encroach back on executive power because they’d want to make the legislature more powerful.

I don’t think that’s going to happen in this case, because legislators from the beginning have viewed this in partisan terms rather than constitutional terms.

Kevin M. Kruse, Professor of History at Princeton University:

For the first time in its history, the Senate held an impeachment trial without hearing any new witness testimony or reviewing any new evidence. In doing so, this Senate has sharply broken with the norms of the past and has set a dangerous new precedent that will significantly limit the impeachment process in the future.

For the first time in American history, a Senator voted to remove a president from his own party. That’s remarkable in its own right, but the fact that the Senator was a previous presidential nominee from that party makes it even more so. Despite the president’s constant complaints that this impeachment process was more partisan than previous ones, in the final vote, Democrats, Independents and even a Republican agreed that he deserved to be removed. This was, in the end, the least partisan impeachment trial of a president.

Barbara A. Perry, the Gerald L. Baliles Professor and Director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center:

Like most things related to the Trump presidency, his impeachment trial reflected a number of unprecedented features. Among the most worrisome was the Trump team’s argument that “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.” Combined with the assertion that only a criminal violation is impeachable, the result would seem to be that whatever noncriminal action a President defines as beneficial to his election, and therefore automatically in the public interest, is allowable.

Under this bizarre formulation, many of Richard Nixon’s abusive actions, including non-criminal “dirty tricks” against opponents, all of which he undertook to be re-elected, which he claimed was in the national interest, would have been unimpeachable. The argument that impeachment, even when it meets the GOP’s narrow definition, can’t be used to overturn the electorate’s wishes makes the Constitution’s provision for this congressional check on the chief executive a dead letter.

The Founders must be spinning in their hallowed graves. George Mason worried that a President might gain office by corrupt means — bribing the Electoral College, for example. “Shall a man who has practiced corruption, and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, … escape punishment by repeating his guilt?” James Madison agreed. Waiting to turn a corrupt president out of office by defeating him at the ballot box was insufficient. Worried about improper influence from outside the nascent country, Madison warned that the president might even “betray his trust to foreign powers.”

Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut:

I think the person who was a real profile in courage [Wednesday] was Romney, whose speech will be remembered in history for its very careful constitutional reasoning on why he voted to convict. His vote made clear that this was not simply a partisan impeachment.

Historians are eventually going to remember this trial as a real blow, as a bad day for American democracy, when the Senate Republicans were just unable to put aside their partisan loyalty to the president, which is kind of ironic because the Republicans have called this a partisan impeachment. The only way a democracy works is when those who are opposed to each other in ideology or in policy goals agree to a set of ground rules on governance and procedures.

I wonder about the future of the Republican Party. It took the Democratic party a long time, a lot of realignments, especially during the New Deal, to recoup from being the party of slaveholders and white supremacy in the 19th century to being the party of civil rights during the civil rights movement. I wonder whether the Republican party is capable of reinventing itself. It’s certainly no longer the party of Lincoln. It’s the party of Trump.

Brenda Wineapple, author of The Impeachers: The Trial of a Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation:

There was clearly a great deal of buying and selling to save Andrew Johnson; Representative Thaddeus Stevens said anyone could be bought, even the most intelligent and well-educated. I wonder what we will learn, over time, about the buying and selling that saved Trump.

But, here are the differences: Andrew Johnson was dropped from the presidential ticket in 1868 (the year of his impeachment was an election year). And the Republicans, the opposition party, knew whom they wanted to head their own ticket: war hero General Ulysses S. Grant, who could unite all ends of their party. In fact, it was the 500,000 votes of black men in the South that carried the election for Grant — the very men that Johnson had tried to deny the vote.

And finally, as I wrote about Johnson in my book, so it could be said of Trump: “that the impeachment of a President is a court of last resort, solemnly undertaken… Congress had been reluctant to impeach Johnson, but many impeachers believed that… the fate of the country was at risk. Yet they had to wait until they could wait no longer.”

Impeachment implied a kind of hope, and even if the vote failed, perhaps Charles Schumer is right; the time is not now to give up hope. Still, I do feel a bit depressed.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com