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History Will Remember Democrats’ Timidity, Too

Trump’s corruption isn’t the whole story of the impeachment saga.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For reasons well beyond the antics of Trump himself, this has already been one of the most frustrating weeks of the Trump era. In the headlines, the ongoing fracas in Iowa has managed to overtake not only Tuesday’s State of the Union address but the Senate’s historic vote Wednesday to acquit President Trump on both of the articles of impeachment House Democrats drew up against him. The gravity of what technically could have occurred that afternoon—Trump’s immediate removal from office—was undercut considerably by the certainty of Trump’s acquittal. Still, it’s worth thinking clearly about precisely what happened: A president unambiguously guilty of clear abuses of power was cleared by a Senate controlled by the members of his own party, who collectively represent a minority of the American public.

Some have said in the wake of the vote that both Trump and future presidents will be newly empowered by the acquittal, with the Senate having established a precedent that any conduct, no matter how corrupt, is permissible provided there are 34 senators of the president’s party willing to look the other way. But this is a description of the reality that’s already in place rather than a preview of a new world now unfolding: Trump’s acquittal for offenses against the Constitution was a travesty that the Constitution made possible.

For years now, pundits and observers have debated the utility of pursuing the impeachment of Donald Trump. Given the likelihood of an acquittal, Trump’s victory, it was casually supposed, would inflict a significant political cost on the Democratic Party. It already feels safe to say that these risks were dramatically overstated. President Trump’s approval rating, as averaged by FiveThirtyEight, hasn’t appreciably moved since the impeachment process began and sits roughly where it was before the 2018 midterms. Democrats haven’t suffered on the generic ballot, either, and, critically, a majority of the American public backed impeachment and removal, with much of the surge in support occurring just after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement of the inquiry. It remains reasonable to assume that shift, driven mostly by Democrats, was not the product of Democrats immediately deciding for the first time last fall that Trump deserved removal from office, but of loyal Democrats receiving the word from party leadership that impeachment was the right move, substantively and strategically.

And it was. Beyond the party’s formal obligation to hold Trump accountable, the impeachment process delivered new information to the public about Trump’s misconduct in office, energized Democratic activists, and put vulnerable Republican incumbents like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, both of whom voted to acquit Trump, in a tight bind. There remains no real reason to believe the same wouldn’t have been true if the Democrats had chosen to offer a few more articles of impeachment on scandals ranging from the obstructions of justice detailed in the Mueller Report and Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause, to his participation in criminal financial fraud for a cover-up of the Stormy Daniels scandal and his alleged promises to pardon officials who broke laws to facilitate the construction of the border wall. One of the major arguments against a broader impeachment was that it would have sidelined discourse on the material concerns of American voters and the very worst aspects of Trump’s governance. But Trump’s crimes and Trump’s policies are difficult to meaningfully cleave apart—compartmentalization leaves the political realities underpinning both poorly understood.

Last week, on the very same day that Senate Republicans voted down an effort to bring in relevant witnesses and documents, the Trump administration announced the addition of six new countries to its existing roster of nations facing travel and immigration restrictions, including Nigeria—the most populous nation in Africa, whose immigrants Trump has denigrated in private. Nigerians, he told officials early in his administration, would never “go back to their huts” upon entering the United States.

Friday also saw the publication of a piece by ProPublica’s Dara Lind examining the expanded role Border Patrol agents have taken on in determining the fates of migrants seeking asylum under Trump. “Asylum-seekers are sent away from the U.S. as quickly as possible,” she wrote. “Under a series of new programs, they can be sent to wait in Mexico, rapidly deported to their home country or sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there instead. The results are what a lawsuit filed in December against the rapid-deportation programs calls ‘legal black holes,’ where Border Patrol agents have almost complete discretion to decide who goes where.” The consequences have been devastating for a number of migrant families. “Parents arriving on different days have found themselves sent to different countries,” Lind reported. “One Mexican mother was rapidly deported, along with her children, while the father was detained in the U.S.”

The subjects of Friday’s headlines and the charges that House managers brought against the president are all part of the same story. The Senate refused to admit new evidence last week and ultimately acquitted Donald Trump largely because voters in the Republican Party, on whom the careers of Republican senators depend, want to keep Trump in office—where he can continue to harm immigrants with both policy and the kind of rhetoric he offered during this week’s State of the Union. In that speech, Trump blamed sanctuary city policies and the undocumented, broadly speaking, for bloody crimes.

Trump has been allowed to abuse power because he abuses the right people. As much as the right could theoretically have accomplished in policy by replacing Trump with Vice President Mike Pence while they fully controlled Congress, Trump is utterly irreplaceable as the living id of the American right, an existentially satisfying demagogue who has proven himself capable of lashing out at the elements of American society they despise as much in deed as in word.

This was a line of thought the Democrats should have brought to the American people during the trial. Instead, they traded an opportunity to advance a broad and defining narrative—encompassing and indicting the Trump presidency in full on a historic stage—for a safe and narrow impeachment aimed at fulfilling their constitutional obligations and satisfying the public’s demand for action as quickly as possible.

This, they accomplished. The House’s impeachment managers and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made their case about as well as they could. It was often argued over the course of the trial that the spirit of history would look harshly upon the president’s defenders in the Republican Party. It likely will. But it will also look ashamedly at a party that decided, in this moment, that a greater political courage was not worth marshaling and that a comprehensive case against this administration and all it represents was not worth making.