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President* Donald Trump

*Impeached on Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Wednesday. For most of the members of the House who were there, it will likely be the most important vote they ever cast. Impeachment is an extraordinary process by any standard. In the 230-year history of the Constitution, only three presidents have been subjected to it. Most of the lawmakers involved in this struggle wrote the first lines of their obituaries today.

Many Americans—lawyers and journalists, pundits and professors, legislators and citizens—have consulted past impeachment battles as a roadmap for this one. These offer little help. No president has ever been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. (Richard Nixon resigned rather than face the process.) There is no blueprint for how to successfully prosecute the nation’s chief magistrate for wrongdoing when he refuses to take the honorable path and resign his office. Wednesday’s vote is, essentially, a leap into the darkness.

The conventional wisdom is that the Senate will now acquit the president. If that happens, there likely will be a wave of second-guessing among Trump’s critics and opponents. There’s no doubt that Trump and his allies will try to write—and rewrite—history about these events, as they have already done with the Russia investigation and other flashpoints of his presidency. Future generations of Americans will look back at these proceedings for guidance when they debate whether to hold future presidents accountable. All of these factors make it important to say, clearly and contemporaneously, what happened and why.

The vote to impeach Trump mostly fell along party lines: 230-197 for the first article, abuse of power; 229-198 for the second article, obstruction of Congress. Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat, was the sole member to split his vote.* Michigan Independent Justin Amash, a staunch conservative who left the Republican Party this summer over his opposition to Trump, voted for both articles. Two Democrats, New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew and Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, voted against them. (Van Drew is expected to defect to the GOP soon.) Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential candidate, voted present both times. Every single Republican in the House sided with the president and voted against the articles offered against him. All of these individuals will have to answer to their constituents if they are running for reelection, and their consciences if they are not.

House Democrats adopted a grave tone in their floor speeches ahead of the vote. “I solemnly and sadly open the debate on the impeachment of the president of the United States,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday afternoon. Pelosi had long resisted impeachment calls by progressive backbenchers. Then the Ukraine scandal burst into public view in September, uniting her caucus in favor of it. “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty,” she said. “It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”

Trump, for his part, sent a defiant, rambling six-page letter to the House on Tuesday night. It distilled and repeated the arguments he has made for three months on Twitter: that he did nothing wrong and that the Democrats are staging an unconstitutional coup against him. “By proceeding with your invalid impeachment, you are violating your oaths of office, you are breaking your allegiance to the Constitution, and you are declaring open war on American democracy,” he wrote.

In the first article of impeachment, the House charged Trump with abuse of power. It alleges that he solicited a foreign power—the government of Ukraine—to announce a criminal investigation that would implicate Joe Biden, his potential Democratic opponent, in wrongdoing. It also alleges that he withheld military aid and other favors to coerce Ukraine to do his bidding. “In so doing, President Trump used the powers of the Presidency in a manner that compromised the national security of the United States and undermined the integrity of the United States democratic process,” the article said. “He thus ignored and injured the interests of the Nation.”

There is plenty of evidence to support this charge. The White House’s own transcript of the infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shows Trump personally asked for the investigations. Multiple witnesses established that a pressure campaign existed beyond that call, that Trump had direct personal knowledge of it, and that he continued to orchestrate it until it fell apart in September. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, confirmed last month that the goal wasn’t to conduct an actual investigation, but merely to announce that one existed. In other words, Trump and his allies sought to manufacture a political smear against his likely 2020 opponent, not to determine whether any wrongdoing had actually occurred.

I previously wrote that the first article should be two articles: one for the abuse of power by asking Zelenskiy to interfere in American politics, and one for soliciting a bribe from him to carry it out. I argued that it was important to establish, as a matter of precedent, that asking a foreign government to undermine a domestic election opponent was corrupt—an impeachable offense on its own. The House Judiciary Committee may have adopted a more streamlined approach when drafting its articles, but the point still stands. What Trump did was a breach of his basic obligation to safeguard the American democratic process from foreign subversion.

The second article charges Trump with obstruction of Congress. It cites his unprecedented blanket refusal to turn over any relevant documents to the impeachment inquiry, as well as his orders to block any executive-branch witnesses from testifying before it. Through those acts, the House alleges that Trump egregiously subverted the Constitution’s separation of powers. “This abuse of office served to cover up the President’s own repeated misconduct and to seize and control the power of impeachment—and thus to nullify a vital constitutional safeguard vested solely in the House of Representatives,” the article said.

There is no factual dispute about what happened here. There was no good-faith attempt by Trump to balance executive-branch interests with those of Congress, or even a bad-faith effort to pretend that he tried. There was only defiance. In a letter announcing Trump’s stance in October, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone falsely declared that the House’s impeachment proceedings were “constitutionally illegitimate” when refusing to cooperate in any way. If the House let his defiance go unanswered, it would set the precedent that executive-branch compliance with its subpoenas is optional. To do that would effectively strip Congress of its oversight powers and render it an ancillary, second-class branch of government.

Some observers have argued that the House should take a slower, more deliberative approach to impeachment. The federal courts are currently mulling cases that might compel other witnesses to give evidence, potentially strengthening the overall case. This is flawed on two levels. First, the witnesses who defied the White House blockade have already provided ample evidence to support the charges. Second, the White House has made clear that its strategy is to drag out legal battles as long as possible and run out the clock. If the administration had shown an iota of good faith—by allowing witnesses like Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton to testify and then raising specific executive-privilege claims, for example—a delay would make more sense. But that’s not what happened here.

There was also considerable debate over the past few months on what impeachment charges should look like, and how this process should unfold. Two of my colleagues have argued that Democrats should use the opportunity to hold Trump accountable for a wider range of abuses. “The thing is, I want to know what is up with every other rotten thing the president and his cronies have done more than I want him to be impeached by the House,” Alex Pareene wrote in September. Osita Nwanevu identified five other scandals that would be worthy of consideration when impeaching the president, including the family separation policy and his alleged offers of pardons if civil servants ignored court orders to build his long-desired wall on the southern border.

I sympathize with the desire to hold Trump accountable for these acts in some way. The raw math, however, is uncooperative. At the moment, Republican senators do not have the votes to dismiss the current slate of charges out of hand. That means there will be a trial, and that trial will conclude with a vote on convicting or acquitting the president. While the House considered a wider array of charges against Nixon in 1974, he ultimately resigned because he lost the battle to keep the White House tapes secret, which proved that he lied on the core allegation of misconduct. Adding more articles would have delayed the process and added more uncertainty. If Senate Republicans will not convict Trump on these two charges, they will not convict him on anything. And they only need to convict him once.

Trump’s behavior since the scheme unraveled in September also justified the vote. In public, he approvingly shared messages from supporters that warned of “civil war.” He described the impeachment process as a “coup” and an attempt to overturn the 2016 election—a ridiculous assertion, since Mike Pence, not Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, would take over in the Oval Office. The president claimed that Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, committed treason and should be arrested. Behind closed doors, Trump suggested that the whistleblower who revealed the plot should be treated like a spy and hinted that they should be executed.

The wrongs committed by the president are chief among the concerns of those who voted to impeach. But it is also about the wrongdoing that might yet come. Ten months ago, Michael Cohen testified before Congress. He had spent more than a decade cleaning up President Donald Trump’s legal messes before pleading guilty to an array of crimes last fall, including campaign-finance violations that implicated the president himself. Cohen told lawmakers that he regretted the immense toll that his loyalty to Trump had taken on his life and his loved ones. And as the hearing drew to a close, he offered a grim warning for the lawmakers present and the American public watching at home.

“Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today,” Cohen said. That fear also crosses my mind almost every day. So does the political violence committed in his name by people for whom he offers only tepid condemnation. So does his lie that he would have won the popular vote back then if millions of illegal votes hadn’t been cast. So do his constant “jokes” that he might ignore the Constitution’s two-term limit. So do his threats to not recognize the results of the 2016 election when it looked like he would lose.

All of those moments crossed my mind when the House voted to impeach the president of the United States. Each lawmaker has their own moral calculus to make to vote for or against it, as do many Americans when supporting or opposing it. For me, it is an act of faith—not just in the American constitutional system, but also in those who swore oaths to uphold it. The 100 senators may yet prove themselves to be unworthy of that faith. If they do, then the fault is upon them and their honor, and not those who gave them the chance to do the right thing.

* This article originally misstated the state Jared Golden represents.