Beneath the Capitol dome, the ground seemed to rumble as a United States president was impeached for the second time in one term.
What unfolded on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday was the spectacle of a legislative body undertaking a sanction so rare, so severe, so outside the bounds of the American experience, that for 13 decades from 1868 to 1998 no Congress dared take this step. And during that time – a period when the population of the United States grew by a multiple of seven and the number of states grew by a third – no president, not even the rogues or reprobates, suffered this special obloquy.
That two White House occupants have faced this threat in less than a quarter-century is a measure of how fraught and fractured the country’s politics has become in the modern age.
But the fact that one President has been forced to submit to this torturous political mortification twice is a measure of how disruptive a figure Donald Trump has been, first disrupting the norms of American politics and then inciting a mob to disrupt the customarily routine process of counting the votes of the Electoral College.
The lawmakers had been summoned back to the House chamber – where in the small hours of Jan. 7 they pronounced Joe Biden the next president – to debate how to respond to the President’s practice of stepping beyond even the most distant bounds of political behaviour and his willingness to write presidential history by the act of traducing presidential history.
Presidential history has its dark moments, to be sure. But Ulysses Grant was more an innocent than an indictable party to the fraud and bribery of the Crédit Mobilier affair of 1872-1873 and Warren Harding died before he could pay a price for the Teapot Dome oil swindle of 1922.
No president wants to be in the same sentence as Andrew Johnson (impeached in 1868), Richard Nixon (who resigned rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office in 1974) or Bill Clinton (impeached in 1998). Mr. Trump, who like the others was not convicted in the Senate after his first impeachment, already has provided the fourth name in that inventory of ignominy.
Now, as the sole double-impeached President, Mr. Trump occupies a sentence all his own – and will live the remainder of his life and into history sentenced with a stigma with no parallel. He will not have to be convicted in the Senate – still a possibility – to stand alone in his infamy.
The President can be banned from holding office after a Senate conviction. Additionally, congressional Democrats are examining whether they can apply to Mr. Trump an 1868 14th-Amendment provision, aimed at Confederate office holders, that bans those who “have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding office again without a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress.
The peculiar characteristics of impeachment that unfolded on the House floor – where only a week earlier an angry mob displayed a political power of an entirely different character – were at turns theatrical and prosaic. But in undertaking the most solemn and consequential act in the congressional portfolio there was no disagreement with the assessment of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who first worked on Capitol Hill 59 years ago and is beginning his 41st year as a House member.
Mr. Hoyer, ordinarily no practitioner of understatement, said during Wednesday’s deliberations that Mr. Trump was “dissimilar from any previous president.”
The debate went back and forth, and on and on. No one could mistake the gravity of the process that was under way. A country that had a profound racial reckoning only six months earlier was undertaking a political reckoning every bit as wrenching, every bit as unavoidable, every bit as defining.
A worldwide audience saw the United States in the mix of horror and awe that in times of crisis may be the indicators of decline, or may be the symbols of strength but, either way, are the inevitable and ineffable colourations of national character. How this moment – with 10 Republicans supporting the measure, the most bipartisan presidential impeachment vote ever – will be remembered depends in large measure on the path the United States takes in coming years, and whether it agrees that what happened on Jan. 6 was a line crossed.
The debate Wednesday was over whether the sanction of impeachment was in some ways self-defeating. It was also over whether, given the imminence of the expiration of the President’s term, it was gratuitous “to the point of caricature,” as GOP Representative Tom McClintock put it; whether it transformed Mr. Trump into a political martyr; and whether it will further inflame those who supported him and resorted to violence by, in the words of Republican Andrew Biggs, “dousing this movement with gasoline.”
To that final question, there is no clear answer. There is no statistical model to consult, no historical antecedent to evaluate.
But lawmakers who are not accustomed to taking a gamble, nonetheless took this step. They may live to regret it, or they may find decades from now that it was their finest hour. No one could have predicted the ascendancy of Mr. Trump. No one can predict the effect of his second impeachment.
But this much is clear. The votes Wednesday, and the votes that will follow when the Senate takes up its trial of Mr. Trump, will define not only the legislative and executive branches, but also the men and women who took this step or who resisted it.
Wednesday’s impeachment will shape the new 117th Congress and beyond. It will shape the legacy of the 45th President. It will shape the passage of the 46th president. And it will be a prominent element of the obituaries of every principal in this drama, not least that of Mr. Trump, where the phrase “the only president of the United States to be impeached twice” will appear in the first paragraph, and in biographies written of him.
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