The Republican majority in the Senate has acquitted President Donald Trump, ending the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history and capping a months-long drama that pushed the partisan divisions in American politics to their limits.
The Senate found Mr. Trump not guilty on both articles of impeachment – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – on near party-line votes of 52 to 48 and 53 to 47, respectively. Only Republican Mitt Romney broke ranks on Wednesday to vote with the Democrats and both independents on the first article.
It would have taken a two-thirds majority to convict the President and remove him from office.
Mr. Trump was accused of withholding US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine to press Kyiv into tarnishing Joe Biden, one of his potential Democratic rivals in the November election, then stonewalling congressional attempts to investigate.
The case exposed the widening chasms both in Congress and the electorate during Mr. Trump’s presidency. While Democrats and some analysts warned that the President’s conduct represented a dangerous expansion of executive power, Mr. Trump insisted that he had done nothing wrong and the Republicans largely closed ranks around him.
The focus of American politics now turns from the halls of the Capitol to the 2020 campaign trail, where both sides are using impeachment to rally their bases. The episode could particularly affect Mr. Biden after Mr. Trump and his allies used the trial to air unproven accusations that the former vice-president had behaved underhandedly to help his son’s Ukrainian business interests.
Within minutes of his acquittal, Mr. Trump tweeted a video of himself standing behind one of his campaign signs, with the year rolling through several millennia worth of presidential elections. It ends with the text “Trump 4EVA.” He said he would make a statement from the White House at noon Thursday on “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!”
Shortly before the vote, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the process as “a kangaroo court” because Republican leaders decided before the trial began that they would acquit the President. The Republicans also blocked attempts to call witnesses and subpoena documents.
“There is no greater subversion of our democracy than for powers outside of our borders to determine elections within them,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “That’s the beginning of the end of democracy.”
The trial demonstrated the extent to which Mr. Trump has consolidated control of a party that, just four years ago during his first presidential run, largely did not want him as its leader.
Senator Lindsey Graham assailed the Democrats for impeaching him. “This is a sham. This is a farce. This is disgusting. This is an injustice to President Trump as a person. It’s a threat to the office,” he told the chamber.
Even Republicans who conceded the President had done wrong insisted he should not be kicked out of office. Maine’s Susan Collins said in an interview on CBS that the President had learned “a pretty big lesson” just from being put through the impeachment process.
Mr. Trump, however, demonstrated no contrition. Rather, he is using impeachment as part of his re-election effort. At a rally in Iowa last week, the President called the trial a “deranged witch-hunt hoax.”
The Republican caucus solidarity largely reflects the will of its base, which is in Mr. Trump’s corner. “The Bidens absolutely are corrupt. I think he should have them investigated,” said Katie Cameron, 47, a small-business woman, on the sidelines of Mr. Trump’s Iowa rally.
Presidential scholar Barbara Ann Perry argued that Mr. Trump’s defence threatened to set a dangerous precedent for presidential authority. Among other things, the President’s lawyers argued that abuse of power is not an impeachable offence and that Mr. Trump was justified in taking any actions to help his re-election because he believed his victory was in the national interest.
“This raising of the bar on what is impeachable is frightening to me,” said Prof. Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. “That leads to authoritarianism.”
She compared his case with that of Richard Nixon. In that instance, Senate Republicans broke with Mr. Nixon, prompting him to resign before he could be impeached, and reinforcing standards for presidential conduct. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, issued an apology for his behaviour after his own Senate acquittal.
In the end, Mr. Romney, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, was the only one to defy Mr. Trump. He told the Senate that Mr. Trump’s motivation for demanding the investigation into Mr. Biden was “political and personal,” and that it was wrong to withhold military funding to an American ally at war with Russia. “The President is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust,” he said.
Mr. Romney’s vote also makes him the only U.S. senator in history to support removing a president of his own party from office. In the two previous presidential Senate trials, those of Democrats Andrew Johnson and Mr. Clinton, not a single Democrat voted to convict.
Vulnerable Democrats stuck together, meanwhile. Doug Jones, facing a near-impossible re-election battle in Alabama in the fall, wrote in an e-mail to supporters that he voted to convict because Mr. Trump was “placing his personal interest above our national interests.”